Bryan Caplan  

Against Winning

Predicting bubbles... Uber Wars. The Ban Menace...
When I was a child, adults taught us to look down on bad winners.  The maxim: "It's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game."  The implicit model was something like: Yes, winning is better than losing, all else equal.  And yes, there's a trade-off between winning and common decency.  But losing with common decency is better than winning without it.  If you face a choice between losing and foul play, you should choose to lose.

I'm usually skeptical of narratives about the Good Old Days.  But when I look at the modern world, the ethic of noble defeat that I vividly remember from my youth seems virtually extinct.  When was the last time you witnessed the public shaming of a dishonorable winner?  Nary an example comes to my mind.  In everything from politics to reality t.v., our bottom line is "Who won?," not "Who deserved to win?"

The evils of overrating winning are most obvious in violent conflict.  During the 20th-century, every major power embraced blatant war crimes in the name of victory - even though it's unclear whether these war crimes even helped.  The exemplars of Sore Winner's Syndrome, though, are terrorists.  They're too weak to win by any conventional means, yet too proud to compromise or submit, so they murder innocents and cross their fingers.

It's tempting to accuse the proponents of honorable defeat of bad faith.  "This is just an attempt to bolster the status quo by guilting its opponents into ineffectual strategies - or quietism."  But when you're all alone with your conscience, the duty to gracefully lose is hard to deny. 

I say these words as a perennial political loser.  I have little hope that any of my favorite causes will prevail in the foreseeable future.  For example, I don't expect to see anything like open borders in my lifetime.  I'm happy to try my luck by writing, speaking, and organizing on behalf of freedom of movement.  I unabashedly advocate Huemerian civil disobedience to these unjust laws.  But if these tactics fail to open the borders, as they almost surely will, I won't resort to anything scarier. 

Pragmatically, of course, scarier tactics would probably fail or backfire.  But my objection is fundamental: "Victory by any means necessary" is the slogan of a political criminal, and I will have no part in it.  Neither should you.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Brandon Berg writes:

Isn't this pretty much the essence of modern leftism? They claim that the economy is rigged and the "winners," i.e. the wealthy, win only because they cheated or were given unfair advantages, and that the poor and middle class are morally superior.

Joe Teicher writes:

It seems easy to say that you are a graceful political loser when you are actually a winner. You won't resort to terrorism to promote open borders because you don't have anything at stake. Your life would not get a lot better under open borders nor would your life get a lot worse if the US completely closed the border. I think current policy is pretty much as good as it gets for you. Calling yourself a loser makes you a very bad winner in my opinion.

Aaron writes:

Lance Armstrong comes immediately to mind.

jon thiele writes:

While I also see a deplorable trend in sportsmanship, bad winners are still publicly shamed-- see Richard Sherman after last year's super bowl.

Garrett writes:

Ignoring the practical argument that extremism would backfire, wouldn't the value that Caplan has identified through open borders justify the use of extremist tactics? Suppose a research group came out with a flawless study that concluded that extremism would 99% lead to open borders in your lifetime, but your current methods of supporting the cause would have a 0% chance of leading to any tangible improvement to the immigration situation, both in your lifetime and afterward. Would you support extremism then?

If the choice is victory or defeat for a cause you rationally believe to be of the utmost importance, where do you draw the line?

Note: I wish Bryan would respond directly to comments on his posts. It's one of the things that makes reading people like Scott Sumner and Nick Rowe so interesting.

Peter writes:

It seems like a prerequisite for an effective political system that there be losers and winners, and some respect for the rules that decide between them. Politics since 2000 seem more and more concerned with winning, and less with respecting the rules or the opponent ... or the voters.

steve writes:

What if politically the current winners are bad winners. i.e. they used questionable tactics. Does that justify more extremist tactics on the part of the losers. After all guns almost always beat protests.

LD Bottorff writes:

1. Talk more about freedom of movement, less about open borders. They may mean the same thing to you, but not to to rest of us.

2. Do not yield to those who claim you are an extremist. You aren't. The only real difference between the current legal situation and a much more open situation is the number of legal resident aliens we allow in. We should allow many more than we currently allow. We should only focus on keeping the terrorists out. Trying to keep the would-be gardeners and caretakers from crossing the border is just making it harder to keep ISIS out.

