Zero-sum Thinking; Mercantilist Thought between West and East

In this blog post, short-term fellow Alex Feldman takes a fresh look at the long history of Mercantilist economic thought, urging us to reconsider the traditional ‘zero-sum game’ of economic growth.


1776 in the English-speaking imagination

Many thinkers have toyed with the idea that perhaps Edward Gibbon and Adam Smith (and less-so David Hume) were just as influential as American founding fathers in 1776 as were Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington. They’ve presented convincing cases. Three points stand out.

First, Gibbon’s linear, supposedly rationalist march of history from Roman ruins to English supremacy was never seriously challenged either in America or in Britain. Similarly, nor was Adam Smith’s presentation, which sought to consign mercantilist economic thought to the dustbin of Whig history.[1]

Second, America’s inheritance of the British empire was never seriously challenged in the aftermath of World War II, due to the same intellectual assumptions which guided Gibbon. Similarly, America’s inheritance of Britain’s economic model, derived from the individualist intellectual assumptions guiding Smith, ensured that Britain was not the only “nation of shopkeepers,” as any celebrant of American small business will attest.  Perfidious Albion was the direct forerunner of the American Dream.[2]

Third, only progress and growth can forestall institutional decay – for many Anglo-American thinkers, this proved as true for individual enterprise as it did for corporate, public and state enterprise. [3] Apologists for growth have consistently and successfully argued that only an ever-growing pie can preempt social aggression, societal collapse and the kind of zero-sum thought which engenders conclusions such as, “your gain is my loss.”[4] Zero-sum thought, the classic hallmark of mercantilist economics, which Smith himself railed against, has also been on trial for Malthusian crimes such as Britain’s (Trevelyan’s) response to the Irish potato blight, the American government’s broken promises to Native Americans’ land rights, Canadian, Australian and South African outright sequestrations of land, the Holodomor and the Holocaust.[5]  Seeking to prevent such Malthusian miseries (which nevertheless occurred[6]), since the dawning of the Anglo-American-led industrial revolutions, in the past 200 years, the world’s GDP has skyrocketed. The aggregate production of food, water, shelter, and every other human commodity, from base requirements such as sexual pleasure to sports cars and other luxury goods, has increased exponentially, as regimes have risen and fallen the world over in variously successful efforts to enact their own versions of 1776.  Inside of 250 years, a mere blip in human history, let alone geological history, our numbers look like a schoolboy’s hyperbolic graph: we have gone from less than a billion to approaching ten.

Now, the oceans are filled with our waste, the forests, jungles, rivers and mountains are the last besieged habitats for wildlife, as ever more biodiversity continues to disappear.

Joshua Reynolds, 1779, Portrait of Edward Gibbon, oil on canvas, Private Collection.


Anonymous painter, ca. 1800, Muir Portrait (likely of Adam Smith), oil on canvas, Scottish National Gallery.


Fairytales of Eternal Economic Growth

But this wasn’t true everywhere.  Meanwhile, deep in eastern Europe and central and east Asia, under guises such as nationalism, communism, socialism and collectivism, the seasons of man continued their eternal recurrences, oblivious to the linear developments and so-called “economic miracles” occurring at the edges of Eurasia, where English-speaking shipping magnates, oil barons, corporate tax lawyers, bankers and government officials gushed about “win-win” deals, sung songs about liberty and prosperity, and lived by the mantra, “another day; another dollar.”  Rather, in these great Eurasian repositories of collective wisdom, with mantras such as, “in ten years everything changes; in two hundred years nothing changes,” little did indeed. However, with their small, agricultural and extraction-based economies, the zero-sum thinking was never seriously challenged, it was simply a human feature since time immemorial.  In the English-speaking world, we have rarely ever challenged the ideas of 1776; we have typically assumed them as fish assume water.[7]

Then, in 2013, Thomas Piketty published a monument of economic discourse.  Revealing the economic mythologies of the post-WWII global order, Piketty demonstrated that compared to the 19-20th-c. industrial revolutions, most economic growth, which has facilitated social mobility throughout history and across pre-industrial agrarian societies, was quite negligible.[8] 

From Piketty, T., 2014, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. A. Goldhammer (London), 100.

