Who are You and What Have You done with Kevin Drum ?

Robert Waldmann

The absolutely brilliant and almost reliably reasonable Kevin Drum quotes the very smart and usually reasonable Dan Drezner and writes

In a speech today in Russia, Barack Obama said that “the pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game.” Dan Drezner isn’t so sure:

If he had said, “The pursuit of prosperity is no longer a zero-sum game,” I’d be fine with the passage. I still think power is a zero-sum concept, however. The two ideas are linked but hardly the same.

I suppose that’s true. Even in a Thomas Barnett-ish world where all the big players gang up to police the world, it’s prosperity and security that are positive sum, not raw power. Anyone care to try and come up with a counterexample?

Power is not at all a zero sum game. If different powers are united in one pair of hands, there isn’t the same total power. Instead there is much more power.

Consider an obvious mild example. If there is a competitive market no one has power over me. If you refuse to sell to me, I just buy from someone else at the same price.
But if you are a monopolist I just can’t get the product if you refuse to sell to me. If you have a monopoly on, say, water, I must beg you on bended knee or die of thirst. The total amount of power in the world is completely different if many many people have water or if only one does.

More generally the whole point of, say, the US constitution is to reduce total political power by dividing it. If the President, congress, the supreme court and the armed forces worked together, then together they would have absolute unlimited power. The US goverment had much more power over people in the US in 2006 than in 1996. That was what was so terrible about 2006.

If we take Obama literally, he is saying that he will cooperate with Putin to dominate the world which would be relatively free if they didn’t cooperate. I trust he was lying. I really have no choice. If the quest for power ceases to be played as a roughly zero sum game, we will all be slaves.

What the hell is going on ? I think that Drezner and Drum are using “zero sum” to mean harsh, red in tooth and claw, not suited to utopian dreams. Their view is that cooperation can’t make the outcome of the power game better for everyone. That doesn’t mean that it can’t make things worse for almost everyone.

Worse even than disagreeing with Drum, my argument is a clumsy verbose attempt to paraphrase an argument made by Hayek. Pro Hayek, contra Drum — what is happening to me ?