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On the Mother of All Questions
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On the Mother of All Questions

Freedom’s answer to zero-sum thinking.

Picture via Getty Images.

Dear Reader (even those of you who read the six lessons of the Austrian economic school this past week), 

I rarely sit down to write an ambitious G-File. I don’t mean that I write the ambitious G-Files standing up; I mean that I usually start with something minor and then things get out of hand. It’s sorta like I say to myself, “I’ll just have this one mozzarella stick,” from the all-you-can-eat buffet and a few hours later find myself bloated and sweaty, belt unbuckled, with a nervous wait staff wondering if they should call somebody to remove the dude wallowing in his own crapulence. 

But today, I’m heading into the buffet eyes open. Whether the trip will succeed—on my terms or yours—I have no idea. But here we go. And let me warn you in advance: This is going to be a long one because I have some stuff I need to get out of my cabeza.

I want to offer a provisional answer to “the social question.” 

For students of Western intellectual history, the social questionsoziale Fragequestion sociale, sociale vraagstuk in German, French, and Dutch, respectively—was arguably the central topic in the wake of the Enlightenment. I have no estimate for how many tens of thousands of essays, books, papal pronouncements, speeches, sermons, reports, and other tracts were dedicated to the social question from the beginning of the 19th century through the middle of the 20th (and even to the present). Virtually all revolutionary and reform movements conceived of themselves as the living embodiment of their answer to it. 

What was the question being asked? Essentially, “How should we live?” The key word here is “we.” Because the social question aimed at how all of society should be organized, de novo. This was a live question because the Old Order was clearly on the way out, even if various monarchs, emperors, and theologians hadn’t gotten the memo yet. 

Normally, I’m interested in the philosophical arguments about all this. But I want to focus on something different: Numbers.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the Industrial Revolution was firing on all cylinders. Along with the smokestacks and indoor plumbing, a flood of data came with the flood of industrial laborers and sewage. In Revolutionary Spring, a magisterial history of the revolutions of 1848, Christopher Clark writes that “The ‘Social Question’ that preoccupied mid-nineteenth-century Europeans was a constellation of real-world problems, but it was also a way of seeing.” That way of seeing was born of the new science of statistics that illuminated every aspect of public policy in ways never imagined before. “The measurement of correlations based on large datasets allowed the exposure of provocative causal claims, about the effect, for example, of income on mortality,” Clark writes. “Once this paradigm shift in social understanding had taken place, there was no going back.”

Clark’s discussion of this shift is brilliant and illuminating, but I think he might be underselling it. I think the explosion in statistical thinking had a causal role in the idea that God was dead, as Nietzsche would infamously claim a generation later. The ability to “see” society as an organic body or machine—the metaphors varied—stemmed from the fact that statistics granted experts what they thought was an omniscient view of the inner workings of the economy. Datasets were like X-Ray glasses, engineering schematics, or microscopes, allowing experts to “see” how things really worked. This way of seeing things created a whole class of “social scientists” who believed they now had the tools required for “mastery”—to borrow Walter Lippmann’s phrase—over the operations of society. Auguste Comte coined the term “sociology” in 1838 to describe this new scientific approach to studying and perfecting society. “Social scientist” didn’t appear until the 1850s and “social engineer”—which was not a derogatory term—emerged in 1899. 

Statistical analysis was intoxicating. Believing they now had a God’s eye view of society, many started to assume they had God-like powers to guide, shape, and ultimately design society. “To the practitioners of such a science would fall the task of divining and managing the needs of a future society,” Clark writes. And elsewhere he notes, “this was the era in which the term ‘Utopia’ ceased to denote an impossible place in the present and came to denote a possible place in the future.”

Karl Marx is simply the most famous of the first—but not the last—generation of experts and intellectuals who believed they now had the tools to do the things they thought God would do if He existed or actually cared about the organic mass of humanity called “society.”  

For understandable reasons, this is when the obsession with economic “inequality” emerges. After all, the relatively recent end of serfdom or quasi-serflike status in many nations turned laborers into visible economic units. Notions of political equality—which had emerged a bit earlier—unavoidably bled into the public’s understanding of economic inequality. What good are equal political rights when the poor starve? 

When reading about this period, the pundit in me often screams at the revolutionaries and reformers: “Why do you care about inequality now?” I mean it’s not like there weren’t plenty of poor people under feudalism. Indeed, as a share of society, there were more poor people. But this misses a crucial point. In the Old Order, the status of peasants and serfs was God’s will. The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution introduced the idea that mankind was the master of its fate. The rich were rich because they were aristocrats, and aristocrats were divinely anointed. There had been a kind of social contract that made specific communities of poor people the quasi-parental responsibility of some lord, baron, or king. 

