Skip to comments.On Appeasing Envy
Posted on 04/07/2007 9:26:37 PM PDT by pieceofthepuzzle
On Appeasing Envy
By Henry Hazlitt
Any attempt to equalize wealth or income by forced redistribution must only tend to destroy wealth and income. Historically the best the would-be equalizers have ever succeeded in doing is to equalize downward. This has even been caustically described as their intention. "Your levellers," said Samuel Johnson in the mid-eighteenth century, "wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves."
And in our own day we find even an eminent liberal like the late Mr. Justice Holmes writing: "I have no respect for the passion for equality, which seems to me merely idealizing envy."
At least a handful of writers have begun to recognize explicitly the all-pervasive role played by envy or the fear of envy in life and in contemporary political thought. In 1966, Helmut Schoeck, professor of sociology at the University of Mainz, devoted a scholarly and penetrating book to the subject, to which most future discussion is likely to be indebted.
There can be little doubt that many egalitarians are motivated at least partly by envy, while still others are motivated, not so much by any envy of their own, as by the fear of it in others, and the wish to appease or satisfy it. But the latter effort is bound to be futile. Almost no one is completely satisfied with his status in relation to his fellows.
In the envious the thirst for social advancement is insatiable. As soon as they have risen one rung in the social or economic ladder, their eyes are fixed upon the next. They envy those who are higher up, no matter by how little. In fact, they are more likely to envy their immediate friends or neighbors, who are just a little bit better off, than celebrities or millionaires who are incomparably better off. The position of the latter seems unattainable, but of the neighbor who has just a minimal advantage they are tempted to think: "I might almost be in his place."
Moreover, the envious are more likely to be mollified by seeing others deprived of some advantage than by gaining it for themselves. It is not what they lack that chiefly troubles them, but what others have. The envious are not satisfied with equality; they secretly yearn for superiority and revenge. In the French Revolution of 1848, a woman coal-heaver is said to have remarked to a richly dressed lady: "Yes, madam, everything's going to be equal now; I shall go in silks and you'll carry coal."
Envy is implacable. Concessions merely whet its appetite for more concessions. As Schoeck writes: "Man's envy is at its most intense where all are almost equal; his calls for redistribution are loudest when there is virtually nothing to redistribute."
(We should, of course, always distinguish that merely negative envy which begrudges others their advantage from the positive ambition that leads men to active emulation, competition, and creative effort of their own.)
But the accusation of envy, or even of the fear of others' envy, as the dominant motive for any redistribution proposal is a serious one to make and a difficult if not impossible one to prove. Moreover, the motives for making a proposal, even if ascertainable, are irrelevant to its inherent merits.
We can, nonetheless, apply certain objective tests. Sometimes the motive of appeasing other people's envy is openly avowed. Socialists will often talk as if some form of superbly equalized destitution were preferable to "maldistributed" plenty. A national income that is rapidly growing in absolute terms for practically everyone will be deplored because it is making the rich richer. An implied and sometimes avowed principle of the British Labour Party leaders after World War II was that "Nobody should have what everybody can't have."
But the main objective test of a social proposal is not merely whether it emphasizes equality more than abundance, but whether it goes further and attempts to promote equality at the expense of abundance. Is the proposed measure intended primarily to help the poor, or to penalize the rich? And would it in fact punish the rich at the cost of also hurting everyone else?
This is the actual effect of steeply progressive income taxes and confiscatory inheritance taxes. These are not only counterproductive fiscally (bringing in less revenue from the higher brackets than lower rates would have brought), but they discourage or confiscate the capital accumulation and investment that would have increased national productivity and real wages. Most of the confiscated funds are then dissipated by the government in current consumption expenditures. The long-run effect of such tax rates, of course, is to leave the working poor worse off than they would otherwise have been.
How to Bring On a Revolution There are economists who will admit all this, but will answer that it is nonetheless politically necessary to impose such near-confiscatory taxes, or to enact similar redistributive measures, in order to placate the dissatisfied and the envious in order, in fact, to prevent actual revolution.
This argument is the reverse of the truth. The effect of trying to appease envy is to provoke more of it.
