Montreal, September 15, 2009 • No 270


Bradley Doucet is QL's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.






by Bradley Doucet


          Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whoever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.


BELIEF # 26: Life is a zero-sum game

September 15, 2009

          One underlying belief I encounter quite often in one form or another is the notion that life is a zero-sum game—more specifically, that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world, and for one person to gain, another must necessarily lose. This sounds plausible at first hearing since, barring the odd hunk of rock from outer space, there is indeed a fixed amount of stuff on planet Earth. We can move it around and recombine it in different ways, but we can't create any more of it ex nihilo. Even the amount of energy coming in from the sun is largely balanced out by the amount of energy being radiated back into space. Of course, we worry that this balance has been compromised by human activity, and that catastrophic warming will be our punishment, but that's a different story.

          The primary response to the belief that life is a zero-sum game is to emphasize that there is not a fixed quantity of wealth in the world—that wealth is, in fact, created. We may only be moving stuff around and recombining it, but that in itself constitutes wealth creation. The black gunk that is buried beneath ground or sea is worth nothing to us until it has been excavated and refined, and until we have learned how to release its high energy content. Iron ore is much more valuable once it has been melted down, mixed with other metals, and shaped into girders, rails, trains, coils, hammers, nails, pistons, internal combustion engines, and a thousand other tools. Trees get transformed into houses and books, and we are better off than we were before. And the sun's energy, from the time it enters our atmosphere to the time it leaves, actually does a lot of work, driving the hydrologic cycle and turning carbon dioxide and water into sugar. With a little added human ingenuity—the ultimate resource, according to the late Julian Simon—we can harness the sun's energy to do a whole lot more, too.

          In its crudest form, the notion that life is a zero-sum game is a literal superstition. We all know someone who actually believes that if something good happens to him, something bad will follow to balance it out. For one reason or another, some people don't believe they deserve to be happy, and so actually feel uncomfortable when something good happens to them. They may therefore sabotage themselves in order to restore what they see as the proper balance, undermining their chances at a promotion or hobbling a new and promising relationship. Some people simply fear the unknown, and take steps, consciously and not-so-consciously, to keep everything just so.

          It is hardly much more realistic, however, to look at a voluntary market exchange and think that one party is profiting while the other is being duped. It does happen from time to time, sure, but swindlers are typically done in by their own bad reputations and lose out to more scrupulous competitors. If both parties do not expect to gain from a transaction, why would they voluntarily take part in it? If their expectations were not met most of the time, why would they keep voluntarily transacting? And yet, many continue to believe that in a (relatively) free and open marketplace, if a company gets rich, it is surely because it has ripped off its customers. The grain of truth that makes this flawed interpretation seem plausible is that some companies curry favour with governments, hence circumventing the need to compete fairly for consumers' dollars.

          Along a similar vein, some people imagine that today's rich nations got rich at the expense of those nations that remain poor to this day. Again, there is a grain of truth that gives this argument its force. The governments of some powerful nations and their cronies have exploited and continue to exploit people in poorer, weaker nations, and in the past, this was indeed the primary way some predatory nations got rich. Still, it doesn't take a libertarian to see the flaw in this line of thinking. No less an advocate of redistribution on a planetary scale than Jeffrey Sachs skewers the notion that today's rich got rich by stealing from the poor. In The End of Poverty, he writes, "This interpretation of events would be plausible if gross world product had remained roughly constant, with a rising share going to the powerful regions and a declining share going to the poorer regions. However, this is not at all what happened." Instead, Sachs tells us, in the last two hundred years, "Gross world product rose nearly fiftyfold." If it were only, or even primarily, a matter of exploitation, where would all of that extra wealth have come from? Sachs concludes, "The key fact of modern times is not the transfer of income from one region to another, by force or otherwise, but rather the overall increase in world income, but at a different rate in different regions." (Emphasis in original.)

          On a cosmic level, our sun will eventually burn itself out, but in the intervening four or five billion years, clearly, life on Earth is not a zero-sum game. Some aspects of life, it is true, are zero- or even negative-sum games. War, for instance, produces very few winners, and total losses typically far outweigh total gains. But other aspects of life, for example voluntary exchanges, are positive-sum games, in which both parties benefit. The fact that there are some cheaters out there should not be allowed to obscure this important fact.

          Come to think of it, maybe the fear of catastrophic global warming is not so different a story after all. Maybe it bears some relation to that crudest form of zero-sum thinking: that if something good happens, something bad is sure to follow. We will be punished, think the doom mongers, not for our failures, but for our successes, because they reveal our arrogance in thinking that we can control nature—or should I say, Nature. Maybe global warming is a real and serious problem. I personally think the jury is still out on that one. But the idea that we are destroying Gaia and that she will take her revenge on us is a primitivist, superstitious, zero-sum fear that we would do well to jettison to the junk pile of history where such intellectual landfill belongs.





25. Immigration must be restricted
24. The world is a scary place
23. We are all sinners
22. Persuasion is force
21. Bankruptcies are bad for the economy
20. War is good for the economy
19. We don't care enough
18. Capitalism caused the Great Depression
17. Democracy is a cure-all

16. Self-sacrifice is good
15. Everyone is selfish—and that's bad
14. Free markets are utopian
13. Change is bad
12. You're either with us or against us
11. The environment is steadily deteriorating
10. Resources are limited
09. It's a small world

08. Morality must be enforced
07. The truth is obvious
06. Good intentions are enough
05. Charity must be enforced
04. We are our brothers' keepers
03. Theft can be justified
02. Order comes from above
01. Government is good