Living in A Zero-Sum Society

Are we stuck in a “zero-sum zero-growth” vicious circle? I personally do not think so. But what do you think?

A friend of mine (who will remain nameless to protect the scoundrel) recently told me a joke that, strangely, I found both funny and offensive. It goes something like this. Once upon a time, a Mauritian politician was approached by a Malagasy mpamosavy who offered to grant him one wish for free, but on one condition: whatever wish he asks for, his main political rival will get the double. After thinking about it and consulting a lot of people, the politician told the witch: “I accept, please give me US$100 million and my rival US$200 million. We have made a deal and agreed to share the money.” Some time later, the same mpamosavy visited a Malagasy politician and offered the same deal: one wish granted for free, but his main rival will get the double of what he asks for. After thinking about it and consulting his most trusted advisors, our politician agreed and told the mpamosavy: “Please, I would like you to cut off my left hand.

After telling the story, my friend observed that a lot of Malagasy had a “zero-sum mentality” and that Madagascar was in the process of becoming a “zero-sum society”. As any self-respecting Malagasy would when hearing similar allegations, I went on the defensive and accused him of being offensive and prejudiced. As I was starting to deliver my “Masina ny Tanindrazana” rant, I realized that I had no idea what those expressions actually meant. So, I stopped my monologue and asked him to kindly explain what he meant by “zero-sum mentality” and “zero-sum society”.

According to my friend, a person with a zero-sum mentality behaves as if every interaction he has with others is a zero-sum game. That is, any interaction will result in either “I win and you lose” or, “you win and I lose”. This person does not believe in the existence of any mutually beneficial “win-win” collaborative arrangements. If he is involved in any given transaction and sees that the other side is doing well, he will automatically think that it was at his expense. A zero-sum mentality can make a person defensive, cautious, and even paranoid. His main concern is to prevent others from taking advantage of him (“rule or be ruled”). He would second-guess anyone’s motives, believing that they are always out to get him. In some cases, he would actively prevent anyone from moving too far ahead, believing that one can only prosper at the expense of others. My friend claims to know a lot of Malagasy, including politicians, who fit this description. Do you? I know maybe a couple.

The real trouble is that this can actually lead to a nasty and vicious circle, in which a zero-sum mentality is both a cause and a consequence of zero (or low) growth prospects. On one hand, an atmosphere of distrust and destructive competition will easily emerge in a society where this type of mentality dominates. This will stifle personal initiatives, discourage mutually beneficial cooperation, and constrain economic growth. On the other hand (assuming it has not been cut off by the mpamosavy yet), a zero-sum society and zero-sum mentality are more likely to emerge in an environment of scarcity where the prospects for growth are perceived to be limited. The focus is on how to compete to get a larger share of the cake (“more cake for you means less cake for me”), and not how to grow the size of the cake.

So, what do you think? Is Madagascar really becoming a zero-sum society, as my friend (who is actually a really nice guy) asserted? Are we becoming stuck in that “zero-sum zero-growth” vicious circle? I personally do not think so — there is plenty of mutually beneficial collaboration going on in our society. But if I am wrong, we really need to get ourselves out of that circle. We need to grow out of the “your win is my loss” mentality and embrace a “you win, I win, and we all win” attitude. We have to believe in the existence of positive complementarity among the members of our society, and that other people’s success can benefit ourselves. We have to learn to tolerate, enjoy, and celebrate other people’s success.

Now, if a mpamosavy approached you in the middle of the night, and made the same offer he made to the politicians, what would you say?