Freedom is Free and Justice is Infinite. So Why is Politics a Zero Sum Game for So Many Americans?


Depending on whether you’re more into politics or drunken debauchery, you might remeber February 5 as Super Tuesday or Fat Tuesday. I remember it as Superfat Tuesday, because it combined our two national preoccupations: politics and consumption. On the political front, Super Tuesday saw presidential candidates vying for primary delegates in 22 key states. Elsewhere, Fat Tuesday revellers ate, drank beer, and tried to score beads. And other stuff. So with politics, food, and booze on my mind, it’s only fitting that I take some time to reflect on how consumerist thinking impacts American politics, specifically the notion that for some to win, others must lose.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, it seems you can’t listen to the radio for 10 minutes with hearing some politician going on about security and “freedom.” They always present these issues together too, as if to emphasize that in order to defend our freedom, we need to place more emphasis on security. Of course, greater security means more surveillance and wiretapping, and fewer privacy rights, no habeas corpus, etc. Strangely, lots of other people seem perfectly happy to trade individual freedoms for more security. Benjamin Franklin must be spinning in his grave.

But the zero-sum-game logic pops up in other places besides national security. In domestic politics, for example, the provision of public services is always balanced against the tax burden on American citizens. Time and time again, we’re reminded that we can’t have better schools or safer streets without enduring a tax increase. We’re told that Black people can’t have jobs if Latinos work. And heterosexuals are led to believe that their marriages will be jeopardized if gay men and women were allowed to get married.

Why is so much of American politics always presented as a zero sum game? Why should individual liberties be traded for security? Why should gay rights be weighed against heterosexual marriage? Why are Latinos blamed for Black unemployment? Part of the answer, I’m sure, is that our political system rests on the idea that there is not enough of anything good to go around. It’s the politics of disunity, of pitting one group against another. When it comes to jobs, it’s Black people versus Latinos. The equal rights debate pits straight Americans against their gay compatriots. The implicit assumption is that there is just not enough employment or justice to go around. If Latinos get more jobs, then Black people have to accept unemployment. If gay couples can get married, then straight couples are somehow being denied the full dignity inherent in their unions.

This thinking is so ingrained in Americans’ political thinking that we accept the zero sum game as the philosophical core of our understanding of politics. I can’t count how many times I’ve been talking to someone about economic inequaility, social injustice, or labour exploitation and heard some variant of, “Well, that’s just how things are. Some people will always be on top and others will always be on the bottom.” The thinking implicit in this response is that everyone can not be on top. And thus we accept the grossest inequalities because, well, some people have to be on the bottom.

Nowhere is the zero-sum-game mentality more evident than in our notions of freedom. The old saw that freedom isn’t free—ubiquitous on bumper stickers—epitomizes this point. In my opinion, though, what was meant to be a clever pun is nothing more than an oxymoronic—if not outright moronic—cliche. I mean, how can anyone attach a price to an abstract concept like freedom? After all, the “free” in “freedom is not free” does not refer to the philosophical or political notion of being at liberty, of being unrestrained, or of not being beholden to anyone. Rather, it comes from economics, i.e., the idea of having no cost. By extension then, the economic idea of “free” is tied to the idea of abundance. So, something is more likely to be free if it is abundantly available. Conversely, a scarce resource will seldom be free. The logic of the freedom-is-not-free argument thus rests on the idea that freedom is a scarce, or finite, resource. Freedom is understood as a commodity subject to the laws of scarcity (read supply) and demand, rather than a right to which all humans are entitled. In other words, our understanding of freedom is defined in economic, not philosophical terms. As with all commodities, the value of freedom is directly tied to its scaricty, its finiteness. The quest for freedom itself then becomes a zero sum game in which someone must lose if anyone is to win. 

This take on the idea of freedom has a parallel in our basic understanding of economics, summed up in another trope that goes along the lines of “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” At the heart of this idea is the understanding that everything comes at a price, a sort of karmic-materialistic understanding of the world. In other words, there is always a price to be paid. A free lunch, then, is not truly free since we must, either in the present or future, pay a price for it. Most people, though, understand “freedom is not free” in the context of another bumper-sticker mantra. I am referring, of course, to “Support the Troops,” a tried and true slogan warmly embraced by politicians all along the political spectrum. When taken in the context of US soldiers, “freedom is not free” implies that American soldiers pay for Americans’ freedom, with their time, limbs, and lives.

