Rod Miller: March Madness and Human History

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By Rod Miller, Columnist

Do you have your bracket filled out yet?

This time of year we celebrate – hell, we can’t pry our eyes from – the annual tournament to determine the best college basketball team in America. It’s the buzz around corporate water coolers and in dive bars all around Wyoming.

Sports books in Vegas take zillions of bets on who will win the NCAA basketball tournament. Mortgages and college educations are wagered on sweaty jocks in jerseys and are won or lost on buzzer beaters.

Competition is big stuff this time of year. In fact, it’s a dynamic that is interwoven permanently into our lives here and elsewhere around the world. What’s the big fascination with competition?

The simple fact is that competition is the single biggest driver of human history. That has been true since the first caveperson took something from another caveperson by being tougher, smarter, stronger or luckier.

We homo sapiens respond viscerally to competition and to triumph. We prefer it to cooperation in virtually every aspect of life. We neatly divide the world into winners and losers, determined by conflict rather than cooperation.

Be honest. How much attention would you pay to an NCAA hoops tournament that chose a national champion based upon negotiation, compromise and the milk of human kindness?

History teaches us that culture has spread through the world primarily via conquest, for good or ill. And the matrix of human experience we live in today was established incrementally by one people kicking another people’s collective ass. History itself, we agree, is written by the winners.

Here’s a factoid. Adam Smith, the godfather of modern economic theory, wrote his first book, “A Theory of Moral Sentiments” to explore a possible world wherein our corporeal lives were governed by compromise and cooperation. It’s interesting reading, but pretty pie-in-the-sky stuff.

In Smith’s last book, “The Wealth of Nations,” he articulated what happens in the real world. Competition among people is the real mover in our economic, social and political life. There will always be winners and losers. It took Smith years to come to that conclusion, but he nailed it.

What Smith called “enlightened self-interest” in his last book, Gordon Gekko called greed in “Wall Street.” Whatever you call it, it’s in our DNA to stay, and it drives us to compete. Again, for good or ill.

Like Patton said in the star-spangled opening of the movie, “All real Americans love the sting of battle. Americans love a winner!”

No matter how many folk songs are sung around a campfire, no matter how many sugarplum rainbow unicorn visions we have of inclusive participation trophies, there will always be winners and losers. Deal with it.

Participation trophies throughout history have included having your village plundered and burned, your land taken, your gods overthrown and your children sold into slavery by the winner. Knowing that alone should make you want to toughen up and hone your competitive skills.

Is there a place for the softer skills like cooperation and accommodation in modern life? Of course there is! It’s not all barbarity and war. But that place is secondary to survival. Darwin taught us that.

Suppose you are the third monkey on the ladder going up into Noah’s ark, and you feel the first raindrops on your face. Are you gonna try to wheel and deal or sweet talk your way aboard? I sure as hell wouldn’t.

We Americans should celebrate the primal urge of competition, not discount it or fear it. It is the kinetic energy in so many aspects of our lives. If we try to “cancel” competition, we will yield the writing of next iteration of history to someone else. And we’ll get the soft, fuzzy participation trophy we deserve.

Think about that as you fill in your bracket for the next few years.

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