C&B Notes

A Twist on Monopolies & Competition

This commentary from David Brooks reminds us of a concept we have heard from Charlie Munger, “the secret to success in life is weak competition.”

One of [Thiel’s] core points is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition.  We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead. In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable.  The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value.

In fact, Thiel argues, we often shouldn’t seek to be really good competitors.  We should seek to be really good monopolists.  Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field, it’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it.  The profit margins are much bigger, and the value to society is often bigger, too.

Now to be clear: When Thiel is talking about a “monopoly,” he isn’t talking about the illegal eliminate-your-rivals kind.  He’s talking about doing something so creative that you establish a distinct market, niche and identity.  You’ve established a creative monopoly and everybody has to come to you if they want that service, at least for a time.

His lecture points to a provocative possibility: that the competitive spirit capitalism engenders can sometimes inhibit the creativity it requires.

*****

Competition has trumped value-creation.  In this and other ways, the competitive arena undermines innovation.

We live in a culture that nurtures competitive skills.  And they are necessary: discipline, rigor and reliability.  But it’s probably a good idea to try to supplement them with the skills of the creative monopolist: alertness, independence and the ability to reclaim forgotten traditions.

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