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Archive for January 9th, 2022

There are many well-meaning people who support statist policies such as punitive taxation because they believe in the zero-sum fallacy, which is explained in this short video by Madsen Pirie of London’s Adam Smith Institute.

The zero-sum fallacy is especially noxious because it naturally leads to all sorts of misguided policies. Not just class-warfare taxation, but also protectionism and the welfare state.

But I can understand why people are drawn to such ideas. If they sincerely believe that people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk only become richer because the rest of us become poorer, it’s hard to blame them.

This is why I repeatedly share evidence showing that the zero-sum fallacy is, well, a fallacy.

Indeed, one very powerful lesson from the above examples is that poor people have been huge winners from economic growth.

As shown by U.S. Census Bureau data, there’s a strong correlation between rising income and falling income among all groups.

Given the importance of this issue, let’s take a closer look at the zero-sum fallacy.

In an article for the Foundation for Economic Education, John Williams used the example of a poker game to explain this cornerstone of bad economics.

Economic activity is depicted in terms of a poker game. One player’s chips are observed to have increased. Immediately one concludes that some other player has lost chips. Poker is, as they say, a zero-sum game: Gains enjoyed by one party must be balanced by losses suffered by another. So it is, people embracing the fallacies of “static wealth” and “the zero-sum game” insist, with economic exchanges. “Winners” must be balanced by corresponding “losers.” …According to the mercantilists, wealth was a constant, a given—like the chips in a poker game. If one community—and typically the mercantilists thought in terms of communities—improved its overall economic situation, another community must have lost out. …What Adam Smith perceived, essentially, was first that “wealth” was not something static and given like gold, or, indeed, poker chips, but rather consisted of goods and services that could be created, and second that both parties to an economic exchange could improve their respective situations. …There are two winners, not one. This is a positive-sum, rather than a gem-sum game.

This type of thinking may even be hard-wired in our brains, as explained by Professor Paul Rubin of Emory University in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

…the worldview of Marxists and woke leftists alike is fundamentally primitive. …It is the economic view of the world that evolved in our brains before the development of the modern economy. …Zero-sum thinking was well-adapted to this world. Since there was no economic growth, incomes and wealth didn’t grow. If one person had access to more food or other goods, or greater access to females, it was likely because of expropriation from others. Since there was little capital, a “labor theory of value”—the idea that all value is created by labor alone—would have been appropriate… Adam Smith and other economists challenged this worldview in the 18th century. They taught that specialization of labor was valuable, that capital was productive, and that labor and capital could work together to increase income. …the creation of wealth would benefit everyone in a society, not only the wealthy. …Members of the woke left want to return to policies based on this primitive economic thinking. One of their major errors is thinking that the world is zero-sum. …Dislike of the rich makes sense in a world where one can become rich only by exploiting others, but not in a society full of creativity and useful inventions.

Prof. Rubin also wrote about this topic back in 2010.

P.S. The good news is that very few left-leaning economists believe in the zero-sum fallacy. They recognize that growth benefits all income groups. Where they go wrong is thinking that bigger government is needed for growth and/or thinking that less growth is okay if rich people suffer more than poor people (they tend to be so fixated on inequality that they overlook very good news).

P.P.S. Just as poor people aren’t poor because of rich people (at least the ones that get rich by markets rather than cronyism), poor nations aren’t poor because of rich nations.

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