In reality, there is another zero sum game being played out every day, but it’s not in our political/national security system. It’s in our economic system. Commodities, unlike abstract concepts like freedom, are not abundantly available and are therefore never free. Oil, for example, is an increasingly scarce commodity and therefore decidedly not free. In fact, as demand for oil increases, supplies are strained and prices increase. But because our ability—nay, our right—to consume commodities is never challenged or questioned, we accept the fact that someone must pay the price for our consumption. And so, in order for us to drive fuel-inefficient cars while paying a pittance at the pump, people in other countries must pay with their freedom and often their lives. At the end of the day, it is our demand for commodities that drives the zero sum game, not our desire for freedom.

After all, there’s more than enough freedom to go around. Commodities, on the other hand, are not so abundant. Sadly, it seems most of us are unable to tell the two apart.


5 thoughts on “Freedom is Free and Justice is Infinite. So Why is Politics a Zero Sum Game for So Many Americans?

  1. It’s a funny world we live in!

    Re the questions you ask – gay marriage. Hasn’t that been one of the point raised in election campaigns for years now? These politicians should’ve been campaigning to feed the poor, but instead it sexual orientation and their right to raise a family is more imp than people dying out of hunger; banning stem cell research is more important than saving lives of people. It’s all about campaign money, if you ask me. Politicians choose to raise issues that somehow involve them ending up with more campaign money, thus sidelining important issues. If leaders-to-be can be so callous about what we deem important, can we really expect the general population to be less callous? Don’t they say: people deserve the leaders they choose?


  2. Hear, hear!!

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, cynical.

    The politics of disunity combined with the cult of the individual makes for a difficult political reality.

    C’est la vie, as our French friends say.

    Pity indeed there are no lobbyists fighting for “what’s right.”

    But if some people can get so riled about two dudes wanting to get married, why can’t others get fired up that millions of American kids go to bed hungry?

    Why are people so much more likely to take action on some issues but not on others. What’s more immoral, two women wanting the law to recognize their relationship or an entire society tolerating gross inequality?


  3. This acceptance that you talk about is the easy thing to do, you see? Less responsibility! Speaking in micro terms, if I find my dog eating up all of my cat’s food, I’ll try to establish a balance and put them in different rooms for dinner, thus ensuring equity. BUT, on a macro level it becomes a gigantic task, which I cannot undertake. Hence I wouldn’t even take responsibility. One would argue that this is where government intervention comes into play, if you’re talking about inequity within a country, or international organizations (i suppose) if you’re talking about global affairs. This would imply that even these insitutions that we depend on do not take responsibility, thus the unequal allocation of resources and so on. However, identifying these entities is not enough, there needs to be public pressure, pressure from lobbyists etc. However, collective action is impossible where there is no self serving ‘interest’ of lobby groups. We almost never find lobby groups forming to fight for ‘what’s right’ for example. So what we end up with is, acceptance of such inequality. It’s the easy thing to do.
    Am I making sense?


  4. cynical,

    The “system” is most certainly broken but I would argue it’s counterintuitive to accept something that’s flawed. If you bought a cell phone that was broken, wouldn’t you try to return it for a better one, or at least try to have it fixed. Or maybe failing that, wouldn’t you buy a newer, perhaps better, one?

    It’s this fatalism that frustrates me most times. Most people seem to understand how effed up things are, but everyone just accepts it.

    What gives?


  5. Only slightly cynical of the the ‘system’ if I may call it so. If I were someone else, I’d be tempted to say, ‘But this is how things are and have been for as long as I remember’ and while that’s true, it only points out the unfairness of it all.
    While some nations pay with lives, we in America enjoy commodities at the cheapest prices. It’s funny but sad that I found a poor, war ravaged country to be more expensive to live in than NY. It breaks my heart but ‘that’s how these things are’. How do you bring about social equity and/or equity? Or even financial? People who can’t answer these questions just accept that this is how things are.


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