By Bryan Caplan
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.