But the Industrial Revolution created a new wealthy class that could not invoke divine right or God’s will to justify their status. (Though for a while, the nouveau riche did buy aristocratic titles, which really pissed off the old guard aristocracy.) The philosophical ideas of political and economic liberty that made this new prosperity possible invited new claims that wealth and power were unjustly held. A merchant who made his own fortune was seen as less legitimate. The bourgeois were often hated from above and below as “upstarts” with undeserved privileges that came with wealth. 

If how society should be organized is an open question, surely we can organize it in a better way, where people aren’t merely politically equal, but economically equal too. This is the difference between “the social question” and the “political question.” Liberals thought the political question was more important, and they prioritized constitutions, democracy, and civil rights as the answer to it. Communists (not just the Marxists and certainly not the Bolsheviks, most of whom weren’t born yet), socialists, “republicans” (in France), and other leftist radicals may or may not have agreed with the liberals on aspects of the political question. But it was the social question, and their utopian schemes to answer it, that aroused their passion.  

Anyway, I don’t think readers will be surprised when I say I think the communist types were wrong in their utopian ambitions. But we should be fair. The social scientists were right about all sorts of things: about the need to improve public health through better hygiene, worker safety, child labor, and countless other important reforms. They were also often right on how to reform such things. They weren’t all gnostic metaphysicians and political totalitarians. 

Still, I think this way of thinking is alive and well today. It’s morphed and evolved. It uses different vocabulary. It resides in different sorts of people and leads to different arguments. But this idea that society can be remade from start, from above, endures. We see it on the post-liberal left and right, and among technocrats and social justice warriors. It’s captured in that treacly George Bernard Shaw quote, “Some men see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’” One of my chief gripes with John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” is the question-begging assumption that the best way to think about how to organize society from scratch is to start from the fallacy that we can design society from scratch. Creating a perfect world on paper, where everybody has the same interests and desires and is willing to work hand-in-hand cooperatively is actually pretty easy. Getting it off the drawing board is impossible. 

The Curse of Zero-Sum Thinking

Let’s change gears. 

I was reading about a new study on “zero-sum thinking.” In economics, there’s the zero-sum fallacy. In short, it’s the view that an economic benefit for one person is an economic loss for another. 

For all of Marx’s modern vocabulary, he believed in pre-modern “folk economics.” Economic exchanges, for Marx and countless others of his era, always involved a winner and a loser. That’s the heart of Marx’s “labor theory of value.” And it’s ridiculous. If you’re hungry, you might buy a cheeseburger. The guy making cheeseburgers has many cheeseburgers. You give him money. He’s happy to get your money. You are happy to get a cheeseburger. Everybody wins. If you stole a cheeseburger, that would be zero-sum. The same holds at scale. If a thousand people buy cheeseburgers, the owner of the burger joint gets richer, and the burger buyers don’t get poorer—they get cheeseburgers. In fact, the more cheeseburgers the guy makes, the more incentive he has to make the cheeseburgers cheaper because his unit costs decrease. If he tries to hike prices, customers go down the street and buy cheaper burgers. I could illustrate this with a lot more sophistication, but I think most readers understand the basic point. 

But zero-sum thinking stops being a fallacy when there’s a static or fixed number of cheeseburgers. You go through the drive-thru and order cheeseburgers for the four people in the car. But, because they always screw you at the drive-thru, they only put three in the bag. This is how “the social question” crowd looks at economics: Since there’s a finite amount of wealth, everyone deserves an equal share. If we’re all equal, if we all have the same rights, why should “they” get more wealth than “us.” Or “me.”

One of my ideological fixations is that a lot of “modern” ways of thinking are actually pre-modern ideas dressed up in new-fangled clothing. Socialism is a fancy version of the folk economics of the tribe. According to the tribal mind, everyone should share in provisions equally. Never mind that real tribes didn’t work this way. The big man or the hunter got the best slices of the mastodon. But this is the way we think about families. Pretty much all decent families operate on some version of Marx’s utopian vision of “from each according to their ability to each according to their need.” 

