Sunday, December 11, 2016

Wealth And Envy

     Some years ago there was a movie titled The Gods Must Be Crazy. It concerned a tribe in the Kalahari desert that has essentially nothing but the food it can gather from its surroundings, which comes unexpectedly upon a gift of sorts: an empty Coke bottle. Before long, the members of the tribe come to blows over that bottle, from which the discoverer concludes that they are not meant to have it. He resolves to return it to the gods by taking it to the edge of the world and casting it off. Only thus, he believes, can the envy of his tribemates be neutered and the conflicts among them ended.

     Sounds a bit odd, I’m sure. Yet it serves as an allegory of the effects of the internationalization of First World commerce. The spread of our products across the globe has elicited paroxysms of envy we of the prosperous West could hardly imagine.

     Please don’t mistake me: the envious behavior of others is not our fault. What I have in mind is how a tribal society, not yet intellectually advanced enough to comprehend the value of property rights or the destructiveness of envy, will usually react to contact with a more advanced society. The pattern is near to uniform, wherever such contact has occurred. Indeed, I’m unable to come up with a counterexample.

     Ponder this tale of a Ghanaian tribal chief:

     This man had worked for thirty years in the offices of a number of European export firms. He knew that the only way to political influence lay in the accumulation of savings with which to finance a political organization. For him, this was enormously difficult. Whenever his relatives supposed him to have saved anything, they applied the thumbscrews of family obligations....The chief in question had to transfer his account from bank to bank because his relatives succeeded in eliciting information from the bank clerks about his savings. He began to build a house that he purposely left unfinished so that he could tell his relatives, “You see, I have no more money, I am a poor man.” At last they believed him and he was able to prosper without interference.

     [Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour]

     Helmut Schoeck’s mighty treatise brilliantly analyzes how pervasive, uncontrolled envy retards the societies where it persists. Very early on in the book he gives us a thought we should all bear in mind:

     Most of the achievements which distinguish members of modern, highly developed and diversified societies from members of primitive societies – the development of civilization, in short – are the results of innumerable defeats inflicted on envy: i.e., on man as an envious being. And what Marxists have called the opiate of religion, the ability to provide hope and happiness for believers in widely different material circumstances, is nothing more than the provision of ideas which liberate the envious person from envy, the person envied from his sense of guilt and his fear of the envious.

     In a society in which some will prosper more than others, uncontrolled envy is the stimulus for unending conflict. A society that accepts rampant envy as somehow justifiable (or at least, ineradicable) will be lucky indeed if those conflicts remain non-violent.

     Yet in contemplating the social order of the West, which routinely grants respect to the demands of the querulous, such that those who ask nothing of the State except to be left alone are mulcted without limit to satisfy them, what conclusion can we reach but that envy, in the First World, has become one of the ruling principles of society?

     Australia’s Reverend John Williams notes in his lectures that the only emotion mentioned in the Ten Commandments is envy: Thou shalt not covet. It should follow that among Christians, any indications of envy should be squashed at the instant they manifest. This in no way contravenes the desirability of charity toward those whose circumstances don’t permit them to support themselves. Rather it’s a matter of responsibility toward one’s fellows and their right to be left alone. To appease the envious is to feed their envy and increase its power. The envious are never satisfied with a single propitiation or a single target.

     This is on my mind this morning because of a practice that’s become commonplace among American Christians: the doubly anonymous giving of Christmas gifts, purchased by the well off, to the children of presumptively needy families. At my parish a “giving tree” is used to solicit specific items as gifts, which makes it still worse. The implications of this practice appall me. I can’t imagine how anyone conscious of the dynamics of demand for the unearned – how attempts to satisfy such demands stoke the furnace of envy – could fail to grasp this.

     I’m considered a modern-day Scrooge for thinking such a thing. To my shame, that’s often caused me to withhold or qualify my opinion, even when it’s been requested.

     I know, I know: bleak thoughts for Gaudete Sunday, which is supposed to be an occasion of joy. Yet I can’t help but wish for the disappearance of the Christmas gift-giving tradition, and not merely for the crowds it engenders on the roads and in the stores in the month of December. It often seems to me that one whose fondest desire is to destroy constructive charity, neighborly affection, and genuine good will among men could hardly have come up with a better stratagem.

     Bob Cratchit’s family demanded nothing. They were profoundly grateful for what they had, and delighted beyond measure with what they eventually received. Perhaps in framing their story that way, Charles Dickens was wiser than he knew. He was certainly wiser than our contemporary apostles of an unreflective, indiscriminate “charity” for which gratitude is seldom felt and thanks is never offered.

3 comments:

  1. I'd never thought of A Christmas Carol in terms of the Cratchitt's lack of envy.
    Now that you have written this, I'm going to have to put envy on my Sin of the Month list - it's the monthly focus on a character defect that I work to defeat that month.
    Probably will never completely overcome my faults, but I do find it both humbling and personally enriching to try.

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  2. I long ago reached the inevitable conclusion that we have confused fake charity with real charity. It's been no less harmful to our society than confusing credit for capital. Real charity makes people feel better. The giver feels better because someone else has been helped, truly helped, and that always feels good. The recipient feels gratitude. Real charity connects people. Real charity is always person-to-person, and it's always completely voluntary, much like the real version of free trade. Fake charity has a third person in the middle, coercing the givers to give and forcing the takers to take. Fake charity has many forms, with various levels of coercion inflicted on the giver. It can be the giving tree at church, your manager at work compelling you to give generously to the company's favorite charity so they can meet their company goal, or it can be the government's wealth redistribution via taxation. Fake charity makes the givers feel resentment at the taking, whether through guilt or shaming at church or at work, or through the implied violence of the government that will be applied to tax scofflaws. The fake giving of fake charity leaves the giver feeling resentful, because they weren't allowed to give freely. They had fake charity extracted from them via guilt or at the barrel of a gun. For the giver, fake charity feels more like a mugging. Fake charity also deprives the recipient of any good feelings as well. The recipients of fake charity feel the resentment too. They resent the fact that some intermediary must steal on their behalf to force a more equal outcome. It accentuates the differences between people and engenders a sense of envy and entitlement. Fake charity drives a wedge between people and divides us. It's inherently divisive. Fake charity kills real charity. After someone has something taken to be given to someone else, they have less to voluntarily share and they feel less like sharing. On the other side of the equation, the recipient of real charity feels gratitude toward the person who voluntarily shared what they had, but the recipient of fake charity feels no such gratitude to the nameless and faceless intermediary in the wealth redistribution. Instead, they feel resentment of their status and a sense of cultivated entitlement that begets more fake charity and more entitlement and more envy.

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  3. My strategy for the giving tree is to give only necessities such as clothing or a gift card for a grocery store. Once saw a request for and Xbox or Playstation. What gall!

    As for envy in general Lao Tzu also had something to say - a truly rich man knows when he has enough.

    Again, charity and gratitude begin at home and are at lease just as important to teach as the three R's.

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