Life is not a zero-sum game

16 Aug 2022

random trip report

I was having lunch with my friend Ray recently, and he lamented that having another cup of sweetened cardamom tea was a trade-off: on one hand it would give him pleasure, on the other hand it would make him a tiny bit fatter. He reflected for a moment, then posited that almost everything in life is a trade-off.

(A 'trade-off' is something that benefits you in one way but harms you proportionally in another way. Or it harms someone else proportionally. If I spend more on entertainment, I have less to spend on food; if I make more money, someone else makes less; if the Giants beat the Dodgers, some fans are happy and others are unhappy.)

If everything is a trade-off, then life is a zero-sum game.

I thought about this for a moment and told Ray that I completely disagreed. Many things in my life - the most important things, in large part - are not trade-offs; they're win-win situations, where everyone comes out ahead.

For example - I said - suppose I pay taxes that fund a welfare program. As a result, when I walk around my neighborhood, people are happier and friendlier. There are fewer angry people, fewer homeless, less crime. This increases my happiness, more than offsetting the monetary cost to me. And it increases the happiness of the welfare recipients. It's a win-win, at least from my viewpoint.

Ray responded by saying:

  • If people get governmental assistance, they'll stop working, the economy will slow down, and everyone will suffer.
  • A welfare program - like all government programs - will be rife with inefficiency and fraud. It will accomplish little and will be a waste of money.

These arguments miss the point, but they shed light on Ray's thought process. I went home and thought about the sources and nature of our disagreement.

Socialism and Individualism

After some thought, I concluded that my disagreement with Ray reflects two differing world views, which I'll call socialism and individualism.

Socialism, as I use the term here, has two main components, which are distinct but (I think) generally occur together:

  1. The happiness of a socialist is largely a function of their human environment - the society they live in, on both local and global scales. If society is happy and healthy, a socialist is happy.
  2. A socialist believes that governmental mechanisms (like a guaranteed minimum standard of living, nationalized health care and insurance, free education, strong evironmental regulation, and so on) can address social problems (like poverty and global warming).

Individualism is the opposite:

  1. The happiness of an individualist is mostly a function of how much they themselves own and consume. They don't care about or like society as a whole. They build barriers to isolate themselves from it: walled compounds, gated communities. They avoid face-to-face interactions with strangers.
  2. They distrust and dislike government. They assume that governments are inherently bloated and incompetent. They think that the free market will solve social problems.

Socialism and individualism are opposite ends of a continuum. Everyone has some of each. I'm almost entirely a socialist. Most of the things that are important to me are win/win situations, and do not involve money or possessions. For example, one of my main pleasures in life is organizing, hosting, attending, and playing in amateur music concerts. I hike a lot; it's free, fun, and good for my health.

I recently traveled to San Sebastian, Spain and was struck by the vibe in the streets. People like each other. They gather in public places and rub elbows. They talk, they smile. No judgement, no pretenses, no suspicion. Very, very different from the U.S. Being in a place like San Sebastian increases my happiness by an amount that I can't really put a dollar figure on.

The two views correspond roughly to politics: conservatives and libertarians tend to be individualists, and liberals tend to be socialists. But - as with Ray - individualist traits occur in lots of people who would describe themselves as liberal.

Why is individualism winning?

Humans, I believe, are innately socialist. We evolved as social animals, in families, tribes, and larger social units. We're the dominant species in large part because we learned to cooperate.

I think that socialists are generally happier than individualists; they see life as an opportunity rather than a struggle.

So why are there so few socialists today, at least in the U.S.? What makes people turn to the Dark Side of individualism?

Capitalism is the main reason. In fact, it's capitalism's job to make life into a zero-sum game: to make everything into a product, and to push up the price to the point where you think twice about buying it.

Capitalism is based on competition. It pits everyone against everyone else, even their own employer and co-workers. It makes people distrust and dislike others.

Technology, in combination with capitalism, has contributed to the rise of individualism. With the advent of TV in the 1950s, Americans began staying home more, watching TV first as a family and later (when TVs became cheap) as individuals. Live entertainment (like Vaudeville) declined. Community-scale social activities (like square dances and quilting bees) disappeared. People stopped rubbing elbows.

More recently, with the advent of social media and smartphones, things have gotten much worse. Even in public, people are glued to their phones. And social media has allowed the spread of right-wing misinformation that encourages anti-socialist thinking.

My friend Ellie points out that attractive, pedestrian-friendly public spaces - plazas, pedestrian-only streets - are a key ingredient for elbow-rubbing. Here in the car-worshipping U.S. we haven't figured out how to create these.

In a society without meaningful safety nets - like the U.S. - most people live in dire fear of poverty - of ending up destitute, homeless, and starving. Their focus becomes the accumulation of wealth. No amount of money is enough to completely guarantee security, so they keep amassing more and more. Anything that might take away their money - taxes, charity - is anathema to them.

This economic system, in combination with an ineffective revenge-based penal system, breeds crime. People - encouraged by NRA and right-wing brainwashing - come to think of the world as a dangerous place, and to distrust, fear, and hate most of society.

As large-scale social structures (governments and religions) have developed, they've become increasingly top-heavy and authoritarian. People feel like subjects, rather than members and participants. They stop trusting the institutions.

Many Americans also don't trust government because, by and large, our government is pretty bad. We're taught that the American democratic system is the best the world has ever seen; we accept this, and we extrapolate to the belief that it's the best possible form of government, and that there are no real alternatives.

(This is not the case, of course. Many countries have variants of elective democracy that work much better than ours. And I argue elsewhere that an approach to government based on science could work better than any of these.)

The Arts (and sports)

The arts (music, painting, etc.) are a bellwether of a society's world view. For a socialist, the arts are something you do yourself, preferably together with others, and that you share with others. You meet to play music and listen to others play. You make paintings and give them to friends. These are canonical win/win situations.

For an individualist, the arts are something you buy. You pay $80 to go to an arena and hear amplified music from a distance. You go to an art gallery, buy a painting, and gloat if its value increases.

In a world of individualists, people work so hard to amass wealth that they have no mental or psychic energy with which to create art.

Governments in more socialist societies (like Europe) fund the arts at a much greater level than in the U.S. And social policies like the 35-hour work week and 6 weeks of vacation make it possible for people to pursue art creation (and outdoor exercise, and other win/win activies).

Sports are analogous. Capitalism turns sports into a zero-sum product. Being a 'sports fan' means watching football (and ads) on TV, or paying big bucks to go to a game. For a socialist, sports are something you DO - for free, with other people, win-win. Ironically, Ray's Sunday softball game is a perfect example of this. Maybe he's more of a socialist than he knows.


The ideas of socialism and individualism, as I've outlined them here, provide a useful framework for understanding social and political trends. Ray is right; life is a zero-sum game - for individualists. But for socialists, the more you give, the more you get.

I wish everyone in the world were a socialist. We'd all be happier and better off. And more importantly, I think that the human race can survive only if socialism triumphs over individualism. The major threats to human survival (overpopulation, global warming, nuclear war) are all exacerbated by individualism, and ameliorated by socialism.

But it's hard to be a socialist if you have to worry about where your next meal is coming from. So to save the world, we must fix our government/economic system.

Copyright 2024 © David P. Anderson