Žilvinas Šilėnas. Cannibals at the Gates

People are either cannibals or creators. The fundamental difference between the two is in their imagination of how the world works. How to satisfy one’s hunger – eat a neighbour or come up with a plan of growing vegetables in the middle of winter?

Is the world a “zero-sum game” in which a better life is possible only in exchange for others’ suffering? “Yes” would be the answer of a cannibal.

The “zero-sum game” line of thinking is all-pervasive. What would you say to a child who asked you why some people are wealthy while others are not? Will you tell him that they are wealthy because they have created wealth or because they have simply stolen from others?

The same logic of “stealing” and “creating” is reflected in socialism ideology. After all, communists were not the first to draw attention to the fact that some people live better than others. They identified the main cause of poverty, and that is the rich. All the claims that capital owners pocket the added value created by workers are nothing else but a more eloquent way to say that the wealthy are rich because they take away from the poor.

The “zero-sum game” logic is also prevalent in the old question of why some countries are more prosperous than others (first raised by Adam Smith). There are plenty explanations for that, including the “North–South” narrative. First, Europeans live better than Africans, because the former were first to exploit the latter. Second, Africans simply cannot live better than Europeans, unless they start to exploit them.

The understanding of the “zero-sum game” comes from the pre-industrial times, the major part of the human history. Until the Industrial Revolution, farmland determined the level of economic prosperity. Regardless of crafts and trade, due to the massive scale of agriculture more land meant more goods and more wealth. No surprise that such an understanding developed in a world in which all the land had already been shared. Cannibalism in the form of taking over neighbour’s land had been the only path to prosperity.

Technology and free movement of goods, capital and people of the twentieth century have destroyed all the “zero-sum game” presumptions. We live better lives and you do not need your neighbour to starve. On the contrary, your neighbour’s well-being means a better life for you. It applies both to people and countries.

However, even the twentieth century of tanks, plains and mineral fertilizer did not avoid cannibalism. While some countries saw a source of welfare in capitalism – production and trade, others found it in cannibalism. To put it simply, Lebensraum developed from the German belief that they “lacked” land to live better lives, while the East had “too much” land. Unfortunately, cannibals still exist in the twenty first century.

Who else but a cannibal would think to forcibly dismiss older workers for there are no jobs for young people? Or who would ban people from entering a country because jobs are lacking for the locals? The belief that the number of jobs in a country is fixed and that more job seekers mean inevitable unemployment is the same “zero-sum game” principle.

All aspects of life which remove creators, businessmen and free trade are incubators for cannibals. Want to live a better life? Protest instead of working. Take advantage of the welfare created by others instead of creating it yourself. How does Greece want to solve its debt problems? By defaulting instead of dismissing bureaucrats and creating favourable business environment.

In her novel “Atlas Shrugged” Ayn Rand describes a dystopian future in which business and creation of goods are replaced by redistribution. Society degenerates and is impoverished. Europe will face the same consequences if it does not stop feeding cannibals. It is no fun fighting a screaming minority on strike that shows no respect for the property of others. But think of what would happen if the minority became a majority?

“Hannibal is at the gates” and the road to Rome is open for the enemy – Romans came to reason in 216 B.C. after a landslide defeat at Cannes. We need this cry today.