The Return of Zero-Sum Thinking
Why zero-sum thinking is on the rise—and what it means for markets and democracy.
[Note: This essay is too long to appear fully as an e-mail. If you got this by e-mail, please click on the title to read the entire post on Substack. -NH]
Over the centuries, moralists have observed that there are two kinds of people: optimists and pessimists. Optimists see the glass as half-full; pessimists see the glass as half-empty. Over the last decade or two, social scientists have refined and updated this notion. They now divide humanity into positive-sum thinkers and zero-sum thinkers.
What’s the difference? Reflect on how you typically think about your interaction with a new person or a new group. Do you focus mostly on how you and they could work together for mutual benefit—that is, in a way that benefits both of you? Or do you focus more on how they could hurt you by taking something you already have—or, alternatively, how you could take something they already have?
The first approach is called positive-sum thinking or PST, and it typically arises where there is an abundance of social trust which extends easily to strangers. PST assumes that people can reliably negotiate beneficial agreements on their own according to general rules of fairness. It is optimistic and oriented toward abundance. It prioritizes equal relationships between individuals. And it imagines that both the individual and society can become better off over time.
The second approach is called zero-sum thinking or ZST, though in practice it often leads to negative-sum outcomes since mutual suspicion or hostility often leaves both parties worse off than they were before. It typically arises where there is a dearth of social trust, and no one feels they can rely on those outside their own circle. ZST assumes that people can only negotiate as agents of a group. It is pessimistic (or realistic, if you will): It assumes scarcity—of resources, of talent, of everything. It is resigned to hierarchical dominance along with favor seeking and protective patronage. And it imagines that people find more meaning in community membership than in personal improvement.
PST and ZST comprise a spectrum. None of us thinks all one way or all the other. What’s more, there’s no right or wrong here. It depends upon the circumstances. In one historical situation, a PST approach may enrich and empower both you and your entire society. In another, it may leave you destitute, your family oppressed, and the strangers who betrayed you gloating. Some situations are so ambiguous that people may wait until the last minute to choose their approach. When a 10th-century Viking raiding fleet pulled up to your coastal village, they might kill you or they might trade with you—the choice usually depending on which course of action seemed to them, at that moment, easier and cheaper. Things may turn out better if they first see you all holding swords rather than plows.
I am introducing this PST-ZST dichotomy for a reason. It provides an excellent perspective for understanding our contemporary world.
Populism, conspiracy thinking, partisan tribalism, and support for authoritarian leadership are today on the ascendant across the globe—and they are very conspicuously ascendant in high-income countries like our own. What do these social movements have in common? The conviction that one group, favored by the elites, is running the world at the expense of all the rest of us. Maybe it’s the Davos globalists, or the godless pedophiles, or the white supremacists, or the deep state, or the woke antiracists, or the illegal immigrants, or our duplicitous “trading partners,” or well-armed foreign autocrats. Whoever it is, the paranoia is amplified by the cratering of public trust in the system’s fairness and by the yearning for a strong and dominating leader who will set things right.
Groupthink, distrust, pessimism, and top-down leadership are all, as we have just seen, hallmarks of ZST. Many nations are preparing for war (if not already engaged in one), and war is of course ZST in its purest form. What’s more, domestic partisan politics are increasingly assuming the tone and manner of war—and, depending on the country in which you live, such partisanship is increasingly driven by tribal markers like race, religion, language, or nationality. Even economic policies are shifting in this direction: from protective tariffs and “buy at home” industrial regulations to the growing use of trade embargos and bank account sanctions. High-income electorates everywhere want their governments to spend more than they tax because future generations lie way beyond their low-trust ZST time horizon.
All around the world, people are thinking less about how I can get ahead, fairly and within the rules—and more about how me and my team can get ahead, unfairly if necessary, to compensate us for some grievous wrong. The mood of “ressentiment” runs strong today, a mood that Friedrich Nietzsche once described as “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in outbursts” and that, according to Pankaj Mishra (author of Age of Anger), has given rise to the ghastliest volcano of collective scapegoating since the 1930s.