The most popular theory of the French Revolution is that it came about because the economic condition of the masses was becoming worse and worse, while the king and the aristocracy remained completely blind to it. But de Tocqueville, one of the most penetrating social observers and historians of his or any other time, put forward an exactly opposite explanation. Let me state it first as summarized by an eminent French commentator in 1899:
"Here is the theory invented by Tocqueville The lighter a yoke, the more it seems insupportable; what exasperates is not the crushing burden but the impediment; what inspires to revolt is not oppression but humiliation. The French of 1789 were incensed against the nobles because they were almost the equals of the nobles; it is the slight difference that can be appreciated, and what can be appreciated that counts. The eighteenth-century middle class was rich, in a position to fill almost any employment, almost as powerful as the nobility. It was exasperated by this ''almost" and stimulated by the proximity of its goal; impatience is always provoked by the final strides."
I have quoted this passage because I do not find the theory stated in quite this condensed form by Tocqueville himself. Yet this is essentially the theme of his L'Ancien Régime et la Revolution, and he presented impressive factual documentation to support it. Here is a typical passage:
"It is a singular fact that this steadily increasing prosperity, far from tranquilizing the population, everywhere promoted a spirit of unrest. The general public became more and more hostile to every ancient institution, more and more discontented; indeed, it was increasingly obvious that the nation was heading for a revolution
Thus it was precisely in those parts of France where there had been most improvement that popular discontent ran highest. This may seem illogical but history is full of such paradoxes. For it is not always when things are going from bad to worse that revolutions break out. On the contrary, it oftener happens that when a people which has put up with an oppressive rule over a long period without protest suddenly finds the government relaxing its pressure, it takes up arms against it. Thus the social order overthrown by a revolution is almost always better than the one immediately preceding it, and experience teaches us that, generally speaking, the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways. Only consummate statecraft can enable a King to save his throne when after a long spell of oppressive rule he sets to improving the lot of his subjects. Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men's minds. For the mere fact that certain abuses have been remedied draws attention to the others and they now appear more galling; people may suffer less, but their sensibility is exacerbated
In 1780 there could no longer be any talk of France's being on the downgrade; on the contrary, it seemed that no limit could be set to her advance. And it was now that theories of the perfectibility of man and continuous progress came into fashion. Twenty years earlier there had been no hope for the future; in 1780 no anxiety was felt about it. Dazzled by the prospect of a felicity undreamed of hitherto and now within their grasp, people were blind to the very improvement that had taken place and eager to precipitate events."
The expressions of sympathy that came from the privileged class only aggravated the situation:
"The very men who had most to fear from the anger of the masses had no qualms about publicly condemning the gross injustice with which they had always been treated. They drew attention to the monstrous vices of the institutions which pressed most heavily on the common people and indulged in highly colored descriptions of the living conditions of the working class and the starvation wages it received. And thus by championing the cause of the underprivileged they made them acutely conscious of their wrongs."
Tocqueville went on to quote at length from the mutual recriminations of the king, the nobles, and the parliament in blaming each other for the miseries of the people. To read them now is to get the uncanny feeling that they are plagiarizing the rhetoric of the limousine liberals of our own day.
All this does not mean that we should hesitate to take any measure truly calculated to relieve hardship and reduce poverty. What it does mean is that we should never take governmental measures merely for the purpose of trying to assuage the envious or appease the agitators, or to buy off a revolution. Such measures, betraying weakness and a guilty conscience, only lead to more far-reaching and even ruinous demands. A government that pays social blackmail will precipitate the very consequences that it fears.
Henry Hazlitt served on the board of advisers of the Mises Institute. This article appeared in The Freeman, March 1972. Helmut Schoeck's Envy is available in the Mises Store. Comment on the Blog.
 M. de Wolfe Howe, ed., The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Homes and Harold J. Laski, 2 vol., Cambridge, Mass., 1953. From Holmes to Laski, May 12, 1927, p.942.  Helmut Schoeck, Envy, English tr., Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969.  Ibid., p. 303.  Emile Faguet, Politicians and Moralists of the Nineteenth Century, Boston: Little, Brown; 1928, p.93.  Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955, pp. 175-177.  Ibid., p.180.
