07/30/2012 12:29 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2012

Economic Success Isn't a Zero-Sum Game, Just Ask Canada

A July 15 survey summarized in reports the average Canadian's wealth at $363K as opposed to the U.S. average of $319K. If capitalism builds wealth, why are Canadians wealthier than we are?

It may be because Canadians believe in cooperation -- or at the least, in not interfering with other people's good fortune -- rather than "winners vs. losers."

Where does the "winners vs. losers" attitude come from? It seems to be rooted in "zero-sum capitalism," an unspoken American point of view that there is only a given amount of wealth, and for one person to win, another has to lose. (And this is despite the American obsession with continually increasing productivity.)

You won't find the zero-sum theory in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations or The Theory of Moral Sentiments; though fully aware of human self-interest, Smith projected a gradually growing wealth embracing nations which had work ethic and skills. And that was in a static worldview -- Smith did not foresee tremendous technological progress, and would surely be perplexed that tremendous increases in efficiency have not led to greater general wealth.

You won't find the zero-sum theory in Canada either. I queried several Canadian friends over the last week, and not one could see why a co-worker losing his job would improve their lives an iota.

Nor do I remember the zero-sum theory from any of the half-dozen Western European countries I have lived in. On the contrary, the belief tends to be that what benefits my neighbor is likely to benefit me.

Statisticians cringe at the "law of averages," instead favoring the science of probability -- and probability does not say that if the other guy gets laid off, your job is safe. If the HR department puts your co-worker's name on the next bullet, probability does not say that your job is secure. This thinking is, among first-world nations, an almost uniquely American belief.

If Americans want to win, perhaps we need to give up the "If he's losing, I must be winning" theory of capitalism. Because right now Americans are looking more and more like "losers" in both the world media and their own eyes -- a long-term trend that can be reversed, if kicking other people in the teeth comes to be seen as a short-sighted and second-rate breed of capitalism.


This is a very short essay pointing out a core psychological issue in American capitalism. It does not deal with the insatiable greed and power-lust of the 1-percenters, or Europe's own economic problems -- that is a much longer essay. This simply points out that the winner-loser paradigm leads the 99 percent to abuse each other -- much to the benefit of the 1-percenters.

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