What Do the Zero-Sum Thinkers Believe?

Andrés Ortega

6 mins - 20 de Octubre de 2023, 07:00

How does thinking in “zero-sum” terms influence citizens – that is to say, believing that where one individual or social group gains, another loses, or that people can only get richer at the expense of others? A recent study published by Harvard University is gaining significant attention. Its conclusion is that those who think this way tend to favour government policies of redistribution from the rich to the disadvantaged, greater public health coverage and higher taxation, access to resources, plus, yes, limitations on immigration. It is a mindset, a mentality and a culture, a hypothesis put forward in the 1960s by sociologist George Foster. These findings suggest that a person’s views on a wide range of social, political and economic issues can be strongly influenced by the degree to which he or she perceives that societal benefits are gained at the expense of others, thus, zero-sum thinking.

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The study, by Sahil Chinoy, Nathan Nunn, Sandra Sequeira, and Stefanie Stantcheva, was conducted on a sample of 24,000 people in the United States, going back to their ancestors (up to grandparents). “Individuals are more zero-sum today if they have ancestors who lived in an environment, or if they directly experienced, events that were more zero-sum,” says the paper, one of whose conclusions (for the US) is that descendants of slaves, fundamentally the blacks, are mostly zero-sum minded. Other groups in this line are urban dwellers, younger people, and those with lower incomes or lower educational achievement – those born into poorer families. All favour racial and gender equalisation policies. Older people may be less zero-sum because they have experienced more economic growth in their youth. The study of zero-sum thinking may help to understand some (perhaps puzzling) policy preferences in the United States. “It helps rationalise why in the US certain groups that stand to benefit economically from government redistribution – white, rural and older populations – tend to oppose government redistribution, while those that stand to lose – urban and younger populations – tend to support it.” It also explains some divisions within parties.

Although zero-sum thinkers in the US tend to vote more Democrat, the policy conclusions are not clear-cut. The authors of the report insist that zero-sum thinking does not directly translate into voting for (redistributionist) Democrats over Republicans. It is not a party issue. They recall that in 2016 there was a significant vote shift of 13% from Obama supporters and 12% from Bernie Sanders supporters to Trump, whom these voters saw as more zero-sum, which the then presidential candidate cultivated in his rhetoric. And he won. But it contributes to social and political polarisation. For the authors, populism, conspiracy theories, and nativism are rooted in the belief that one group wins at the expense of others, be it a global elite, the “deep state,” or citizens of other countries.

The growth of the zero-sum mentality has been recorded in the crises of the 1970s and in the last two decades. According to the study, it is related to other related concepts, such as envy of other people’s success, a lack of motivation to make an effort because of the conviction that it is not rewarding, or long-term economic development.

There are also regional differences. New Yorkers are more zero-sum. But this culture’s rejection of immigration is a primary problem for Democrats, who cannot find an adequate policy, hence Biden’s renewed push for a wall with Mexico. The Republican governor of Texas’ ploy of busing thousands of illegal immigrants from the South to the Big Apple creates a problem for its residents, the city’s Democratic mayor, Eric Adams, and the Biden administration. However, the demand for immigration restrictions, according to the authors, is also present in 70 other countries.

Does it work for politics in Spain? It was probably more useful when there was more bipartisanship, or in the current bloc situation, but multipartyism can dilute it. Now, zero-sum thinking is something different from the friend/foe dichotomy seen by the political scientist Carl Schmitt, whose support for the Nazi regime was remarkable but which is very much back among scholars. Trump follows it, pitting social groups against each other and cultivating the politics of resentment, which is also behind zero-sum thinking.

Given the current crises facing the world, the natural question also arises as to how zero-sum thinking relates to views on climate change, global inequality or competition between the US and China. The data indicate the presence of a general zero-sum view in the world. International trends emerge from the study, reinforced by what is reflected in the International Values Survey which also addresses this issue. For example, citizens in developing countries, where such a mentality prevails in the majority, tend to favour international aid, that is to say, a redistribution.

This has to be confronted with the positive-sum, the idea in which all win. For instance, the Values Survey asks that “wealth can grow so that there is enough for everyone”, which is the basis for national and international cooperation (multilateralism). In fact, various economists believe that the zero-sum mentality, or zero-sum policy, holds back development and innovation. This can be applied to China and the US.

Competition with China need not inevitably lead to war. Even the great and long Cold War confrontation between the West and Russia was not properly zero-sum. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction was either positive-sum (everyone wins if they do not go to war) or negative-sum (everyone loses in a nuclear war). The Ukrainian war can be analysed as a negative-sum war in which everyone loses, even if the contenders approach it as zero-sum. The current Hamas-Israel war points to a negative sum. Legitimate self-defence is not a zero-sum concept. Nor does the doctrine of an eye for an eye. Hamas cannot destroy the State of Israel. Israel can end the destructive capacity of Hamas’s military wing, but probably only temporarily, as it will reproduce like a hydra as long as there is no comprehensive solution. Far from zero-sum.
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