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Posted on 01/21/2002 1:16:50 PM PST by 45Auto
What do Harvard president Larry Summers, Taliban John Walker, Delta Airlines officials and the editors of the New York Times have in common with Yanomamo tribeswomen in the Amazon jungle? To answer this question is to understand the root cause of liberal "white guilt." Lakes of ink have been splashed on newspaper, magazine and journal pages ruminating and anguishing over the bottomless guilt that pervades the liberal soul. Paul Craig Roberts, economist and columnist, writes eloquently about the anti-white racism endemic in American universities that demonizes white males as the font of all evil. Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institute explained in the Wall Street Journal recently how white guilt empowers racist frauds such as Cornel West.
The self-loathing of the white American liberal is as well-established and documented as Einstein's Special Relativity theorems. A typical example is writer Susan Sontag's denouncement of the white race as "the cancer of human history." A racist hatred of one's own race auto-racism has become a defining characteristic of the liberal mind. Yet the source of such suicidal guilt remains a mystery. Clearly understanding what disables liberals from wanting to defend their culture is today a mortal necessity an absolute requirement if America is to be preserved and protected from Moslem terrorists and other folk desirous of her demise.
Exploitation and Black Magic
For such understanding, we need to travel to the Amazon. Among the Yanomamo and other tribes deep in the Amazon rain forests still adhering to the ancient hunting-gathering lifestyle practiced by our Paleolithic ancestors, it is an accepted practice that when a woman gives birth, she tearfully proclaims her child to be ugly. In a loud, mortified lament that the entire tribe can hear, she asks why the gods have cursed her with such a pathetically repulsive infant. She does this in order to ward off the envious black magic of the Evil Eye, the Mal Ojo, that would be directed at her by her fellow tribespeople if they knew how happy she was with her beautiful baby.
Anthropologists observe that for most primitive and traditional cultures, "every individual lives in constant fear of the magical aggression of others ... there is only one explanation for unforeseen events: the envious black magic of another villager." Reflect for a moment on the extent to which tribespeople in a tribal, "primitive" culture suffuse their lives with superstition, witchcraft, sorcery, voodoo, "black magic," the "evil eye." The world for them is teeming with demons, spirits, ghosts and gods, all of whom are malicious and dangerous -- in a word, envious. A great many, if not the majority, of tribal or traditional cultures, whether in the Amazon, Africa or the Pacific, have no concept of natural death. Death is always murder.
For the Shuara Jivaro of the eastern Amazon, the first tribe I ever stayed with, there are three ways to die: actual murder (such as a spear through your stomach); demon-murder (accidental death, such as being killed by a falling tree in a storm or by snakebite, which the Jivaros see as perpetrated by a demon); or witchcraft murder (death by illness or unexplained causes, perpetrated by an envious sorcerer). The Jivaro, just like the Tiv in Nigeria, the Aritama in Colombia, the Dobua in Micronesia, the Navaho in the Southwest U.S. and the tribal mind in general, attribute any illness or misfortune to the envious black magic of a personal enemy.
Envy is the source of tribal and traditional cultures' belief in Black Magic, the fear of the envious Evil Eye.
The fundamental reason why certain cultures remain static and never evolve (e.g., present-day villages in Egypt and India that have stayed pretty much the same for millennia) is the overwhelming extent to which the lives of the people within them are dominated by envy and envy avoidance: as anthropologists call it, the envy barrier.
For the Mambwe in Zambia, for example, "successful men are regarded as sinister, supernatural and dangerous." In Mexican villages, "fear of other people's envy determines every detail of life, every proposed action." Members of a Hispanic "ghetto" in a community in Colorado "equate success with betrayal of the group; whoever works his way up socially and economically is regarded as a 'man who has sold himself to the Anglos,' someone 'who climbs on the backs of his own people.' "
It is an ultimate irony of modern times that left-wing Marxist-type intellectuals consider themselves to be in the progressive vanguard of sophisticated contemporary thought -- when in reality their thinking is nothing but an atavism, a regression to a primitive tribal mentality. What the Left calls "exploitation" is what anthropologists call "black magic." As sociologist Helmut Schoeck summarizes in his seminal work, "Envy: A Theory of Human Behavior" (and who collected the above anthropologists' observations):
A self-pitying inclination to contemplate another's superiority or advantages, combined with a vague belief in his being the cause of one's own deprivation, is also to be found among educated members of our modern societies who really ought to know better. The primitive people's belief in black magic differs little from modern ideas. Whereas the socialist believes himself robbed by the employer, just as the politician in a developing country believes himself robbed by the industrial countries, so primitive man believes himself robbed by his neighbor, the latter having succeeded by black magic in spiriting away to his own fields part of the former's harvest.
