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The idiomatic expression race to the bottom, generally used in economic and financial contexts, refers to:

A situation in which striving to have the lowest possible prices in order to attract the highest number of customers also drives down standards of the product or service, worsens conditions for workers in the industry, and ultimately leads to problems for everyone.

According to Wikipedia the idiomatic figurative usage of the expression is from the late 19th c.:

The concept of a regulatory "race to the bottom" emerged in the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when there was charter competition among states to attract corporations to base in their jurisdiction. Some, such as Justice Louis Brandeis, described the concept as the "race to the bottom" and others, as the "race to efficiency".

Actually Google Books clearly shows its usage only from the late 1970’s/early 80’s and the very rare usages from the 19th century have a different, more literal, meaning.

When and possibly by whom was the expression actually coined? Is there evidence of late 19th c./early 20th c. usages? What spurred its increasing usage from the late 70’s?

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  • Then there's it's idiomatic usage that refers to a seeming or suggested competition for being the absolute worst, being as lowdown and dirty as can be (e.g., Jan with all her cheating and lying and Beth with all her sabotaging and manipulating, and now this?! There's obviously nothing either of them won't do. It's no holds barred. It's a race to the bottom for who becomes valedictorian of our class.). Commented May 6, 2021 at 0:00

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As is often the case, the concept is older than the precise form of words "race to the bottom". Wikipedia suggests the concept is late 19th century but without that precise name. Brandeis is often cited as inventing or popularising the concept but what he actually wrote was "The race was one not of diligence, but of laxity." (Louis K. Liggett Co. v. Lee, 288 U.S. 517 (1933), dissent) This means a competition to see who can be laxest in following regulations, on the basis that the laxest will profit most.

Brandeis having coined it is mentioned by Wikipedia which cites "Meisel, Nicolas (2004). Governance Culture and Development: A Different Perspective on Corporate Governance. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. ISBN 92-64-01727-5. p. 41" It's also mentioned, cited to the 1933 dissent I mention, in a paper, A Race to the Bottom? Employment Protection and Foreign Direct Investment, William W. Olney, 2010.

As for its popularity in the 1970s, Wikipedia cites a 1974 paper by William Cary which includes the phrase "the race to the bottom" in quotation marks: William L Cary, "Federalism and Corporate Law: Reflections Upon Delaware", Yale Law Journal, 83:4 (1974). You can see this online; he mentions earlier discussions of the race but none of his direct quotations use the phrase "race to the bottom", so it does not appear to be a quotation from anyone else. This seems to be the first occurrence in this context.

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  • So, your research implies that the expression was actually coined in the 70s, am I correct?
    – Gio
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 11:30
  • @Gio Yes it appears to be a 1970s coinage, I've added more info on what seems to be the first citation.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 15:08

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