The Zero-Sum Fallacy

by Tim Harding B.Sc., B.A.

(An edited version of this article was published in
“The Skeptic” Vol 32, No. 4, December 2012)

In game theory, ‘zero-sum’ describes a game where one player’s gain is a loss to other players; and the total amount of the available money or playing chips is fixed. A logical fallacy often occurs when this particular game theory is applied to real life economic or political discussions amongst non-economists – leading to false beliefs that the amount of wealth or jobs in the economy is fixed.

This mistaken view is illustrated by expressions such as ‘a larger slice of the pie’, which imply that ‘the pie’ has a fixed size and that net welfare cannot be improved by growing a bigger pie.  That is, that people can only become richer by making others poorer; or that increasing labour productivity or immigration causes unemployment.  In economics, this is known as the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ or more generally as the ‘zero sum fallacy’.

Many economic situations are not zero-sum, since valuable goods and services can be created, destroyed, or badly allocated in a number of ways, thus creating a net gain or loss of value to various stakeholders. For example, if your house increases in value, it does not follow that somebody else’s house has decreased in value. It is possible for all houses to increase in value.

Specifically, all trade is by definition positive sum, because when two parties agree to an exchange each party must consider the goods or money it is receiving to be more valuable than the goods it is delivering. In fact, all economic exchanges must benefit both parties to the point that each party can overcome its transaction costs  – or the transaction would simply not take place.

As P.J. O’Rourke has ironically put it:

In this zero-sum universe there is only so much happiness. The idea is that if we wipe the smile off the faces of people with prosperous businesses and successful careers, that will make the rest of us grin.

There is only so much money. The people who have money are hogging it. The way for the rest of us to get money is to turn the hogs into bacon.[1]

On an international scale, the zero sum fallacy manifests itself in the false belief that poor countries are poor because rich countries are rich; and that poverty can only be alleviated by redistributing wealth from rich countries to poor countries. More effective and enduring  alternatives, such as increased economic development and trade, or the elimination of bad governance and corruption, are not even considered.

In informal logic, the zero sum fallacy often takes the form of a false premise. In rhetoric it is usually a hidden premise, which makes the conclusion of one’s argument a non sequitur. That means that the zero sum fallacy is usually either a subtype of a false premise fallacy, a non-sequitur fallacy, or both.


[1] P.J. O’Rourke, The Wall Street Journal, 27 December 2012.

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Filed under Logical fallacies

19 responses to “The Zero-Sum Fallacy

  1. Desker

    Money is not real wealth. Money is just tokens. The tokens aren’t zero-sum, but what they represent is. There is only so much land, so much food, so much metal and so on.
    The idea that we can have infinite wealth on a finite planet is the fallacy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The idea of infinite wealth is a straw man. All that is being challenged here is the idea that the amount of wealth is fixed, an idea which is demonstrably false.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jason Cleeland

        Exactly right Tim. Infinite wealth is a straw man, but so too is an assumption that every economic transaction increases the total size of the pie. I think the thing to take away from this is twofold. An economic transaction may very well increase the total amount of wealth, and so therefore it should not be assumed in any circumstance that an economic transaction is necessarily zero sum gain. But an economic transaction can also sometimes result in no total growth, or it may even result in negative growth. Each transaction needs to be considered on its own merits.

        General economic principles assume humans behave rationally and freely, and that therefore every economic transaction involves some utility for both parties or else it wouldn’t happen.

        Liked by 1 person

      • John M

        Great article! As to the idea of infinite wealth being a straw man, is it really? Innovation, leading to new and more efficient uses of current resources, is only limited by human creativity. Many, if not most net gains in value stem from increases how efficiently we use resources. (And isn’t technological innovation in many cases more valuable than the resources themselves?) Being that we’re theoretically on the verge of a technological singularity, maybe we’ll even be able to go beyond the limits of human creativity in terms of efficiency.


  2. ‘And our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.’ – President Barack Obama, 11 January 2017.


  3. I’m interested in the zero- sum fallacy in the field of cognition (like reasoning) – do you have any sources?


  4. Natalia Skrzypczak

    I’m interested in the zero – sum fallacy in the field of cognition (it could be reasoning). Do you know any interesting sources?


  5. A E King

    The resources available to us on our planet ARE finite!!
    ….and we’ve already used up most of the stored fossil fuels and a huge proportion of the forestation. Yes, we can print more MONEY, but in this day and age banknotes no longer represent real, tangible assets!
    You can increase the size of a pie with less nutritious fillings to fool the eyes and mind, but it’s still only got so much value to the body!
    This view may satisfy economists, but it doesn’t stand up to logic at all!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for your comment. I thought I made it clear in my first paragraph that the zero-sum game does have its place and is not always a fallacy.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. n2it

    Are there ever any instances when the zero-sum game is not a fallacy?
    P.J. O’Rourke’s use of happiness and how such an intangible when thinking in zero-sum terms can be an example of the game is using something that does not exist in the objective world of phenomena. Of course, you cannot say that because someone is unhappy the cause must be attributed to someone else stealing it is only because we have the choice to be happy regardless what anyone else says or does.

    My happiness does not depend on whether or not someone else is unhappy which, if true, would mean no one could ever be happy if only because everyone isn’t!

    The zero-sum game does have its place and is not always a fallacy.
    In competitive sports, when one party wins and the other loses it is not because the winning party exploited the other party. The game is not a game of exploitation where one competitor is stealing from the other competitor. It is a game that is designed to have a winner and a loser, and when the terms are understood as such then the zero-sum game is the result.

    Liked by 1 person

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