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A resource is zero-sum if the total sum (amount) of that resource cannot be made to increase, by way of the action in question. More simply, one person gaining more value from the resource must necessarily mean that someone else then gets less value from the resource. In a chosen game, actions can have one of the following three qualities.

Positive-sum: the total utility derived (as a sum across all parties) will increase

Zero-sum: the total utility derived will not change, but the balance across parties might change (one party gets more while another party gets less)

Negative-sum: the total utility derived will decrease

As a colloquial shorthand, zero-sum can sometimes refer to negative sum.

This video explains and speculates in detail about how certain resources can he inherently zero-sum. The defining feature of such resources is that they are fixed-supply; the total amounts of each one available cannot be made to increase. Some "inherently" zero-sum resources are:

  • Status, which is assessed in a relative sense
  • Personal identity
  • Time as a resource for one to choose to spend on their own pursuits
  • Time as labor of free persons, in in man-hours. (More workers can be hired, but they cannot be forced to breed as a way to grow the workforce).
  • Historic and cultural relics

The significance of a resource being inherently zero-sum is that an actor desperate for it cannot simply satiate their need or desire by ramping up production. As a growth frontier, they must choose to negotiate for the resource, steal it, or derive it from exploitation/rent-seeking.