Modern market economies use competitive institutions that allow at least some forms of unequal distribution. The question for distributive justice has often been: what kind of unequal competitive outcomes, if any, are acceptable? Some theorists have cited winner-takes-all (WTA) distribution as an unacceptable competitive outcome (e.g., Brown, 2015). In WTA social competition, the rewards to the victors vastly outweigh what little is made available to those less successful. This occurs, for instance, where small differences in education-attainment lead to very large differences in job opportunities and life-time earnings. The possibility of WTA might be taken as a threat to the justice of the competitive distribution of social goods. Some have responded by arguing that fully-fair social competition would not permit WTA. Lesley Jacobs (2004) maintains that competitions should abide by ‘stakes fairness’, and cites WTA as an evident failure of such fairness. But Jacobs has been criticised for failing to explain why the very idea of fair competition entails the prohibition of WTA (Brown 2015).
We might think, for example, that a poker tournament could fairly award its whole prize-pot to the first-place winner, particularly if the pot is meagre and the stakes are low. Fair competition per se does not obviously rule out WTA. I provide an alternative argument for the claim that social competition can, on its own terms, prohibit WTA. I argue that competitions for social goods ought not to distribute rewards in such a manner because this would undermine the functions that competitive institutions are supposed to play in distribution. My functionalist argument appeals to two purposes that competitive social distribution is supposed to serve – efficiency, and meritocracy – and argues that WTA competitions are ill-suited to both purposes.