ZERO SUM: that which is gained equals that which is lost, and its implications for political decision-making

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s blog posting about a philosophy or theology of abundance.   It stuck in my head and wouldn’t let me go.   So I decided to give into it and do something I haven’t done before.  This is a sequel posting.

Zero Sum theory is based upon the idea that there is a quantifiable amount of material (of any kind) in existence.   If someone removes a portion of that amount for their own use, it reduces the amount available for others.  There is only so much.  The theory is most often discussed in terms of game theory, in which the implications of winning and losing are calculated.   If there is a stated total sum (zero) and someone “wins” 40% of that sum, there is only 60% of the total left to be shared among other players.

Take that game theory concept and allow it to become a metaphor.   We find ourselves talking about winning and losing.  Zero sum theory makes the case that so-called “winners” of economic, political, or even military wars reduce the quantity of “winnings” available to the rest of those involved.   If, therefore, the United States (or China) garners the greatest amount of financial reward from a particular practice, there is only so much left to be distributed around the world.   The balance of power is arranged in such a way that winner and losers find themselves at odds with each other.   Thus, the concept of conflict is enhanced.

The alternative to standard  zero sum process is that of collaboration, in which an assessment of need is arrived at in advance and those engaged in the process come to agreement about how to share that sum in a way that there are no inappropriately-large winners and inappropriately-small losers.  Legitimate needs, based upon population size and cultural factors  are factored in so that it is not a case of equal shares as much as fair shares.  There is still a matter of acknowledgement of a finite quantity from which to draw, and the zero sum still applies.  But there is a management based upon collaboration and generosity which prevails, overcoming greed and hoarding on the “winner’s” part.

It is difficult for individuals or nations which have been raised on traditional zero sum thinking to embrace a concept in which the meaning of winning and losing are redefined.  In a sense, I believe that this is the conflict which has caused there to be a distrust of the leadership style of the President.   I think he understands this variation in thinking and works from that model.  Most people don’t.  The fact that he is not a win/lose administrator and persistently seeks concession, collaboration and the absence of winner/losers in the political game  sounds like weakness to those who relish winning. 

The concept of sustainability, whether applied to the raw materials, food, water, and clean air of the world or to the elements of good government is a key issue.   It requires one to take a long, hard look down the road and not to be seduced by short-term “quick fixes” which prove to be rewards for winners and punishment for losers.  Political games are fickle and tend to be dependent upon who is on the playing field at any one time.   If the concept of sustainability replaces that of zero sum winners/losers there is less likely a chance of fickle emotions re-defining the game plan every time an administration changes.

All the more reason why candidates for high office need to be recognized as intelligent, flexible and collaborative.


Photo Credit:  JD Hancock

Next Post » »


  1. Excellent and flawless part II.

Speak Your Mind