Not too long ago, “zero-sum game” was one of those academic concepts that I couldn’t quite keep in my head. I knew I should know it. It sounded like one of those things people said when they wanted to sound smart, like “pedagogy.” Surely it would come in handy at some dinner party or office function.
Now I’ve come to the opinion that it actually delineates one of the most important leaps forward that the human race is currently being compelled to make. Put simply, it asks the question: Do you see your neighbor as your collaborator or your competitor? How about someone from the next town over? How about someone from Equatorial Guinea?
“Zero-sum game” describes a situation in which there are clear winners and losers. If you happen to be a lion roaming the African veld and another pride kills a wildebeest, that’s one less wildebeest you can eat. So you lose. A “zero-sum game” means there is a finite amount of stuff, and you need to get it first, or you will have to adapt, migrate, or die.
Some scientists will tell you that zero-sum thinking remains an innate part of the human condition – that it is the persistent mental echo of our past as hunters and gatherers. In a Stone Age economy, that very likely made sense. But an interesting thing happened on the way to superconductors, spaceships, and stock markets. The equation flipped.
This is why economists are generally so gaga about free markets. Along with other advancements (in human rights, democratic principles, and technology, to name a few), we began to figure out that zero-sum games were actually not the law of the universe. Collaboration, in fact, created “positive-sum” systems – systems in which the good result was no longer finite. In the most obvious example, from prehistory to about 1800, the world’s gross domestic product was less than $1 trillion. Since then, as economies began collaborating more and more efficiently, it has exploded to more than $110 trillion.
Simon Montlake’s cover story this week is just one tiny example. A wave of Chinese high-schoolers is coming to the United States and it is bringing money that could help struggling towns.
This doesn’t mean we just throw open the doors. The struggles of the Western working class in recent years show the need to manage collaboration wisely. Nor does this mean that the diversity of cultures and nationalities should be overrun. They are integral parts of the world’s creative engine and identity. But the principle remains: The most successful world imaginable is the world where each of us is uniquely useful and connected to the whole. That is not New Age claptrap; it is economic fact and the most solid basis for successful policy.
When politics appeals to our zero-sum fears just to get us to the ballot box, it is a small step back toward the Stone Age. In a very real way, the prosperity of the world depends on how we all choose to see those around us.