Zero Sum

Sometimes the best parts of a blog are the comments. When reading this interesting post on evolutionary biology, I found the following comment:
At any rate, IMO zero-sum has a much simpler explanation at hand:

1. It is easier for a rich man to steal his way to wealth than to create wealth.
2. It is easier for a poor man to envy those riches than to admire the one who acquired them.

Combine prejudice (2) against wealth acretion with reinforcing evidence from cases where the rich man actually did (1), and very soon, any one richer than me can be assumed to have gotten it by taking it from me, which then becomes a convenient justification for finding means of “taking it back”.

Thus, zero-sum allows me to minimize any flaws in my own state that prevent me from being richer, and simultaneously minimizing any virtue in the rich man, and then justify remedies that allow me to become richer without doing any actual work for it. This mode of thinking is popular for obvious reasons.

Why is this important?
This may explain the great concern over income inequality in two different ways. First, the social justice activists may subscribe to this kind of thinking themselves. But, even if they know better, they might think that if enough other people think this way, social cohesion is at risk. And they might have a point.

Throughout most human history, society has been a zero sum game or nearly so. It’s only with the advent of modern institutions (titles, credit, and juristic persons) that the game has changed. It’s hard to imagine that zero-sum attitudes haven’t been culturally transmitted down to our age. Yes, we can overcome our cultural folklore with education, but where do you see that happening?

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