Competition Between Persons, Competition Between Groups

There is a conflict between integrity and effectiveness. An important portion of this conflict cannot be resolved with more sophisticated, longer-term evaluations of effectiveness or with appeals to ways in which integrity bolsters effectiveness. This portion stems from existence of competitive domains indifferent to integrity.

Thoughts of competition tend to bring to mind noble warriors or callous cheats. There are those who pursue agreed upon goals, uphold agreed upon values, follow agreed upon rules, and honorably advance their chosen practice, their community, and themselves. And there are those who just grab what they can get away with. This dichotomy dominates individual experience because competition we encounter tends to have agreed upon goals, values, and rules. Their existence creates a link to integrity.

But there is competition where the only shared understanding is that all will grab what they can get away with. It tends to be the competition to set goals, values, and rules – or to protect them and their enforcers. It increasingly dominates as scope grows and encounters with incompatible positions intensify. It culminates with international relations.

Although this competition is acted out by individuals who may desire integrity and respect the standards of their craft, it isn’t about them. Nor is it won merely through their individual prowess.

The capacity of a group to dispense largesse or inflict pain, its value as a partner, its strength and independence combine with shrewdness of its guardians to enhance its advantage. The importance of such assets percolates to pressure more mundane interactions within the group – and to constrain which internal goals, values, and rules are viable.

But the influence of integrity on member effectiveness and group solidarity also constrains what such pressure can productively accomplish. And internal expectations of integrity put pressure on goals and methods of group’s external competition.

There are two broad types of competition and they interact but conflict. There is competition between persons where integrity matters and there is competition between groups where effectiveness rules.

The inescapability of conflict between them is at the heart of Plurality of Absolutes. I owe the framing to Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States in which Michael Lind presents American history as a conflict between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian ideals. Hamiltonians hold that:

“…the basic unit of the world economy is not the individual or the firm, but the polity – typically an empire or city-state in premodern times and a nation-state today. Competition or collaboration among countries, rather than among households or companies, is considered to be the central fact of economics…they have viewed the private and public sectors as collaborators in a single national project of maximizing the military security and well-being of the community…while minimizing dependence on other political communities.”

Hamiltonian focus is on the competitiveness and security of the nation while Jeffersonian focus is on the souls of its citizens.

Groups and Nations

The tension between integrity and effectiveness touches everyone from individuals to international organizations. As scale rises, integrity becomes more difficult to define and achieve while violations become easier to hide or excuse. And as stakes rise, more certain, even if shorter-term, effectiveness gains appeal. But even though competition between groups approaches that of nations as scale and stakes grow, competition between nations remains unique.

This uniqueness is rooted in the lack of a higher arbiter to appeal to. When pursuit of effectiveness violates integrity, competitors seek to shun, expel, and punish. And they seek to exemplify, promote, and reward integrity in the face of such temptation. To do this, competitors appeal to rules and norms of their shared group. But membership is layered and actions are constrained by standards of more encompassing groups.

Each surrounding layer brings with it a smaller set of agreed upon principles coupled with stronger powers of judgement and enforcement. These axioms connect groups and empower integrity in their competition. Concurrently, they constrain how groups can define and enforce integrity within their borders because their demands can be escaped or challenged by appealing to rules and norms of higher levels.

But the buck essentially stops at nations. They are the final source of enforceable, shared axioms. They grant our rights and backstop our rules. They are empowered to dole out the harshest punishments and are the final arbiter of disagreements. They are not easily escaped, disobeyed, or ignored. And they aren’t constrained by inviolable norms in competition with other nations.

The final arbiter doesn’t strictly have to be a nation. Lind mentions empires and city-states of the ancient world. Feudal lords, kings, and the church split authority in the middle ages. Multinational corporations, criminal empires, and angry mobs sometimes challenge nations. The future may bring anything from enclaves of Snow Crash and Diamond Age to a world government united in interplanetary competition. What matters is the ability to decide with no further place to run or appeal to.

The influence of integrity depends on the extent to which competitors share norms and are capable of enforcing them. Enforcement ultimately rests on these norms being legitimated by an arbiter. Individual and group competitions under such authority are constrained by integrity. With no such source of authority, competition of nations is dominated by effectiveness.

Individual Integrity

Jeffersonian priority is the nurture of individual virtue and competence. This demands integrity: the compatibility between values, abilities, understanding, and actions. Virtues, capabilities, happiness, and integrity grow in potent interdependence. Their development is significantly endangered by unactionable inconsistency: by violations of integrity that one is expected to accept.

Jeffersonians want to reduce injustice experienced by individuals thereby raising the standards of what is expected, the limits of what is possible, and the perception of what is achievable. Effectiveness, effort, and merit are important, but competition needs to be fair enough for victory to correlate with the virtues. Failure is necessary, but its lessons must be accessible and actionable enough to encourage individual improvement.

