Presidential Candidates Play Zero-Sum Games

The following article originally was published by Grand Junction’s Free Press on April 14, 2008.

Presidential candidates play zero-sum games

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

When you walk into any store and trade your money for a product, often both you and the clerk will say, “Thank you.” The reason for this is that, in a voluntary exchange, both parties benefit. The same is true at your job. Employers value the labor of employees and pay for it, while employees value the paycheck and other benefits enough to do the work.

In a free-market system that bars fraud, stops the initiation of force, and protects people’s property rights, one person’s gain is another person’s gain. And when people can count on the legal protection of their property, they invest in new skills, machines, factories, technologies, and other capital. Over time, this raises people’s productivity and real wages, leading to a growing economy.

A thief rejects mutually-beneficial exchange. If a hold-up man takes $100 from you by force, then the thief is better off financially for the moment, but you are worse off by the same amount. Such a situation is sometimes called a “zero-sum game.” Some people gain at the expense of others.

When a society becomes plagued by zero-sum interactions, the result is economic destruction. To the extent that people fear that the fruits of their labor will be taken from them by force, they stop producing, trading, and investing. For example, look at much of Africa.

Unfortunately, while the United States was founded on the ideals of liberty, government limited to the protection of rights, and secure property, today’s presidential candidates actively promote the zero-sum games of political controls.

In his famous speech on race, Barack Obama worried that, for many working people, “opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.” He added, “the path to a more perfect union… requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”

But by “investing” Obama does not mean that individuals should be free to invest in their children’s education or a company, or even to donate voluntarily to charity. Americans don’t need Obama to tell them that getting an education, contracting for quality health care, and saving for the future are good ideas.

No, what Obama means by “investing” is that he wants to take more of your money by force and give it to others, of course with a huge chunk taken out to pay the salaries of bureaucrats.

For example, Obama wants to socialize medicine. That means that you will have to pay through the nose in taxes in order to wait in line to get “free” health care that sucks. (For some of the problems that other countries are experiencing with health care, see Michael Tanner’s recent Cato paper, “The Grass is Not Always Greener.”)

Forced welfare, as opposed to voluntary charity, tends to promote dependency and irresponsible behaviors. And tax-funded “investment” in jobs means siphoning money out of the productive economy to reward special interests.

In other words, most of Obama’s policies promote zero-sum games, in which some gain at the expense of others.

But it’s not like John McCain is much better. Last November, Matt Welch wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “McCain… wants to restore your faith in the U.S. government by any means necessary, even if that requires thousands of more military deaths, national service for civilians and federal micromanaging of innumerable private transactions. He’ll kick down the doors of boardroom and bedroom, mixing Democrats’ nanny-state regulations with the GOP’s red-meat paternalism in a dangerous brew of government activism.”

To pick out one of those examples, forcing people to “serve” others (a practice we thought was outlawed in the United States) fails to recognize the benefits of liberty and mutually-beneficial exchanges. In a free society, people are free to give of their time and money to others. But the choice is left to them, and people are not free to forcibly give away the time or money that belongs to somebody else.

McCain asks you to “sacrifice your life” to “a cause greater than yourself.” In general, we’re opposed to human sacrifices, but especially when a political leader defines how and for what you are to sacrifice yourself. Didn’t we already do the century in which political leaders asked their countrymen to sacrifice their lives to the state?

Given McCain’s guiding principle of sacrifice, we expect him to be a fair-weather friend — at best — to voluntary, mutually-beneficial, free-market exchanges, despite his occasionally market-friendly rhetoric.

We don’t know who will become the next president. But we fear that whoever wins will do his or her damnedest to make sure that the rest of us lose.