★ A Zero-Sum Proposition

Note: This column was originally posted at The D.C. Writeup. One element of the health care debate that hasn’t received much attention is the underlying economic and philosophical misconception behind the Democrats’ proposals. While we’ve heard countless reports about the “necessity” of providing health care coverage to those who can’t afford it (or don’t want it), there’s been relatively little discussion concerning one of the central tenants not only of health care reform, but also of modern liberalism. The Left’s rush to embrace radical health care legislation and, more broadly, an economic package premised on redistribution, is the result of its unyielding but erroneous belief that capitalism is ultimately a zero-sum game. In liberals’ minds, there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world, and the acquisition of wealth by one party necessarily comes at the expense of another party.

Let’s think about that for a second. President Obama’s health care package, like nearly every universal health care plan before it, is centrally concerned with moving resources from place to place and person to person. It is about an equitable redistribution of services facilitated by a government entity. A more market-oriented plan would focus its energies on creating new services, so that one individual would not have to give up anything in order for another to gain something. But the people behind the government-run option cannot conceive of creation, only of reordering and redistribution, because in their minds, anything obtained by one person must be taken from another.

Once one has accepted this proposition, it becomes remarkably easy to justify the sort of redistributionist action that has been taken by Democratic politicians over the last century. If one believes that any acquisition of wealth contains within it an inherently immoral element, then how can one argue against letting a wise arbitrator use its powers to tame the market and correct these wrongdoings? And if that is true, then surely anyone who takes issue with the government’s forced redistribution of resources only does so because he or she is profiting from the exploitation of others.

It sounds ridiculous, but the reality is that the Left genuinely believes that it is almost impossible to get ahead without screwing someone else over. (Of course, when their points of reference are Charlie Rangel and John Murtha, it’s almost understandable why that would make sense to them.) And it’s that sort of misguided morality that enables them to take the radical actions that define their agenda.

But the reality is that economics is not a zero-sum game. In fact, the capitalist economy would simply not function if a central feature of every exchange were that one party would inevitably come away worse off than before. Capitalism is a positive-sum game, one in which individuals engage in transactions to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.

Furthermore, there is an unspoken trust between the parties involved in a transaction that each will hold up its end of the agreed-upon bargain. If the expectation was that this trust would be broken and that there was a fifty-fifty chance of “losing” an exchange every time, then the rate of commerce in this country would slow to a snail’s pace. People would avoid even the most basic of transactions for fear that they would be economic “losers.”

But note that this does not happen, because in the vast majority of mutually agreed-upon transactions, both parties win. That’s capitalism, and once that is understood, it becomes much more difficult to see the acquisition of wealth as inherently immoral. Consequently, the redistribution of wealth, goods, and services, becomes morally unjustifiable.

Central to President Obama’s philosophy is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of wealth, capitalism, and economics. He is laboring under the misconception that there can be no winners without losers, and that one man’s success can only come at the expense of another’s failure. An embrace of his agenda amounts to an endorsement of this fundamentally flawed philosophy, and it is for this reason that we cannot allow his health care plan to move forward.

It is Obama’s plan – not the capitalist economy – that is a zero-sum proposition.