Everyone is equal—in the ways that really matter—in the family. The kid with special needs isn’t told to suck it up. If society or “the nation” is really just an extended family, it should operate like one. I think this was the underlying basic assumption behind Babeuf, Marx, Saint-Simon, Comte, and countless others. We sometimes get distracted by all of the historic and political connotations of the word “socialism.” We think of bad political movements or specific economic programs and not the core psychological concept behind it. The key word is “social.” Its resonance gets lost, but when people talked about socializing resources they meant treating all of society like a giant family. And why wouldn’t you? The old hierarchies of nobility, caste, and class were losing their hold on the intellectuals (it would take a while longer for the masses) and they were convinced a new age of possibilities was dawning. Why assume the new aristocracies of wealth are the only way to organize society?

I have no idea if I have any readers left at this point, but I’m going to press on. 

The study I was reading about wasn’t really about economics (though I think economic illiteracy is part of the problem). It’s about culture and politics. Here’s the abstract for “Zero-Sum Thinking and the Roots of U.S. Political Divides”:

We investigate the origins and implications of zero-sum thinking — the belief that gains for one individual or group tend to come at the cost of others. Using a new survey of a representative sample of 20,400 US residents, we measure zero-sum thinking, political preferences, policy views, and a rich array of ancestral information spanning four generations. We find that a more zero-sum mindset is strongly associated with more support for government redistribution, race- and gender-based affirmative action, and more restrictive immigration policies. Furthermore, zero-sum thinking can be traced back to the experiences of both the individual and their ancestors, encompassing factors such as the degree of intergenerational upward mobility they experienced, whether they immigrated to the United States or lived in a location with more immigrants, and whether they were enslaved or lived in a location with more enslavement.

The authors find, unsurprisingly, that people with zero-sum mindsets are much more in favor of government programs that redistribute wealth, which partially explains why zero-sum thinkers are slightly more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. But they note: “While a zero-sum mindset generally correlates with stronger alignment with the Democratic Party (and weaker alignment with the Republican Party), it is not primarily a partisan issue. Instead, it helps explain variation in views within parties.”

And that’s where things start to get interesting. This study shows how the zero-sum economic fallacy can fuel a cultural one—and vice versa. 

People with zero-sum mindsets, whether Democrat or Republican, are more likely to oppose increased immigration. This makes intuitive sense. If you see jobs as a finite resource, the argument that “they’re taking our jobs” becomes more persuasive. And in fairness, I think the causality can go both ways. If you live in a working-class community and you see immigrants “taking” jobs, that can trigger a zero-sum mindset to take over. And let’s not single out working-class people. Affirmative action in higher education is something of a static-pie situation; there are only so many slots at Harvard or Yale. The policy of favoring some groups over others feels very zero-sum to applicants (and their parents!) when you believe, rightly or wrongly, that you were denied a slot because practitioners of racial distributivism decide they have “too many” Asians, whites, Jews, whatever. The authors write: 

We highlight that zero-sum thinking can help us understand some (perhaps puzzling) policy and political preferences in the United States. It helps rationalize why certain groups who stand to gain economically from government redistribution – white, rural, and older populations – tend to oppose government redistribution, while those who stand to lose – urban and younger populations – tend to support it.

Identity politics is a culturally zero-sum way of thinking about society. What’s good for that group comes at the expense of my group. This is an ancient human sentiment, found across cultures and history. It drives historic enmities and rivalries between ethnic groups, nation-states, religions, and economic classes. It has always been an indispensable component of antisemitism, and I would argue it’s what drives a good deal of Israel hatred. Indeed, it’s ancient because it stems from human nature. It’s an evolved trait. It’s also a sin. 

Envy, which Thomas Aquinas defined as sadness for the good fortune of others, has always been a major psychological component in the appeal of redistributive politics.

Envy has hobbled whole societies. Helmut Schoeck writes in his brilliant, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior that in primitive societies, “No one dares to show anything that might lead people to think he was better off.” He adds: “Innovations are unlikely. Agricultural methods remain traditional and primitive, to the detriment of the whole village, because every deviation from previous practice comes up against the limitations set by envy.”

But we don’t need biblical concepts to see this sort of thing. Shorn of euphemism, machine politics is full of zero-sum tribalism. A party boss who rewards the Irish but screws the Italians is practicing identity politics. And patronage jobs are nothing if not zero-sum.

In the decade after 9/11, a lot of people on the right got very, very, worked up over communities in America that were allegedly trying to establish “Sharia law.” I never really figured out how real this was. But in retrospect, it seems that at least part of the panic over it had less to do with a national security threat and more to do with a zero-sum fear that a “win” for Muslims was a loss for Christians. Maybe because of my Jewish heritage, I never completely understood this fear. I don’t feel like I lose anything when, say, Amish people create a new community somewhere under Amish rules. People living the way they want, so long as they abide by the law and the Constitution, doesn’t come at my expense. 

