Monday, August 13, 2018

Envy: A Theory Of Insurrection

     I’ve long been intrigued, and somewhat baffled, by the emotion of envy: what it is, how it differs from jealousy and admiration, what evokes it and why, and how it affects relations in a complex modern society. It strikes me as one of the most important fuels for contemporary social disquiet. But as I think I understand it, I’m apparently immune to it myself. I think that’s why I can’t fathom its most important outcroppings. However, I do grasp what it can do to a sociopolitical order.

     In his landmark work Anarchy, State, and Utopia, philosopher Robert Nozick approaches envy analytically. For any given asset and any two persons Smith and Jones, there are four possible states of relation:

Condition # Smith Jones
has it
has it
has it
doesn’t have it
doesn’t have it
has it
doesn’t have it
doesn’t have it

     If Smith prefers condition #4 to condition #3, he envies Jones. If Jones prefers condition #4 to condition #2, he envies Smith. In other words, you are envious if you are willing to see someone deprived of something you lack, even if his deprivation would do you no objective good: i.e., no good other than the satisfaction of your envy.

     Joseph Sobran and others have provided a more compact formulation:

Envy is hatred of the good for being good.

     This parallels an old aphorism: “The envious man thinks that if his neighbor breaks a leg, then he will be able to walk better.”

     It should be plain that this is a corrosive influence, one that a functioning society cannot endure and must therefore control. The pseudonymous “John Galt,” in Dreams Come Due, commented on its social and political effect thus:

     As mankind has advanced through the centuries, envy has come to be almost as at home in prosperous nations as in impoverished ones. The fear of envy may explain why the countries with more freedom always seem to self-destruct through redistributive anarchy. Although envy is never absent from any society, it becomes most pervasive and counterproductive when it gains control of government and then of the “law,” which subsequently sets itself above the rights of property.

     So far, this is unchallengeable, even by persons who claim that any envy felt by the “disadvantaged” — provide whatever definition you like for this politically useful phantom – is fully justified. But “Galt” has more to say:

     As laws of envy multiply, so does the emotion, because like all forms of neurosis envy cannot be satisfied. [Emphasis added]

     Helmut Schoeck, in his book Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, adds his concurrence:

     Envy is ineluctable, implacable and irreconcilable, is irritated by the slightest differences, is independent of the degree of inequality, appears in its worst form in social proximity or among near relations, provides the dynamic for every social revolution, yet cannot of itself produce any kind of coherent revolutionary programme.

     This makes uncontrolled envy both wholly destructive to the social order and incredibly useful to those who see an advantage in disrupting it.

     Let’s turn to the current social and political state of these United States of America in this year of Our Lord 2018. When we observe it from a height, what do we see?

  1. The richest and most secure (in aggregate) society in recorded history.
  2. The absence of unavoidable privation: i.e., no one in the U.S. lacks access to food, clothing, shelter, or emergency medical care unless it’s by his own choice and through his own deliberate action.
  3. An unprecedented degree of material comfort that spans all economic strata.
  4. A degree of political hostility unexampled since the Civil War.
  5. Disputants unwilling to discuss objective realities.
  6. A rising tide of violence and “private-sector censorship” aimed at preventing one side from stating its claims and its case.

     Observations 4, 5, and 6 clash dramatically with observations 1, 2, and 3. How can this be?

     A great part of the explanation lies in induced envy. America’s riches are not uniformly distributed. Smiths who lack what (notional) Joneses have, however irrelevant those things may be to those Smiths’ objective needs, are susceptible to envying the Joneses. More to the point, they can be taught to envy them. Various shibboleths have been employed in such campaigns. They’ve had a great deal of success.

     However, of itself induced envy is insufficient. It must be coupled to induced guilt: the materially better off must be made to feel that the assuagement of others’ envy is their moral responsibility. Such campaigns have also been successful. Their victims are often hard to treat, as psychologist Peter Breggin and others have noted. The problem can be exacerbated by “rubbing salt into the wound:” i.e., when some better-off persons openly pour contempt upon the less well off or their spokesmen. This common reaction to induced guilt, while understandable, is not laudable.

     Yet both such undertakings come up against am important obstacle: the economic preponderance, not of “plutocrats” or “captains of industry,” but of ordinary, middle-class Americans. These persons aren’t rich by contemporary American standards; nevertheless they enjoy a degree of luxury. They work, earn, and consume with ease and relative insouciance. They may want things they haven’t got, but it doesn’t occur to them to blame others for it. And they make up ninety percent of America’s people.

     Of the ten percent that remains:

  • Perhaps one percent are genuinely rich: net worth of $10 million or more.
  • Three to five percent are upper-middle-class, vying for inclusion in the ranks of the genuinely rich;
  • The remainder run the gamut from “not well off but paying their own bills” to “charges on public charity.”

     While a movement that commanded only four percent of a populace can, if sufficiently militant, induce the rest to accede to its demands, it hasn’t happened often. Moreover, Americans’ enduring belief in merit and effort as the source of all material things armors them against mere demands. Thus those in America who seek advantage for themselves by fomenting an insurrection powered by envy and unearned guilt have a tougher row to hoe than, for example, the Bolsheviks of early Twentieth Century Russia.

     Clearly, the engineers of social disquiet through envy and induced guilt have made visible strides. How? Where did they begin? What program did they follow? Is it possible to quell them before they succeed in overturning the American political order?

     Their campaign has been multigenerational. Some of it was conducted in plain sight – and some of it was germinated from otherwise benevolent intentions and wholesome efforts. The roots include certain assumptions persons of various economic levels have internalized and never bother to examine against the evidence. The thing deserves to be studied dispassionately. However, owing to the current malaise, few remain willing or able to make the effort required.

     More anon.


Linda Fox said...

Some would prefer condition #4 - neither has it, to condition # 1. In other words, they would prefer to lose what they have, as long as the other person also loses what they have.

Not only envy, but aggravated by SPITE.


ENVY is, in most religions, a sin. Thus, its misuse by the SJWs is a leveraging of the fallen nature of man.

hcat said...

I think there are two kinds of envy. One is, I begrudge your success that I don’t have. This leans left. The other is, You have something like I have, maybe not as much; maybe you get to live in the same neighborhood in a small apartment where I have a house; but you have not worked like I have, or “paid your dues” like I have; therefore I begrudge you what you have. This kind of envy often leans populist right.