Google defines “zero sum”: (of a game or situation) in which whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other.
Ask yourself, what gives something that property? I posit, it is something that one cannot create. Can only be taken.
When it is impossible to create something, the only way to attain it is to deprive someone else of it.
Not all resources are zero sum. For instance, cars can be manufactured. When I buy a car, I am not robbing my neighbor of a car, because I sponsored its creation with my wallet. Thus, cars are not zero sum.
Ask yourself: what resources are? There aren’t that many.
You might say money is zero sum. But it is not. The physical paper of the money is not finite; you can always print more. Moreover, what money represents is not finite. Money buys goods and services. As the economy grows, money buys more goods and services. In a very real sense, wealth can be created.
With that said, you may have heard of the fixed-pie analogy of the economy. If institutional powers prevent economic growth, then money can have the appearance of being zero sum. That is when income inequality becomes a bigger issue.
But there are a few resources that are inherently zero sum:
This was one of the great insights of Georgism. The implications of the work of the great 18th century economist Henry George is today unfortunately underrated. He noted that land, surface area on Earth, is never created or destroyed. It is at once found, and then fought over. There is a reason we have the property tax; how is it fair for one individual to “own” land if he had no part in its creation? With that said, socialization of land in practice always ends in disaster, and not what George suggested. In practice, it is hard to separate land from property that rests on top of it, which is why enforcement of land ownership is a necessary convenience.
“Land” in an economic context includes sea, and also includes the any naturally occurring resources present on the land.
Georgism has greatly influenced my political philosophy in ways outside the scope of this post.
Status is finite. Because status is by definition relative. When my neighbor gains more status, I loose relative status.
Status is how you compare to others. If everyone gets richer by the same proportion, then no one gains status.
Want to get mathematical? If everyone is a hermit, then everyone has zero status. The moment one person gains status, others then have negative status. The equation always comes out to zero.
This explains some seemingly irrational behavior. Why some people devote so much time and energy to their job, at the expense of their personal life, beyond what is “worth it”. It is a collective action problem, where everyone is trying to achieve the most status.
Of course, people can be created. But you don’t “own” a person when you create them; that is slavery, and banned in all civilized countries. People are a resource that you don’t own when you create. So people exhibit similar properties of resources not create-able.
It might sound mechanical to refer to people as a resource, but know that I only use that word as an umbrella term (for things that are most definitely resources).
Employees, for example. A factory can raise wages to steal away employees, but they cannot manufacture more employees. The population is their limitation.
Ever wonder why actors get paid so much? Why their faces plaster movie covers? They are a type of high-status employee. They are not interchangeable. You can’t switch out an actor with another equally talented one and expect the same showing for movie. Because some people will go see a movie specifically for an actor they happen to like. Without that, movies are just commodities.
There is only one Tom Cruise in the world. Tom Cruise has a monopoly on the presence of Com Cruise. He does not have to compete with other Tom Cruises for a job.
You and each every person is guaranteed a monopoly over exactly one thing: your likeness, your face and personality, yourself.
Performance artists reap the benefits of that fact. Most professions do not. For instance, plumbers of equal quality are thought of as interchangeable. The most a plumber can do is join a union (itself a tactic profitable largely because employees are zero sum).
Since people are zero-sum, by extension, relationships are zero-sum. If someone is my girlfriend, she is not someone else’s girlfriend (as far as I hope!)
Also by extension, sex is zero-sum. Although monogamous relationships are much more so than non-monogamous relationships, for obvious reasons.
One one end of the extreme, there is prostitution. But sex with a prostitute is still limited by the number of prostitutes and the hours they work. That is why sex robots stand to potentially revolutionize this area.
That status is zero-sum is really just an extension of that quality in people, having defined status by the number of people higher than you and lower than you in a hierarchy.
Services that rely on network externalities may also be zero sum. There can only be one Facebook (at a time, per region), for instance.
Time is zero-sum. I will not be diving into the implications of that here, but it is important to note for possible future reference. Interestingly, unlike most any other resource, time is something you do not gain when you steal.
Finally, cultural and historical relics are one of a kind. A Picasso painting can be copied, but people always value the original more. Picasso is dead, so his works are finite. This is why the state protects objects of historical significance, and why destroying famous works of art is considered profane.
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The De Beer’s diamond company carried out the biggest scam in history. First, they monopolized land wherein diamonds are mined. Second, they marketed diamonds as an important status symbol. Third, they built an association between diamonds and the arguably most sacred of people’s relationships: marriage.
If it isn’t obvious already, this post is about natural monopolies. Zero sum resources are those which can be monopolized.
Notice what is not on the list? Capitol. And that is why Marxism is ridiculous. (Sorry Marxists, you can still like the other parts of this post.) Capitol can be manufactured, and then capitol-owners will compete with each other for workers, buyers, and so on.
So there you have it: land, status, people. Once I compiled this list, it became apparent that almost every war in human history has been fought over at least one of these things.
- Who controls territory (land)
- Who wears the crown and sits on the throne (status)
- Who rules over the citizens (people)
I challenge anyone to find a counter example.
Given that, here’s a useful heuristic to tell at a glance whether something is a war:
Is it violence over zero-sum resources: land, status, or people?
If someone steals my car, it is a crime. But it is not a war.
If someone robs a bank, it is a crime. But not a war.
If someone steals land from a country, takes thousands of people, and declares themselves king, now that’s a war.
If I take away status from someone, that’s not a war. But using violence to do so is a different story. It doesn’t happen that much any more. So we should be careful about using the “status” indicator to determine if something is a war.
Most people have a different heuristic for telling whether something is a war: “is it fought between nations?”
But I ask you, what’s the difference? –
Nations control land (territory), people (citizens), and have international recognition (status). That is the core of what a nation is.