What Is a Positive-Sum Economy?

What if all our acts of kindness (only positive) were permanently recorded?

Posted Sep 07, 2019

The conventional concept of an economy is based on a physical resource that is relatively scarce, something that people could and would fight over, to gain control over the resource. Interactions are competitive and transactional, making them zero-sum games: For every winner, there must be a loser. The value of an individual or a transaction is associated with a quantitative measure of the resource. Think about gold as an example of such a physical resource, or petroleum. Physical assets are easily measured, so ownership of such assets becomes a proxy for power. In this world, the power in organizational structures is hierarchical.

Doesn’t this make the world rather one-dimensional? Essentially, everything is monetized. This assumption certainly makes life appear simple.

What about intangible assets, like knowledge, or human qualities like kindness? How do we value such assets? Consider a very common question: “What is the value of a liberal arts college education?” This is presented as a challenge to students who choose to major in fields where jobs might be scarce, or where what they can learn is not easily perceived as having practical value outside of academia, i.e., in getting a “real job." How do they justify and quantify the investment of their time and money to get that education? Why did they make such a choice? What did they see as having value for themselves?

For those of us who choose this path, society tends to label our “selfishness” as somehow deficient or stupid because others may have different values. How respectful is this attitude? Should knowledge that has practical applicability be more highly valued than creative talent? But wait a moment: What about creative talent that is exceptionally rare? Doesn’t that quality of being a scarce resource transform the talent and the products created into being highly valued?

The insight here is that scarcity drives value. We don’t value what is abundant, or what is available to large numbers of people.

Isn’t this partly why we take for granted the richness of the natural environment, clean air, fresh water, the biodiversity of our forests and oceans? Their vastness leads us to believe that the impact of our tiny, individual actions is so trivial as to have little damaging effect—in spite of scientific evidence of the contrary. We prefer to believe only what we can see and touch directly, even when we have intellectual awareness that our knowledge and perceptions are very limited.

In this line of thinking, kindness is a particularly interesting aspect of human behavior. Kindness begets kindness. This starts when, as infants, we respond to a smile with a smile. Does this mean we are hardwired to recognize and acknowledge kindness? Even when we don’t have an intellectual construct, or can agree on the same absolute definition of what it is or should be? We can measure the impact or scope of an act of kindness and assign a higher value to one act, compared to another, but does that assessment actually apply to the concept of kindness? Isn’t that more an assessment of the “kind person”? Isn’t the value of kindness, like that of beauty, in the eye of the beholder?

Isn’t the perceived value of kindness context-sensitive? Consider the offer of a glass of cool water. Readers of the Bible will remember the story of a woman who drew water from a well to give to Jesus when he was thirsty. For a terminally ill hospitalized patient who may not even be able to drink water, a wet sponge applied to the lips and mouth can bring welcome relief. A child, sweating profusely during a particularly energetic athletic competition, will greedily consume several glasses of water at a time. How many of us reflect for a moment when we turn the tap at home to fill a cup?

Kindness, like many human attributes, can be complex and multi-dimensional. It cannot and should not be simplified and reduced to a single dimension, e.g., money.

Here is a huge assumption: I would like to believe that human nature is hardwired to respond to the awareness of an act of kindness with an urge, at least, to encourage ourselves and others to spread more kindness. This is a positive feedback loop in which greater awareness and more acts of kindness will lead to even more demonstrations of similar behavior.

As human beings, don’t we have an unlimited capacity for kindness?

The only limits are self-imposed, in our own minds. Kindness does not require money. An act of kindness can be achieved in seconds or be work done over years and decades. Kindness does not require special skills or talents, so everyone can participate, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender preference, education, economic status, etc. Is there any downside to kindness?

Why don’t we enjoy this gift more often? Why don’t we take the time to acknowledge the value of every person we meet or interact with, every day, in every context? Why aren’t we more grateful to have this experience?

Suppose we could develop a mechanism to create an immutable record of kindness acts, so that each of us would have a “kindness index," a measure of how often we choose to demonstrate kindness. Suppose we don’t try to quantify how much kindness is shown, but just record each act, irrespective of the impact or scope. Suppose further that we don’t record “negative acts," instances showing a lack of kindness or worse. The intention is only to inspire more kindness acts, not to comprehensively judge an individual or define acts of kindness in specific detail. This record then would monitor our evolution as individuals and as a society in the direction of kindness, akin to the flow of energy across the ecosystem and over time. Could this be the basis for a positive-sum economy?

Blockchain, i.e., distributed ledger technologies, could enable such a vision.