The Role of Envy in a Free Society

SFL Staff

When legislators enact wealth redistribution policies for the sake of equality, they are often simultaneously involved in promoting unequal market conditions, fixing the legislative framework to benefit key companies in particular industries at the expense of their competitors. Constituencies tacitly or even explicitly support this cronyism through lobbying, certain state-supported union activities and by criticizing competition within their industries. What sort of social forces contribute to this phenomenon? Among all the emotions and attitudes which mediate our behavior, one stands out as extremely relevant to this question: the emotion of envy.

The late Austrian-German sociologist Dr. Helmut Schoeck, in his masterful 1969 sociological text Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, attempts to form a broad theory of social behavior based on the emotion of envy. Two major arguments he advances in the text are that envy is an inescapable element of all human societies and that excessive envy can severely limit a society’s capacity for economic development.

In this blog post, I’ll be talking a little about the latter of the two arguments, as well as some thoughts on how Shoeck’s work might inform libertarian thought on justice, equality, and economic development. Before you read further however, I strongly urge you to read this short blogpost I’ve published to help clarify the concept of envy, review some common misconceptions, and to discuss the first major argument (i.e. that envy is inescapable).

In a chapter entitled “The Envy-Barrier of the Developing Countries,” Schoeck details some fascinating anthropological work of the early and mid 20th century which reveals the presence of envy in less developed societies. He cites the work of William Watson, an anthropologist who studied tribal cohesion of the Mambwe people of Northern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) in the early 50s. At the time, their culture was undergoing considerable change as they began to adopt a money economy and work in copper mines and nearby towns. Watson writes about the experiences of men who had left their tribes to seek education in nearby missionary schools and to find work in the town’s emerging market economies. The wealth that these men acquired was not exactly welcomed when they would return. Rather, it was viewed by fellow tribespeople with suspicion and accusations of envious black magic, as any increase in an individual’s wealth was considered positively correlated with their ability to hurt their neighbors. Similarly, successful Mambwe farmer-traders whose fields produced more crops year round were viewed as relying on some form of sorcery, their success coming at the expense of others. Anthropologist G. E. Simpson wrote about a phenomenon in Haitian villages where peasants would deliberately conceal their long-term economic aspirations, purchasing smaller plots of land over a longer period of time so as not to arouse the envy of neighbors. Oscar Lewis studied peoples in the small Mexican town Tepoztlán and told a story about a widow whose pig was killed in a local accident, her neighbors informing her of the destruction of her property only after they had carved it and taken the valuable meat. Schoeck argues that the cultural impetus, generated by excessive envy, to suppress discussion of future economic plans in these societies made the emergence of a robust system of property rights, and thus economic development, considerably more difficult.

How is envy overcome or suppressed? Schoeck argues, contrary to the beliefs of some modern thinkers, that private property is not “the cause of destructive envy… but a necessary protective screen between people.” He argues that the cultural notions of fortune and of public “face” or honor, as well as specific religious proverbs (e.g. “Thou shalt not covet”) and the secularized Enlightenment translations of these values, have played an enormous role in allowing people to “…act as if there were no such thing as envy…” In a social environment where people are permitted to use their creative talents freely, to reap the rewards of their efforts with the mutual understanding that they act under conditions of uncertainty as beneficiaries (at least in part) of Good Fortune, envy cannot possibly thrive. Better yet, a society which acknowledges the comparative advantages and unique talents of individuals and groups can make room for the idea that people succeed interdependently, inspiring entrepreneurship and cooperation.

We live in a political environment today that continues to lose sight of this message, with redistributive measures constantly proposed and frequently enacted. How have the notions of justice and equality evolved over time? Schoeck cites professor of law Edmond Cahn and his words on the origins of our sense of injustice: “Nature has thus equipped every man to regard injustice to another as aggression against himself… each projects himself into the shoes of the other, not in pity or compassion merely, but in the vigor of self-defense.”  Justice is personal. Any conceptions of justice are subject to the whole spectrum of human emotions, including envy. Schoeck warns us that “few arbitrary actions, especially those of a legislative nature, are so thankless, and few so fraught with undesirable consequences, as an attempt to balance the scales of fate in order to assuage envy.” And so we see an important distinction emerge: equality before the law (an Enlightenment ideal) vs. equity or equality of material wealth. As libertarians recognize, these two values cannot be sought simultaneously. The government must necessarily treat others unequally in order to achieve total equity.

Thankfully, student advocates for liberty all over the world are helping to reignite the passion for freedom, entrepreneurship and individualism. My hope is that by understanding the role that envy plays in our society, in all societies, we might also reawaken the understanding that our fates are bound together and that envy serves no one.