We tend to think, for understandable reasons, that identity politics is a left-wing thing. It certainly is a big part of left-wing thinking. But there’s a hell of a lot of the same kind of thinking on the right; we just use different language to describe it. White identity politics is real, but it gets more pejorative language—racism, white supremacy, etc. Similarly, feminism is considered a robust political and philosophical project, but male chauvinism or “men’s rights” is usually looked at with scorn and ridicule. Christian nationalists play many of the same games as Islamic activists, but critics of the Christian radicals are treated as enlightened by mainstream elites while critics of the Islamic radicals get called “Islamophobes.” And, duh, antisemitism is one of the oldest forms of pernicious identity politics.

Right now the right and left are ensorcelled by cultural zero-sum thinking. The fight in Congress unfolding as I write this is driven in large part by a handful of mulish right-wingers who think a win for Democrats is a loss for Republicans. Left out of the equation is the fact that what the Democrats are trying to do is help the majority of Republicans score a win for America. You can disagree on policy terms, but Marjorie Taylor Greene is not making a policy argument. She’s making a tribal one. Giving the Democrats a win is a zero-sum loss for Republicans. 

This is the culture war in miniature. Legions of people have convinced themselves that a loss for them is a win for us. Schadenfreude—joy at the misfortune of others—is the other side of the coin from envy. This is what trolling is: Making one of them sad or angry is a source of joy for us. Tearing down statues, hurling epithets, glorying in the deaths of Jews, drinking liberal tears, celebrating “their” misfortunes or being outraged by the good fortune of “them,” is a motivating passion for the left and right on cable news and social media. 

I understand that presidential elections are, in fact, zero-sum within the confines of an election. Only one can win. If one wins, the other loses. And I understand that a lot of people think that if “they” win not only will “we” lose, but America will be “over.”  But this is the fruit of the zero-sum mind. And it’s nonsense. Unless, of course, the people who believe it are determined to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

So here is my provisional answer to the social question. Kobayashi Maru the test. The moment you agree to participate in a no-win game, you agree to lose. When we ask the social question, we agree to search for an answer that doesn’t exist. It’s a utopian question because the people who ask it demand a utopian answer. The answer to the political question is liberal democratic capitalism. And that means the only possible answer to the social question is plural. There is no one right answer because people are free to live as they see fit within the rules laid out by the liberal political order. The Amish answer to the social question is the right answer—for the Amish.  

This isn’t a call for libertarianism or libertinism on steroids. Freedom must allow for people to live, work, and play in groups, communities, associations, with rules more robust than “do whatever you want.” But freedom also means that if you’re part of some group where people do not live the way you want to, you have the freedom to leave it. You don’t have the right to bend it to your individual demands and desires. Google can fire, and universities can expel, radical brats. And radical brats can quit Google or transfer out of Columbia. 

In economics and culture, freedom is the enemy of and answer to the zero-sum mindset. Illiberals in all parties are not content to live the way they want to, or even to merely argue against those living the wrong way. They want to impose the right way to live on everybody, in part because in their zero-sum vision, if the wrong people thrive the right people suffer. But also because they see power as zero-sum—either we have it or they do. And that is the most intolerable thing of all for such people. 

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: So the nearly 20-year-old Honda Element conked out at the dog park last week. I ended up having to walk the girls back to the house, which is fine, except I only had one leash for the Dingo. But Pippa has become quite a good girl about heeding instructions at crosswalks and the like. Because it took a few days to get it fixed, we had to confine ourselves to a lot of neighborhood walks. Zoë is fine with that; she likes to mark her territory. But, no doubt because of the omnipresence of mean dogs, Pippa is always reluctant and will only carry her ball. We finally got the car back and things are getting back to normal with morning sorties and fetching sessions. Poor Pippa also had to go to the vet this week for some glandular tending (less said about that the better). She was so upset about the trip she wouldn’t look at us for a while. But she’s fine now (and smells much better!). Gracie has gotten into the habit of settler-colonizing the Fair Jessica’s lap every night. This arouses ample jealousy from the Dingo. Also, the Dingo is becoming ever more promiscuous with her arooing. I’m a little disappointed with both Zoë and Gracie because we confirmed this morning we have a mouse problem. Mice set up shop behind our stove and in the fuse box area in my office. If their defense, I don’t think they’ve ventured into the house proper. No droppings attest to that. Still, having a fearsome cat and a killer Dingo should be enough to dissuade vermin to live anywhere near chez Goldberg. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.