Zero-Sum Thinking: the World before 1776

While earlier scholarship has clarified the interdependence of agrarian societies and some kind of sacred law code,[9] very little scholarship has demonstrated the connection between ancient law codes and perpetually low-growth-rate agrarian economics. Simply put, by adopting a given form of monotheism (with its corresponding scriptural traditions, laws and so forth), a ruling dynasty preserved its wealth (measured in land, precious metals or other finite commodities) according to the law code it relied on for legitimacy.  Because rulers assumed that social mobility was always negligible and that ultimately, wealth (commonly measured in gold or land) was finitely available in the world, wealth and resources were seen as scarce, so it should be no surprise that rulers typically thought of maintaining their wealth as a “zero-sum game,” in other words: your gain is my loss.  In this light, the pagan attraction to monotheism becomes quite understandable: sacred scriptures provided sacred laws, which preserved the wealth and legitimacy of the ruling dynasty. This also explains why after adopting a form of monotheism, dynasties often jealously protected their lands from encroachments by rival monotheisms, as they would protect their coffers.[10]

From Piketty, T., 2014, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. A. Goldhammer (London), 100.


Silver coins of Jaroslav I Vladimirovich of Kiev, ca. 1015-1054, bearing the legend: ЯРОСЛАВЛЕ СРЕБРО (Jaroslav’s silver). From

Therefore, by conceiving of a relatively unchanging agrarian economy and a ruler’s relentless pursuit of finite wealth (defined as any sort of commodity of limited accessibility), we may come to understand that there was an analogous economic model which was never organised into a unified, coherent theory,[11] yet which still functioned as such throughout Eurasia.  Namely, that wealth creation and preservation has traditionally been assumed to be a “zero-sum game,” which is typically referred to in 13-19th-c. Italian merchant republics and Western Christian kingdoms, as “mercantilism.”[12]

Mercantilist Thought

Yet what is Mercantilism? Is it solely an outdated economic model or is it a comprehensive approach to wealth creation and preservation?  Frequently the term has been applied to typically “Renaissance” Italian city-states and Western European kingdoms of the 13-19th c. which sought to control as much bullion as possible, but where did their economic model, this so-called “mercantilism,” come from?  Venice and Genoa, for instance, those pioneering cities of economic exchange, are frequently recognised as supplanting Byzantium and developing mercantilism by endeavouring to control the trade of bullion in Byzantium.  However, rarely is it acknowledged that these cities’ merchants were frequently regarded as subjects by the emperors of Christendom.[13]  Instead, these merchants have been regarded by today’s historians as citizens of separate “states.”  For this reason, the “foreign” and “domestic” trade of bullion is crucial to understanding the development of mercantilist economic thought.[14]

9th-c. founded interiors of the Basilica San Marco, Venice, 2013 (left) & Aachen Cathedral, 2018 (right); author’s photos.

Rather, mercantilist thought, as defined by the zero-sum assumption of minute growth and ultimately inelastic wealth available in the world, can easily be applied to Byzantium, and by extension, all of Eurasia.  While this may seem rather heterodox at first, it would be appropriate to recall that all rulers constantly sought to augment their respective supplies of precious metals and wrestled with the age-old temptation of coin debasement.  However, a crucial difference between the former and latter examples would be the notion of the “foreign” and the “domestic” in terms of merchant and marketplace: “nationhood,” was originally a Western Christian construct; it did not bear the same legal implications elsewhere until the 20th century.  Therefore, though mercantilism undoubtedly carries connotations of “economic nationalism” in today’s West, and is commonly applied to Western polities of the 13-19th c., by conceiving of mercantilism as the natural by-product of a perpetually limited growth rate and a ruler’s relentless pursuit of inelastic precious metals, we may come to understand modern economic thought as tacitly derived from implicit antique paradigms. If mercantilist thought, predicated on a relatively unchanging agrarian economy and an eventually finite supply of wealth (measured in land, precious metals or other limited commodities), can be applied beyond just Western Christendom, then economic notions of wealth creation in “West” and “East” may be modified, which would consequently lend context and credence to differences of economic thought in the modern world.

Building on the works of historians, economists and sociologists such as Mauss, Weber, Michels, Piketty, Graeber, Reynolds, Brown, Haldon, Stathakopoulos and many others,[15] I believe there is a possibility to chart a vastly different story of human economic thought – neither of just the USA, China or Russia nor of any other “nation-state” since 1776.  Rather, it will tell the story of time without lines, empire without fall, and enterprise without growth.  It will tell the story of the eternal recurrence of zero-sum thinking, which has characterised human history since long before and long after 1776 – even to today, once again at a time of rising protectionism, autarky (national self-sufficiency), capital controls and economic nationalism. It will also, in the process, seek to change how we in the English-speaking world view Eurasia.

Alex M. Feldman



[1] Smith, 1776, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London, repr. 1999), IV, 226-275.

[2] de Tocqueville, A., 1840, Democracy in America (Philadelphia); Douglas, M., 2002, ‘Foreword: “No Free Gifts”,’ in M. Mauss, The Gift (New York), i-xxiii.