The primitive atavism of left-wing bromides like "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" is best illustrated by arguing that one can be healthy only at the expense of others. That in order to be in superior health, bursting with energy and vitality, one has to make someone else sick or in poor health -- just as in order to be rich you have to make others poor. The healthy are healthy because they unjustly exploited and ripped off the sick, spiriting away the sick's fair share of health with black magic. In fact, the sick are sick because the healthy are healthy. If this is absurd, then claiming the poor are poor because they have been exploited by the rich is equally absurd.
Fear of Being Envied
Pandering to the envious, and intimidating those who are afraid of them, has been the path to power of all modern demagogues, from Lenin and Hitler to Yassir Arafat and Osama bin Laden. The three great political pathologies of the 20th century are all religions of envy: Nazism, preaching race envy toward "rich, exploitative Jews"; Communism, preaching class envy toward the "rich, exploitative bourgeoisie"; and Moslem terrorism, preaching culture envy toward the "rich, exploitative West." Envy-mongering has always been and continues to be the underlying strategy of all variants of the political Left, such as the Democratic Party. What a Yanomamo woman calls "black magic" and a Marxist professor at Harvard calls "exploitation," Tom Daschle calls "tax break for the rich."
So here we discover the secret fear at the source of the suicidal liberal mind. It is envy that makes a Nazi, a Communist or a terrorist. It is the fear of being envied that makes a liberal and is the source of "liberal guilt." This is most easily seen in the children of wealthy parents. Successful businessmen, for example, who have made it on their own normally have a respect for the effort and the economic system that makes success possible.
Their children, who have not had to work for it, are easier targets for guilt-mongering by the envious. So they assume a posture of liberal compassion as an envy-deflection device: "Please don't envy me for my father's money -- look at all the liberal causes and government social programs I advocate!"
Teddy Kennedy is the archetype of this phenomenon.
This is also why Hollywood is so liberal. The vast amounts of money movie stars make is so grossly disproportionate to the effort it took them to make it that they feel it is unearned. So they apologize for it. The liberal's strategy is to apologize for his success in order to appease the envious. Liberalism is thus not a political ideology or set of beliefs. It is an envy-deflection device, a psychological strategy to avoid being envied.
Then there are those who are terrified of envy even though they have earned success themselves. Many Jews are liberals because such lethal envy has been directed at Jews for so many centuries that it is little wonder they consider avoiding envy to be a necessity of life. One definitive characteristic of both envy and the fear of it is masochism. Envy is not simply hatred of someone for having something you don't -- it is the willingness to masochistically give up any chance of ever having that something yourself as long as the person you are envious of doesn't get to have it either. Similarly, the more one fears being envied, the more one is driven to masochistic self-humiliation in attempts at envy appeasement.
The Masochism of Liberals
It is possible to perceive the passions of the Left as frenzies of masochism. What could be more idiotic and masochistic than to oppose missile defense? This opposition cannot be understood unless one dispenses with its rhetoric and rationales and realizes that these folks at their emotional core do not want their country defended. The lunacy of the "global warming" hoax cannot be comprehended other than that its masochistic advocates do not want their civilization to prosper. The culture-destroying immigration policies that Pat Buchanan warns are causing "The Death of the West" were put in place by those who do not want their culture to survive.
The lethality of liberal envy appeasement is that personally felt guilt is projected onto the various social or tribal collectives to which the liberal belongs and are a part of his self-identity. Self-loathing is transformed into a loathing of one's society or race.
