The market is a matter of relationships and positive relationships are those that make everyone grow and in which no one loses. In this the market is indeed different from sport.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Il Messaggero di Sant'Antonio on 23/09/2022
Sport has always been juxtaposed with markets and the economy, but the parallels are not always proposed with sufficient attention and a discerning eye. In fact, there is a diverse set of words and inspirations that sport can offer markets: some are good and useful; some less so, some are simply misleading. Let us start with the good ones. The first concerns the relationship that exists in individual sports between the individual athlete and his or her team or national team.
This relationship is complex, because it thrives on an interweaving of cooperation and competition, a lot of cooperation and a few instants of competition. During training, in relay races, it is cooperation and friendship that dominates: the good of all and the good of each coincide. During decisive competitions, on the other hand, relationships become zero-sum games, and competition becomes merely positional: the victory of one athlete means the defeat of others. Similarly, in market relationships between the various agents (companies, consumers, suppliers...), the vast majority of relationships are cooperative and mutually beneficial (positive-sum games), and competitions in which someone wins at the expense of others are very rare indeed. Why?
Let's imagine that Giovanni is a young plumber who starts his business as a small artisan entrepreneur. The best - for me the only - intelligent attitude with which he should start his enterprise is to ask himself: “Who in my town needs my services?” – and then look for customers with whom he can cooperate in a mutually beneficial relationship. If instead he starts by asking himself: “Where are the competitors I want to beat?” – Giovanni is not at all likely to become a good entrepreneur, because he will invest his energies in rival, non-generative passions. Because while in sport, perhaps, an athlete can also grow by directing his energies towards beating his competitors (but I still have my doubts here), the market is a matter of relationships and positive relationships are those that make everyone grow and in which no one loses. In this the market is really different from sport.
A second area of similarity between the market and sport is the role of competitors. In sport, having strong competitors is essential for individual athletes to grow and achieve excellent results. The situation is similar in the market, where the presence of competition is essential for improvement: monopolies are bad for any economic and social system, and in the long run also for the monopolist. Our choice of words is wrong, however, when we think that sport is just competition in a zero-sum game and therefore use the expressions ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ (these are bad words any time and everywhere) and apply them to businesses.
Thus we no longer understand what markets - and sport - are all about, because we lose sight of the golden law of economics: mutual benefit. When we leave a pizzeria and to our “Thank you” the owner replies: “Thank you”, we are simply saying that the economy in its true nature is a form of civilised reciprocity. This characteristic of markets was known even to the early economists of the 18th century, who hoped that the development of markets would lead to the end of wars, precisely because every merchant knows that the growth of others is the precondition for their own growth. Today, unfortunately, we seem to be forgetting this and thus in fact denying the peaceful nature of the economy by using sanctions as weapons of war.
Photo credits: © Giuliano Dinon / MSA Archive