Maniel writes:

I believe that winning is a false god. Winning a contract in business or winning a sports competition can be highly satisfying as a confirmation of my investment in my business proposal or in my athletic skills. However, if I make winning the goal, I run the risk of devaluing my investment. My measure of success is improvement. As I invest in my career and job, I increase my capabilities and my value. If those improvements allow me to offer a customer better value than a competitor can, I may be rewarded with a contract. If I win the contract, after upgrading my value to the customer and writing an excellent proposal, I may take winning as one indication of that. However, I don’t want to confuse winning with improvement. If I don’t get the contract, the competition may still be stronger than I am. If I do get the contract, it might just be that the competition was light or even absent.
Sports teach us some wonderful lessons about investment, improvement, and winning. If, when I play tennis, all I care about is winning, I can simply choose a weaker player for my opponent. By contrast, if I care more about improving, I am better advised to seek out opponents whose game is stronger than mine. If I use that approach and I play well enough to win, the victory actually holds some value for me.
With respect to politics, you may draw your own conclusions. However, I will take the liberty of mentioning what I consider to be two bad habits, cheating and lying.

Jake writes:

I think there is some room between "Huemerian civil disobedience" and "victory by any means necessary".

The morality threshold probably exists in the usual place -- i.e. who initiated force against who? In the case of open borders, the representatives and agents of the state are clearly the aggressors. There may be a pragmatic reason not to fight them, but I don't really see a moral one.

Ted writes:

Mister Caplan, you make a very compelling case for upholding the stability of the social contract. Whereas I disagree with the premise of unrestrained migration of assets (both human and inanimate) as an effective tool for increasing meaningful economic activity, the core value you espouse is an essential element in the maintenace of the aggregate trust required to keep exchange values predicated on demand devoid of armed force. I salute you, Sir, though I otherwise disagree with a great deal of your expressed philosophy.

Christopher Chang writes:

...except that Bryan's Open Borders Action Group colleagues have recently noted that open borders *does* already exist, in Argentina. And, despite having demographics that aren't terribly dissimilar from the US's, its per capita GDP is barely above Mexico's.

In combination with the "converse" example of Chinese economic progress without the need for large-scale Chinese immigration to the West, the current "economic case" for open borders is already destroyed beyond any hope of salvage (though open borders, especially as a long-term goal, can be justified on other grounds). Even under the most charitable (for the open borders cause) interpretation of the data, open borders cannot possibly be of more than secondary economic importance, relative to other nontrivial things that Argentina is doing wrong and China is doing right.

Perhaps a future "economic case" can be built, if a place like Argentina or Sweden adopts a combination of other policies that has much better synergy with open borders than the status quo, and demonstrates their viability. But it's dishonest for Bryan and others to keep insisting that his ideas haven't been tried and they "obviously" work on paper; they have been tried, and they are either failing in practice or (in the Singapore and UAE cases) their limited success is within an implementation that's utterly incompatible with Western sensibilities.

Glen Smith writes:

Have rarely seen anyone shamed for winning. Have observed a lot of shame being dished out for the loser. Of course, this does not include shaming winners who request the attacks.

Carl Jakobsson writes:

One example of a winner, on the market, that has receieved a lot of criticism is Justin Bieber.

Being a bad winner

Sheldon Richman writes:

Too bad we won't see a debate between you and Vince Lombardi. Good post!

James writes:

"I'm usually skeptical of narratives about the Good Old Days. But when I look at the modern world, the ethic of noble defeat that I vividly remember from my youth seems virtually extinct. When was the last time you witnessed the public shaming of a dishonorable winner?"

JFK's win in 1960 could objectively be argued to be "dishonorable" and Nixon dropped his option to contest it (reportedly) out of honor. But if JFK suffered any harm from that, I haven't noticed it.
Honorable losers might or might not get to rise again (Nixon), but dishonorable winners will be granted many opportunities to repair their public reputation.

Not that an honorable loss is not to be preferred to a dishonorable victory, but it is hard to argue that on utilitarian grounds.

John Fembup writes:

"When was the last time you witnessed the public shaming of a dishonorable winner? Nary an example comes to my mind."

Hmmm, I think "witnessed" is a key qualifier.

Of course none of us were alive to witness the 1919 World Series. But I'd guess you're not a baseball fan if you didn't think of Joe Jackson - "say it ain't so, Joe, say it ain't so."

Not on point you say, because Jackson was a dishonorable loser, not a dishonorable winner?

All right, then think of Ty Cobb; or Hal Chase; or the "8 men out"; or many more of that era who were publicly shamed in their time for winning bad. (Cobb, a lifetime .366 hitter, was a gambler and hated besides but never banned from baseball. Chase, a lifetime .291 hitter, was a gambler and hated besides, and eventually was banned from baseball. I suppose Chase would have been forgiven if he hit .366 too. But my point is, both were shamed in their time for winning bad.)

Sadly, their misdeeds hardly rise above trivia today and, besides, are largely forgiven by modern fans who - I agree with you - don't have the same appreciation for winning good as fans in former times.

On the other hand, we have witnessed the win by any means behaviors of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Pete Rose, Doc Ellis, Gaylord Perry, et al. And many try hard to rationalize those behaviors. Which I suppose makes your point.


Return to top