White male liberals become auto-racist and auto-sexist: racist toward their own race, sexist toward their own sex. Dime-store demagogues like eco-fascist environmentalists, feminazis, animal and homosexual rights types, race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton all get their strength from the liberals' fear of their Evil Eyes. As the Amazon tribeswoman who says her baby is ugly, so the white male liberal says his gender, his race, his country, his civilization and even his entire species is ugly.
I began to realize how liberal envy appeasement is the root of the problem when I was speaking at colleges back in the 1980s about anti-Soviet resistance movements in Soviet colonies such as Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique and Afghanistan. Students would invariably turn a discussion of Soviet imperialism into an assertion of moral equivalence between the USA and the USSR: "How can you criticize the Soviets when we're just as bad? What about what we did to the Indians?" I would be asked.
"I haven't done anything to the Indians," I replied. "What have you done to them?"
"But we stole their land!"
"OK -- let's give it back. And let's start with your property. To what tribe do you want your family's home to go? What tribe gets your stereo?"
Once I couldn't stand being heckled by a particularly loud and petulant student leftist any longer. I lost my temper and said to him: "Look, man, if you're into masochism, find some chick with long black hair who's into whips and chains and have her beat the hell out of you. Just don't take it out on your country."
The future of our economy, our culture and our civilization depends on an antidote to the corrosive social poisons of envy and envy appeasement. That antidote was first provided by Aristotle in the 4th century bc.
The antidote to envy is emulation.
In the "Rhetoric" (ca. 350 bc), Aristotle distinguishes the two: "Zelos, emulation, is a good thing and characteristic of good people, while phthonos, envy, is bad and characteristic of the bad; for the former, through emulation, are making an effort to attain good things for themselves, while the latter, through envy, try to prevent their neighbors from having them." ("Rhetoric," 2.10.1)
Aristotle invokes the ancient wisdom of his 8th century (bc) predecessor Hesiod:
There is not one kind of Eris (Strife), but all over the earth there are two. One fosters evil war and battle, being cruel. The other is the elder daughter of dark Night, and she is far kinder to men. She stirs up even the shiftless to toil. For a man grows eager to work when he considers his neighbor, a rich man who hastens to plough and plant and put his house in good order. Thus neighbor vies with neighbor to hurry after wealth. This Strife is wholesome for men. ("Works and Days," 11-24)
Aristotle concludes that "Whereas phthonos, envy, is censured because it seeks to harm another, zelos, emulation, is praised because it encourages a person to attain excellence on his own merits." ("Rhetoric," 2.11.1) Fear of envy is very deep-seated in the human psyche. It can prevent a culture from progressing for thousands of years. Only a youthful culture full of vigor and confidence can shrug it off, enabling that culture to flourish. The road to cultural ruin lies in the fear of envy reasserting itself from the primordial depths.
America once had that youth, vigor and confidence, culminating in history's single greatest achievement, putting a man on the moon. After the triply debilitating debacles of Vietnam, Watergate and Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan resurrected America's self-confidence, with America's resultant victory in the Cold War. Yet America lost her way once more, indulging in a cultural debauch epitomized by the Clintons. America's response to the atrocity of Sept. 11 provided overwhelming evidence that her reserves of vitality and self-assurance remain abundant.
Those reserves are nonetheless depleted. America's most elite universities have degenerated into fascist cesspools of envy appeasement. They survive only on the inertia of their prestige. Delta and other airlines compromise passenger security by harassing people at random rather than racially profiling Arab and other Moslem men.
Indeed, the entire phenomenon of political correctness -- perhaps best exemplified by the New York Times editorial page -- is nothing but a massive exercise in envy appeasement. One of the most positive results of Sept. 11 is that it has made the American people mad enough to reject envy. They now could care less if Moslems or the French or whomever are envious of them. That rejection must now be applied to the envy panderers and envy appeasers within America herself. Rejecting envy is the key to preventing "The Death of the West," the key for America to continue to prosper. I suggest that this rejection begin with you.
Fear of the Evil Eye is the only thing that gives the Evil Eye any power. Without fear of it, the Evil Eye is impotent. So, the next time Evil Eyes are directed at you and demand you apologize for your existence, you might suggest that they indulge in S&M by themselves and leave you out of it.
Why don’t we just have one “National Day of White Apology” and be done with it?