Despite their focus on competition between individuals and groups of comparable strength, Jeffersonians aren’t oblivious to the importance of larger groups up through the nation. They just view the quality of individual members to be the most important component of group’s long-term strength. Competent, confident, virtuous people of integrity are the source of ingenuity, vigor, cooperation, and effectiveness. National strength rests on the souls of its citizens.

Organizational Effectiveness

Hamiltonian priority is development of institutions that are strong, resilient, and effective enough to win in amoral competition with other groups. This demands scalability.

Institutions are strengthened not only by highly capable individuals, but also by connecting more plentiful, even if less effective, resources. Such organizing depends on systems and metrics, on solidarity and compliance, on legibility and reliability. It thrives on leverage – whether organizational, financial, or technological.

Hamiltonians want to develop the most powerful sources of leverage at the fastest pace they can. These grant advantages to its institutions that enable diplomatic victories that secure more advantages that aid development of more leverage.

Despite their focus on amoral competition between groups, Hamiltonians aren’t oblivious to the importance of fairness, virtue, and competence of group members. They just view their development as dependent on protective walls of strong and effective institutions. The souls of citizens rest on national strength.

Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians Compared

Jeffersonians evaluate on the micro scale of individuals: how policies affect the individual psyche and incentivize the virtues. Hamiltonians evaluate on the macro scale of organizations: how policies enhance group effectiveness.

Jeffersonians want to optimize, say, bankruptcy policies towards fairness of individual outcomes and consistency with moral prescriptions while Hamiltonians strive to maximize aggregate productive risk-taking. Jeffersonians want large entities to be understandable by concepts and values that apply to the household while Hamiltonians are fine with modeling governments, firms, and individuals independently. Jeffersonians want each to reach their potential and are terrified by dilution of shared virtues while Hamiltonians can tolerate much ineptitude and decadence if aggregate effectiveness can be maintained.

Jeffersonians are microeconomics, federalism, individual prowess, and local justice. Hamiltonians are macroeconomics, strong impersonal institutions, interchangeable individuals, and rule of law.

This dichotomy is separate from the left-right political divide. It is different from the distinction I’ve made between the Bright and Free mindsets. And it isn’t irrevocably tied to the specific beliefs of Jefferson or Hamilton. Rather, it is about viewing the world through the eyes of either individuals or institutions.

Guardians, technocrats, and sociopaths live in the Hamiltonian world of institutional effectiveness. Most everyone else lives in the Jeffersonian world of individual integrity. The two worlds depend on and influence, yet invariably underestimate, each other. This seeds failure, though oftentimes isn’t exactly a mistake because the alternatives are comparably problematic.

The world consists of simultaneous competitions at multiple scopes, with conflicting goals, and with no way to constrain all competitors.1For a cogent and fascinating account of how these forces evolve and balance see The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama. The optimal behavior in Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian competitions is so different that neither can deviate much from it without inviting shame or defeat. Yet, their optimizations create vulnerabilities by undermining their interdependent foundations.2Francis Fukuyama explores this interdependence in Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity.

How Jeffersonians Fail

In Two Paths Towards Happiness I presented the alternatives of truth-seeking striving and delusion-friendly comfort. The choice of comfort is an example of extreme Bright Jeffersonianism. Despite being theoretically coherent and achievable, it cannot last.

It focuses exclusively on viability of its peculiar set of virtues within the group. It presumes material abundance. It achieves usefulness by self-referentially placing support of each member’s comfort at its apex – which requires winning uniformity. Victory pushes out those responsible for abundance, but this isn’t a fatal problem: some versions of post-scarcity might not require them. What is fatal, is the unstated assumption of peace.

If the group could maintain stable isolation, then perhaps there are arrangements that would work. But it cannot. No matter how advanced its technology, the world around it will continue to advance. No matter how well its empathetic citizens get along, they have no power over outsiders. If they have something outsiders want, they will be at their mercy.

I am not backtracking on my claim that neither path can be proven unambiguously superior to the other. To rephrase the famous market dictum of John Maynard Keynes3“Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”, “The group can remain ignorant longer than you can remain sane.” The path that aligns with society is superior both for the happiness of the individual and for the desires of the group. Even deluded groups can reign for longer than a lifetime – and even failure is unlikely to bring the dissenter validation as it will be blamed on more proximate causes.

Nor does the striving path survive indefinitely despite its more conventional virtues, concern with effectiveness, and connection of usefulness to capacity for objective contribution. Jeffersonian development of virtues and capabilities constrains competition by shunning the profane. When the profane hides a technological or institutional advantage, the virtuous warriors eventually face the unenviable prospects encountered by the likes of the samurai and John Henry. When it engenders sufficient solidarity, even the most virtuous, correct, and effective can fall before the mob.

Nor is turning flexibility, inventiveness, and acceptance of change into virtues a solution. Although it enhances the chance of fighting off obsolescence in the long run, it also increases the probability of periods of weakness in effectiveness or solidarity. A short-term weakness is enough for internal or external competitors to undermine the path. To quote Keynes again, “In the long run we are all dead.”

