Notable: The Zero-Sum Game Fallacy

A large part of the problem we have in the world today is that we truly and really believe in the zero sum economic fallacy. That is, there is only so much “stuff” available in the world, and the only question is how to divide it up. Part of this comes from our rather static view of the environment —that every resource comes in a fixed amount, that only one resource can be used for any specific objective, and so once we run out of a particular resource, there will be no more, and no alternative.

All of these assumptions have been proven untrue many, many times in the past. And yet we go on believing them. I ran across a perfect illustration of the zero sum game just yesterday, along with the solution to the problem.

Imagine this: a teacher tells her high school students that they are going to enjoy a chocolate cake, while learning about food distribution and economics. (As a former high school teacher, I assure you, most of the students heard nothing past the word, “cake”.)

The teacher then divides the students into three groups. In her class of 30 students, one group is made up of 4 students, a second group is 10 students and the third group is 16. The teacher then sets the cake before them, and announces that she will divide the cake according to food distribution norms among “first, second and third world countries”.

The group of four students will then enjoy half the cake. The second group of students will get about three-quarters of the remaining cake, and the smallest piece will go to the group of 16 students. Of course, protests will follow, along with a discussion of how unfair it all is.

The goal of the teacher will be, of course, to see if the students with the most cake will share their cake with the other two groups. If they don’t, that choice will be discussed as well. The students will come away with the idea that everyone will have an equal piece of cake if only those with more share what they have.

This is a noble lesson, and we should of course share what we have, regardless of how much that is. (After all, Scripture doesn’t encourage only the rich to tithe.) Unfortunately, the lesson is wrong: it’s based on the idea that there is only one cake, and we can’t possibly get any more.

I have to admit, that as a teacher, I used lessons similar to this one. And never once, did I or any of my students suggest a most obvious answer: bake another cake.


Bake another cake.

But what if there is no more flour, the environmentalist asks? Then grow some.

But what if there is no more farmland on which to grow some, the environmentalist asks?

My answer? Don’t be ridiculous. If you really believe there “isn’t any more farmland,” or that the Earth’s resources are a fixed set, then you’ve bought into one of the ten biggest lies perpetrated in the history of mankind. Wasting is dumb, but so is this perpetually depressive nonsense about how there’s no other cake to bake.

We don’t face a Malthusian catastrophe.

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