I have written about envy and its effects for almost 40 years. I was first alerted to the problem in an article written by Murray Rothbard: “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor.” He summarized the findings of the book written by a sociologist whose name I knew well, Helmut Schoeck. Schoeck had co-edited a series of books I owned, published by the William Volker fund in the early 1960s. I bought the book, and it had a profound effect on my thinking.
The book’s thesis is this: envy is different from jealousy, and it is even more destructive. Jealousy is where someone says: “You have what I want. I cannot get it on my own. So, I am going to take yours away from you by force, preferably through politics.”
Envy is different. Envy is where someone does not say anything, but he thinks the following: “You have what I want. I know that I can never get it. I am going to destroy what you have, so that you will not be able to enjoy it.” It is the politics of arson.
Schoeck made an observation: you can negotiate with somebody who is jealous. Maybe you can figure out a way that you could share some of what you have, and he will be bought off. This is surely what goes on in modern politics.
The author made another point: you cannot negotiate with somebody who is envious. The fact that you are in a strong enough position to offer him something of value further enrages him. He resents the fact that you have so much that you might be willing to give up a little of it in order to placate him. It is your position of strength that angers him. He wants to strip you of any sign of superiority over him. He does not want to become beholden to you. If he gained anything as a result of a negotiation, he would still feel as though you were in a stronger position than he is. He would far rather see you devoid of whatever it is that you have than gain anything from you.
In other words, you can deal with the jealous person; you cannot deal with the envious person. Envy is therefore a sin that it is almost impossible to deal with in somebody else.
The problem is, it is very difficult to deal with in ourselves.
HEAVEN OR HELL
The Bible offers a few cases of outright envy, but the story of Satan that English-speaking people are most familiar with is the story of envy. It is summarized in the one line from Milton’s Paradise Lost that educated people remember. Satan makes this claim: “I would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.” This is the essence of envy. The devil had a good deal going for him in heaven. But he chose to rebel. It was better to be thrown out of heaven and cast into hell, in his thinking, than it was to remain in heaven. Heaven offered a great lifestyle, but not for someone driven by envy.
The point that Rothbard made over 40 years ago was this: socialism is driven by envy, not jealousy. He wrote: “Helmut Schoeck’s Envy makes a powerful case for the view that the modern egalitarian drive for socialism and similar doctrines is a pandering to envy of the different and the unequal, but the socialist attempt to eliminate envy through egalitarianism can never hope to succeed” (p. 287). To the extent that socialism is based on envy, this assessment is correct. Therefore, it does no good to attempt to get a settlement with envy-driven people who are promoting socialism. You cannot persuade them by showing that socialism is less efficient than capitalism. They do not care that they would be richer under capitalism than under socialism. They realize that socialism is a system for tearing down people who are more successful. Therefore, you cannot placate a socialist who is driven by envy.
I am convinced that most people regard certain forms of economic intervention as a benefit to them. Most people who promote larger government are jealous people, but not envious. They think that others have gotten rich at their expense, and all they are really after, they insist, is a way to settle the score. They will settle for getting more of what somebody else possesses. They see politics as a way to negotiate a better deal for themselves at the expense of the minority of rich people.
Nevertheless, there is a hard-core of academic and intellectual leadership within the socialist movement that really is driven by envy. They really are not convinced by the fact, which they have believed since 1991, that capitalism is more efficient than socialism. They still are outraged by inequality, and they would rather destroy the capitalist system than negotiate with it. They would rather live in hell than live in heaven, because heaven is a place of inequality.
I do not think most socialists believe this. This is why we do not find many socialists any more. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been clear to socialists around the world that socialism leads to economic poverty. It took the collapse of the Soviet Union to convince a majority of socialists of this position. So, most of them really are more driven by jealousy than envy. They are out to steal from the rich rather than destroy them.
I find that the problem with envy afflicts conservatives as much as it afflicts socialists. In fact, I am of the opinion that it afflicts them even worse than today’s socialists. Let me explain.
(To read the rest of my article, click the link.)