The source of Jeffersonian strength is in the clarity of what develops individual virtue, competence, and happiness. But the resulting ability to optimize also leads Jeffersonians to disregard their dependence on powerful institutions and innovative heretics. Jeffersonians fail by allowing the competitiveness of their group to deteriorate as they perfect the arena in which group members compete.

How Hamiltonians Fail

To understand Hamiltonian failures, consider metrics and checklists. Metrics are meant to provide an objective, aggregate view into how the institution is doing. Checklists are meant to improve effectiveness by eliminating common mistakes. And as they do indeed enable better management and greater effectiveness, using them would be a clear win if other things could remain equal. Unfortunately, they cannot.

Existence of metrics causes behavior to be optimized for what they measure. Existence of checklists undermines judgment, flexibility, and competence. These effects take time to develop so initial results hide the costs. Even when costs appear, they cannot be conclusively traced to effects on individual psyches rather than on insufficiently tuned metrics and checklists.

Institutions benefit from individual judgement, competence, honesty, and trust, but institutional improvements take them for granted and thus disincentivize their development. Not just in the process of specific improvements, but also as a consequence of success. After all, only the most impressive institutions can make the presumption of peace and abundance seem reasonable enough for comfortable happiness to be promoted en masse.

Nor can institutions avoid these costs without forgoing the benefits and hence ceding advantage to competitors.

The source of Hamiltonian strength is in scalability, but it demands turning individuals into abstractions and losing touch with what makes them function. Hamiltonians fail by diverting competition between individuals to arenas that inadequately support group effectiveness.

Giants, Debt, and Cycles

Groups can thus fail by underestimating external forces. Or by being taken over by internal interests. Or by having a sufficient number of its members lose faith in virtue and integrity. Or by adopting of a system of virtues that discourages competence, effort, and ingenuity.

Jeffersonians are right that virtuous individuals empower groups. Intense perseverance, proud sacrifice, and courageous risk-taking so important for difficult execution depend on absolute belief. Shared goals, values, and norms bind people, lower transaction costs, and enhance effectiveness. Even in environments as ostensibly base and incentive-driven as the capitalist industrial revolution, Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues locates the root of progress in virtuous beliefs.

Yet Hamiltonians are right that strong institutions are necessary to create the relatively unambiguous and fair competitive environments in which virtue can prosper. Without them, virtuous individuals will be overrun by external forces or unscrupulous insiders. Even in a nation as strongly rooted in Jeffersonianism as the United States of America, Michael Lind gives overwhelming credit for progress and success to Hamiltonianism.

Jeffersonians try to keep the differentials in competing powers small enough to allow individuals to understand their world, have meaningful agency, and be able to overpower or escape unscrupulousness. In their desire to curate an environment friendly to development of virtue, they tend to take for granted the lack of external interference. When they are supportive of strong institutions, it is to undermine competitors who have grown too strong or to advance those who have fallen too far behind to exert virtuous agency. Hamiltonian institutions that keep them secure from external threats and provide the internal infrastructure for efficiency and progress are the contemptible giants on whom Jeffersonians stand.

Hamiltonians try to make efficient, interconnected, scalable institutions to allow rapid coordinated response, competence in strategically important areas, and large-scale innovation that continuously develops new advantages in a changing world. In their pursuit of effectiveness, reliability, and growth they tend to take for granted the level of individual energy, ingenuity, honesty, morale, and perseverance. When they take individuals into account at all, it is to incentivize them, locate those with desired skills, or constrain outbursts of the undesirables – all on average. Jeffersonian virtues that grease and fuel their institutions are the contemptible giants on whom Hamiltonians stand.

Although Jeffersonianism and Hamiltonianism are ideologies that deal with nations, their perspectives and tensions apply to groups at all scales. Hamiltonian approaches try to make institutions more efficient, reliable, and scalable while Jeffersonian approaches try to retain their culture, vision, and values.

Hamiltonian improvements debase the currency of virtue one checklist, metric, compromise, abstraction, systemization, or hypocrisy at a time. And abundance created by institutional productivity tempts complacency, entitlement, and mediocracy. These effects, like modest inflation, tend to grow too slowly to appear consequential, but on the scale of generations they suffocate the golden goose of effectiveness and make the group vulnerable to more virtuous barbarians.

Jeffersonian integrity, on the other hand, adds debt to institutions with every forgone opportunity, added inefficiency, or undeveloped capability. And over time, power nevertheless concentrates into virtue-endangering hands that, while less centralized, also have less to fear from efficiency, change, and rule of law. At low levels, integrity seems worth these costs, but over years and decades debt accumulates to make the group increasingly antiquated, slow, and vulnerable to more innovative competitors.

Individuals and institutions work together as do integrity and effectiveness, but they also conflict. They are giants and thus, at any point in time, some portion of what makes them work is taken for granted, treated as contemptible, and undermined. Which leads to cyclical downfalls, each with a terrifying possibility of indefinite collapse.


1 For a cogent and fascinating account of how these forces evolve and balance see The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama.
2 Francis Fukuyama explores this interdependence in Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity.
3 “Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”

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