Dear Mr. President: Zero-Sum Makes Zero Sense

Given that hypocrisy is an important part of diplomacy, and diplomacy is necessary to foreign policy, allow me to congratulate you on your reelection.

I wish I could also congratulate you on your conduct of international affairs. I do thank you for killing Osama bin Laden. It was a creditable action for which you deserve some of the credit you’ve been given. Of course the intelligence was gathered, and the mission was undertaken, by men and women who, although they answer to your command, answer to duty first. And it’s difficult to imagine any president of the United States who, under the circumstances, wouldn’t have ordered the strike against bin Laden. Although there is Jimmy Carter. Thank you for not being Jimmy Carter.

But even though it violates the insincere amity that creates a period of calm following national elections, no thank you for the following, and it is only a partial list:

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  • Telling the Taliban to play by the rules or you’ll take your ball and go home
  • Leaving Iraq in a lurch (and in a hurry)
  • Watching the EU go down the sink drain and into the Greece trap and wanting to take America along on the trip
  • Rearranging the deck chairs of Assad opposition on the Titanic that is Syria
  • Miscalculating human rights and strategic engagement in the Chinese arithmetic of your China policy
  • Possessing color-blind admiration of reds and greens in the climate debate
  • Being the personification of bad weather during the Arab Spring with your chilly response when you encountered its best aspects and your frozen inaction when you encountered its worst
  • Playing with Russian nesting dolls, opening hollow figurine after hollow figurine hoping to find one that doesn’t look like Vladimir Putin
  • Sitting and doing nothing like a couch potato watching a made-for-TV movie as the Castro and Chávez zombies continue their rampage
  • Hugging the door on your date with Israel
  • Putting the raw meat of incentives in your pants pocket when you go to scold the pit bulls of Iran and North Korea

But the worst thing that you’ve done internationally is what you’ve done domestically. You sent a message to America in your reelection campaign. Therefore you sent a message to the world. The message is that we live in a zero-sum universe.

There is a fixed amount of good things. Life is a pizza. If some people have too many slices, other people have to eat the pizza box. You had no answer to Mitt Romney’s argument for more pizza parlors baking more pizzas. The solution to our problems, you said, is redistribution of the pizzas we’ve got—with low-cost, government-subsidized pepperoni somehow materializing as the result of higher taxes on pizza parlor owners.

In this zero-sum universe there’s 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’s 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.

Mr. President, your entire campaign platform was redistribution. Take from the rich and give to the . . . Well, actually, you didn’t mention the poor. What you talked and talked about was the middle class, something most well-off Americans consider themselves to be members of. So your plan is to take from the more rich and the more or less rich and give to the less rich, more or less. It’s as if Robin Hood stole treasure from the Sheriff of Nottingham and bestowed it on the Deputy Sheriff.

But never mind. The evil of zero-sum thinking and redistributive politics has nothing to do with which things are taken or to whom those things are given or what the sum of zero things is supposed to be. The evil lies in denying people the right, the means, and, indeed, the duty to make more things.

Zero-sum may be a truth in love, Mr. President, but you weren’t proposing to redistribute the most attractive subscribers to Match.com. Zero-sum is a fallacy in economics. Perhaps, sir, you are an economic ignoramus. You certainly seemed to be one in the second presidential debate when you tried to explain that the price of gasoline was low when you took office because the economy was bad but is high now because the economy hasn’t recovered.

Or maybe you just find it easier to pursue a political policy of sneaking in America’s back door, swiping a laptop, going around to the front door, ringing the bell, and announcing, “Free computer equipment for all school children!”

However, domestic politics are not my first concern here. The question is whether you want to convince the international community that zero-sum is the American premise and redistribution is the logical conclusion.

I would argue that the world does not need more encouragement to think in zero-sum terms or act in redistributive ways.

Western Europe has done such a good job redistributing its assets that the European Union now has a Spanish economy, a Swedish foreign policy, an Italian army, and Irish gigolos.

Redistributionist political ideologies, in decline since the fall of the Soviet bloc, are on the rise again. Will you help the neo-Marxists of Latin America redistribute stupidity to their continent?

Somali pirate redistribution has a revenue enhancement policy that is highly progressive. Only wealthy shipping corporations and rich yachtsmen are taxed with piracy. The Somali pirate deficit is nil. Pirates lean forward.

Corruption is a form of redistribution. You were an Illinois politician so you understand this. The BRIC countries excel in corruption. Perhaps your administration will provide them with technical assistance. Brazil and India, especially, need to learn that corruption is not inconsistent with picking up the trash and keeping traffic moving, Chicago-style.

The Janjaweed are trying to redistribute themselves in Darfur. The Serbs would like to do the same in Kosovo. And the Chinese have already done it in Tibet.

Al-Qaeda offshoots are doing their best to redistribute violence to places that didn’t have enough.

And Russia and China would like the global balance of power to be redistributed. Since China has plenty of money to lend and Russia has plenty of oil to sell, your debt and energy policies should go a long way toward making the balance of power fairer for the Russians and Chinese.

While redistribution—or “plagiarism,” as we writers call it—is a bad idea, zero-sum is even worse. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of zero-sum thinking in operation. Why not a mosque on Fridays, a synagogue on Saturdays, and throw in a mass for Christians on Sundays? Israelis and Palestinians could triple their profit on the Old City of Jerusalem. But zero-sum attitudes are not conducive to common sense. And, by the way, Mr. President, now that Hillary Clinton won’t be your secretary of state, where will the common sense in your foreign policy come from?

Zero-sum assumptions mean that a country that doesn’t pursue a policy of taking things from other countries is letting its citizens down. That’s pretty much the story of all recorded history, none of which needs to be repeated. It has taken mankind millennia to learn that trade is more profitable than pillage. And we don’t have to carry our plunder home in sacks and saddlebags when we’re willing to accept a certified check.

The Chinese don’t seem to understand this yet. They think trade is a one-way enterprise, the object of which is for China to have all the world’s money. They’ve got most of ours already. Mr. President, validating China’s economic notions is not a good thing.

Nor is it a good thing to validate any other zero-sum thoughts. Redistribution has its limits. Even North Korea’s program to redistribute privation to all of its people fails with the party elite. But zero is a limitless concept.

A zero-sum faith in getting what’s wanted by taking it can extend to faith itself. In some places there is only one religion. If other people have a religion of their own they must be taking away from my religion. Give up that faith, infidels.

In some places there is only one sex. The sexuality of another person is a diminishment of my sexuality. So I take that sexuality away from the other person and send her out in the street wearing the front hall rug over her head.

In many places there is only one election. Having another election would take elective office from the people who were elected first.

Mr. President, instead of the message of zero-sum redistribution, consider the message of the Christmas season—a message of giving, not taking. And consider your prominent position as a messenger of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. When you embrace a belief in the zero-sum nature of what’s under the Christmas tree and propose to redistribute everything that’s in our Christmas stockings, you’re asking the world to go sit on the Grinch’s lap instead of Santa’s.

P. J. O’Rourke is an author and correspondent for the Weekly Standard.

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