[3] Beckstein, M., 2019, “Political Conservation, or How to Prevent Institutional Decay,” Constellations 26/4, 623-637.

[4] Foster, G. M, 1965, ‘Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good’. American Anthropologist 67, 293-315; Johnson, Samuel G. B., et al., 2020, ‘Win–win Denial: The Psychological Underpinnings of Zero-sum Thinking’, PsyArXiv, 1-41; Rubin, P., 2003, ‘Folk Economics’, Southern Economic Journal 70/1, 157-171; Różycka-Tran, J., Boski, P., Wojciszke, B.., 2015, ‘Belief in a Zero-Sum Game as a Social Axiom: A 37-Nation Study’, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 46/4, 525-548.

[5] Snyder, T. D., 2015, Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning (London).

[6] Ridley, M., 2015, “The Long Shadow of Malthus,” Standpoint,

[7] Arnason, J., 2018, ‘Mauss Revisited: The Birth of Civilizational Analysis from the Spirit of Anthropology’, in Anthropology and Civilizational Analysis: Eurasian Explorations, eds. Johann Arnason and Chris Hann (Albany), 1-33.

[8] Piketty, T., 2014, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Goldhammer, A. (London), 428-458.

[9] Kehoe, D., 2007, Law and the Rural Economy in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor); Davis, K., 2008, Periodization & Sovereignty (Philadelphia).

[10] Feldman, A. M., 2018, ‘Ethnicity and Statehood in Pontic-Caspian Eurasia, 8-13th Centuries: Contributing to a Reassessment’, U. of Birmingham PhD thesis (Birmingham).

[11] Ledeneva and Plaksunova, 2016, “Богатство в древней руси: суть, структура, формы реализации и защиты,” Вестник Волгоградского Государственного Университета 37/4, 18-29.

[12] Minchinton (ed.), 1969, Mercantilism: System or Expediency?, Lexington; Magnusson, (ed.), 1993, Mercantilist Economics, , Norwell; Stern and Wennerlind (eds.), 2014, Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire (Oxford).

[13] Jacoby, 2013, “Between the Imperial Court and the Western Maritime Powers: the Impact of Naturalizations on the Economy of Late Byzantine Constantinople,” in The Byzantine Court: Source of Power and Culture, eds. Ödekan, Necipoğlu and Akyürek, (Istanbul), 95-103; Penna, 2012, The Byzantine Imperial Acts to Venice, Pisa and Genoa, 10th – 12th Centuries: A Comparative Legal Study (The Hague);  Laiou, (ed.), 2002, The Economic History of Byzantium: Seventh – Fifteenth Century (Washington D. C.).

[14] Kaplanis, 2003, “The Debasement of the ‘Dollar of the Middle Ages’,” Journal of Economic History 63, 768-801; Sorochan, 1995, “Случайность или система? Раннесредневековый византийский меркантилизм,” Древности-1995. Харьковский историко-археологический ежегодник, 122-132; Heckscher, 1955, Mercantilism (London), 33-44.

[15] Mauss, M., 2002, The Gift (London); Weber, M., 1927, General Economic History, trans. F. Knight, (Mineola); Michels, R., 2001, Political Parties (Kitchener); Piketty, T., 2014, (op. cit.); Graeber, D., 2011, Debt: the First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn); Reynolds, S., 1994, Fiefs and Vassals (Oxford), 76-98; Brown, P., 2012, Through the Eye of a Needle, (Princeton), 433-530; Haldon, J., 1993, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (New York); Stathakopoulos, D., 2004, Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire (Aldershot); Bloch, M., 1964, Feudal Society, trans. L. Manyon (Chicago, 1964), 164-206; Duby, G., 1973, Guerriers et paysans – VIIe-XIIe siècle, premier essor de l’économie européenne (Paris), 63-69; White, S. D., 2001, ‘The Politics of Exchange: Gifts, Fiefs, and Feudalism’, in E. Cohen and M. de Jong (eds.), Medieval Transformations: Texts, Power and Gifts in Context (Leiden), 169-188; Curta, F., 2006, ‘Merovingian and Carolingian Gift Giving’, Speculum 81, 671-699; Geary, P., 2003, ‘Gift Exchange and Social Science Modeling: the Limitations of a Construct’, in Negotiating the Gift: Pre-modern Figurations of Exchange, ed. G. Algazi, et al., Veroeffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts fuer Geschichte 188 (Goettingen), 139-40; Guldi, J. & D. Armitage, 2014, The History Manifesto (Cambridge); Hunt, E. K. & M. Lautzenheiser, 2011, History of Economic Thought, 3rd ed, (Armonk).