Competition and the Zero-Sum Fallacy
Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, many political actors, too many intellectuals, and much of the general public share a false and destructive belief about the nature of exchange: that economic activity is something akin to a battle or a full-fledged war in which the goal is for one group to “defeat” another. We see this mentality across the political spectrum.
Think of the ways Trump and others on the political right talk about international trade. The basic framework is to see other countries as enemies in competition with us. The goal of trade policy is somehow to “beat” them, because if they are “winning” by selling us a lot of stuff, we must be losing. The result is mistaken policies such as Trump’s proposed 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports.
We see the same us-and-them thinking on the left, where progressives perceive a persistent battle between capital and labor, each trying to defeat the other. For leftists, capital is always the winner and labor is always the loser — unless the government intervenes. The appropriate policy response, from this perspective, is either to limit capital’s gains or, if you’re a bit more radical, to help labor vanquish capital once and for all. One of the related beliefs on the left is that the wealth of capital comes at the expense of labor. That is, capital’s gains come from labor’s losses.
Both arguments share the underlying belief that the winners’ gains must come at the losers’ expense. Economic activity, and specifically wealth creation, is at best seen as what economists would call a “zero-sum game.”
In zero-sum games, the winners’ gains do, in fact, come at the losers’ expense. Think of a poker game where each person buys $100 worth of chips. If there are five players, there is $500 to be apportioned out. If the game ends with me having $250, then the remaining $250 will be split among the other four players. My gain of $150 comes from others’ losses. Playing the game creates winners and losers because it simply reallocates fixed wealth around the group.
Market economies, however, are not zero-sum games. Consider the profits of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or any of thousands of lesser-known inventors who have become fabulously wealthy by providing us with products and services that we value. Their gains are not our losses. To the contrary: markets are what we call positive-sum games. Entrepreneurs make huge profits, but they can only do so by providing us with products and services we value more than what we give up to obtain them.
Every time you get something yummy from a food truck, for example, you demonstrate the mutual benefit of trade: the truck owner gets your money and you get something delicious to eat. You both gave up something you valued less than the thing you acquired. Trade is made of win.
So when people complain that the United States is “losing to China,” presumably because we have a trade deficit with them, they are falling for the zero-sum fallacy. A trade deficit simply means that we are buying more of their goods and services than they are of ours. This doesn’t mean “they” are winning. First, there’s no “they.” The winners are individual Chinese sellers and the people they employ on one side, and individual US consumers on the other. Portraying trade as a contest between countries is deceptive: trade is always among specific individuals and groups.
Second, both sides are winning. Chinese sellers get US dollars and US consumers get products they like at low prices, which frees up income to buy other goods and services, creating jobs in other sectors of the US economy. Those US dollars, it is worth noting, make their way back to the US as Chinese firms invest in US assets, funding everything from private-sector construction to a small part of our government debt. The dollars we spend on Chinese goods do not just disappear; they come back as investments in US capital goods.
It would be more accurate to see what’s happening here as Chinese sellers arriving at the US border with boatloads of cheap goods for us to buy. Under what logic are we made worse off by the “gift” of lower priced goods?
I suspect that much of the zero-sum thinking we see with trade is based on a misplaced application of the idea of “competition.” Competition in the market does share a number of features with the sorts of competition that people are more familiar with: sports, games, and war.
All are what F.A. Hayek called “discovery procedures.” We play games as a way to discover which individual or team is best. There’s no way to know who the best hockey team is without the discovery process of the Stanley Cup playoffs. We can’t know the answer just by looking at statistics, as every major upset in sports history demonstrates. In markets, we discover who is producing the best product at the best price by letting sellers and buyers compete. One might say the same about war.
Despite these similarities, however, there’s a critical difference: athletic competition and war are zero-sum and negative-sum games, respectively. In sports, one team wins and the other loses, or there’s a tie. Both of those outcomes are zero-sum. War destroys human and physical capital, and even when one country “wins,” everyone is worse off, making it negative-sum.
Market competition, by contrast, is positive-sum. When sellers compete with other sellers to keep prices low, it’s true that some sellers will win and others will lose, but in that process, all of the buyers win, too, not to mention the other people who will receive more income because the buyers who are paying less for the original product can now buy their products. Wealth is not redistributed, as in a poker game, and there is not an offsetting loser for each winner, as in sports. Instead, additional wealth is created. That makes it a positive-sum game.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
CEOs are used to seeing this process from the narrow perspective of their firms, which often do lose in competition with other firms, leading them to believe the same principles apply between countries, or for the economy as a whole. This may explain why Donald Trump thinks he can “defeat” China in the same way he might outcompete another firm. It also explains why Sanders can believe that we are in a competition to preserve jobs. By focusing on the growth in manufacturing jobs in China, Sanders sees trade as “stealing” US jobs rather than being part of the larger competitive process responsible for the overall growth in US jobs and wealth.
Yes, markets share much with other forms of competition, but the key difference is the one that matters. Markets are positive-sum games, and they are not about one country, one group, or one class defeating another. Competition and trade are the way we produce cooperation and mutual benefit. Failing to understand this important difference easily opens the door to demagogues on both the right and the left.
Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.