Zero-Sum Follies

I was reviewing liberation theology, and reconfirmed that creating one fixed definition for it is, oh, like trying to write a description of the shape of an amoeba that applies over the entire lifespan of the creature. Other than “fluid, but not entirely.”

Like so many pre-modern and Marxist economic ideas, most forms of liberation theology that I have encountered assume that the world has a fixed amount of wealth and resources. Thus, if one group is poor or in decline, it is because another group has taken the poor’s share of the wealth. Mercantilism also used that idea, which in the case of Europe between roughly AD 500 CE and AD 1520 CE was much closer to correct, when you looked at ruling states and the quantity of gold available. Don’t look at silver, because that grew due to the opening of the Kutna Hora mines in Bohemia. In that case, yes, the quantity of gold was almost fixed, limited by the loss of Rome’s access to African gold resources after the expansion of Islam. But mercantilism failed when 1) the New World mines began producing, and 2) technology and early mass-production developed in the 1600s-1700s. Adam Smith among others made that point quite clearly.

However, zero-sum is easy. It explains what people see in their every-day existence, especially in a world where the government decides who wins and loses, based on who can bribe their way to escaping regulations and confiscations. “Hans has two cows. I have no cows. In a just world, I would have one cow and he would have one cow.” Or more commonly “Our village was richer until those people over there took our best fields and bribed the authorities/noble/corrupt abbot to ignore the theft.” It also scales up easily. I’ve heard international aid workers fall into that trap. “Mission groups to the Congo and the government of the Congo would have more resources and money from the US if Americans and the US government didn’t spend it on luxuries like having five fast-food outlets in the international arrivals terminal at JFK.” No, I’m not kidding. He had completely absorbed the zero-sum assumption. He also complained because the Congo didn’t get aid from the US while Rwanda did. Just because Congo was still in the middle of a massive series of internal conflicts with no confirmed central government didn’t matter.

Marx assumed that capitalists got rich by impoverishing their workers. Some writers on liberation theology assumed that individuals got rich by charging too much for goods because they had a monopoly, and they hurt their suppliers as well as consumers – one example was a bread factory that underpaid farmers for wheat and charged too much for the finished bread. This leads to “just price” arguments (which go back to Late Antiquity and lasted through to today) and calls for the government to seize the factories, or for the poor to seize the factories and pass out the bread to all who need it. That the factory owner might have been the only one willing to risk his money on a factory in that region, or the government had decided that only one factory was needed and so prevented competition . . . Requires a shift in worldview that can be very difficult. Like Marx admitting that workers did indeed have power, and that perhaps labor is not the only reason things cost a certain amount, or that a rising tide can lift more than just one boat.

Zero-sum is envy. “I want his cow,” “Just because they don’t have a corrupt government is no justification for us being poorer than Germany.”

Liberation theology, when done well with a good amount of intellectual honesty, has valid points and critiques of society, especially in parts of Latin America and Africa. Alas, it seems to only rarely be done well, and was/is abused to justify horror in the name of “G-d loves the poor the best of all.”


13 thoughts on “Zero-Sum Follies

  1. A group in South Africa developed its variation of the theme into what it called “contextual theology”. Briefly, it claimed that all theology was contextual: God could only be understood within the context of the believer, therefore there could be no “universal” theology – it was all relative. A complete heresy, of course, in terms of traditional Christianity, but very useful to justify support for Communist terrorism and suchlike things.

  2. A “preferential option for the poor” when it comes to salvation might possibly exist.

    But if it does, it would largely be because being poor is a limit on the power you possess over others.

    I can’t claim to be virtuous “because I’ve never committed adultery with a movie star” if I’ve never had the opportunity to face down that particular temptation.

  3. Zero-sum is envy. “I want his cow,”

    In practice, envy is usually negative sum. “I want his cow” becomes, “And if I can’t have it, I’ll kill it by fire so that he can’t even eat the meat.” Greed is a problem, but the greedy person needs a society with roads so he can drive his Porche, electricity so he can light his mansion, and department stores so that he can buy his fancy clothes and jewelry. The envious person doesn’t mind burning all of that to the ground as long as he can be king of the ashes.

    (Forgive me if you’ve heard this rant before, but things like “liberation” theology tend to bring it out of me.)

  4. “Liberation Theology” comes from Screwtape and his co-workers. 😦

    • Leviticus 19:15“ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.

  5. “Thus, if one group is poor or in decline, it is because another group has taken the poor’s share of the wealth. ”

    That sentence reminds me of the Cargo Cults that thrived in Melanesia in the early 20th century, and some say they linger to this day.
    I’ve never understood exactly where the idea for Cargo Cults came from. Could it be from a bastard crossbreeding of Marxism with local Melanesian religion?

    • No, the term actually goes to WWII. Tribal peoples saw the US military moving in and bringing amazing amounts of material goods with airplanes. The idea, sort of, goes to the 1920s, possibly earlier (there seems to be some question) and connects the arrival of material goods with a sort-of Millennialism among certain Pacific Island religious leaders who called for a return to the pure traditions. If that was done, the ancestors (or gods) would return or arrive on ships (later planes), bringing an era of peace and material prosperity. The idea that if people built runways, control towers, and other things, the gods would come to those just as they did for the white foreigners really kicked off in the 1940s. It’s no longer considered proper anthropological practice to call the belief system “cargo cults,” but some still do.

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