Everyone knows that envy is a sin. In more secular terms, envy, in an individual or a nation, produces dysfunction.
Culturally speaking, a nation that avoids envy is more likely to prosper.
Historically, envy has been notably absent from American politics. Now, Arthur Brooks explains, that is changing.
To define the term, Brooks turns to a rock star named Bono, who, effectively, delivers:
The Irish singer Bono once described a difference between America and his native land. “In the United States,” he explained, “you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, one day, I’m going to get that bastard.”
Brooks adds a comment from Tocqueville:
Alexis de Tocqueville phrased it a little differently, but his classic 19th-century text contains the same observation. Visiting from France, he marveled at Americans’ ability to keep envy at bay, and to see others’ successes as portents of good times for all.
But, what is envy? Some would say that it is a form of desire— after all one of the French words for desire is envie— but Brooks more accurately relates it to depression.
As we know, depression is notably characterized by a diminished desire, for food and for sex.
In so doing, Brooks is following Thomas Aquinas, who linked envy with sorrow. By definition, we envy those things that other people have and that we despair of ever earning ourselves.
Envy might feel like a desire, but it is corrupted and perverted, directed toward destroying what other people have built, not building anything of its own.
Envy is the emotional core of deconstruction. It’s opposite is a work ethic.
According to Aquinas the opposite of envy is feeling happy for the good that accrues to your neighbors.
A character in Shakespeare’s As You Like It says it well:
I earn that I eat, get that I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good….
Why does anyone feel envy? Aquinas notes that it befalls someone who believes that someone else’s gain is his loss. It derives from seeing the world as a zero-sum game.
When we envy someone else’s success, we set out to what he has, not to earning something of our own.
Obviously, theft and destruction are useful ways to express envy. But, Aquinas says, someone who suffers from envy is also prone to defame anyone who has more than he does.
The passion is especially acute when you envy someone else his good character. Since good character is an intangible good, feeling envy for those who have it will lead to slander, libel and character assassination.
People who are consumed by envy also take great pleasure in the misfortune of others.
If envy is a function of depression or sorrow, it also involves grief. At times it may involve grief for having lost something. At other times, it might involve grief for what one has never had.
If envy is about grief, it will manifest itself in a politics of grievance.
Grievance-mongering, which increasingly has come to infect our politics, is a form of envy, but it also bespeaks the despair felt by people who do not believe that they can acquire goods by their own efforts.
Many of its proponents see the politics of grievance as the only response to systemic injustice. At the same time, convincing people that they cannot win demoralizes them and saps their initiative.
To Brooks, today’s Americans are suffering the aftereffects of a diet of envy:
In 2008, Gallup asked a large sample of Americans whether they were “angry that others have more than they deserve.” People who strongly disagreed with that statement — who were not envious, in other words — were almost five times more likely to say they were “very happy” about their lives than people who strongly agreed.
The cause of the growing envy is, Brooks argues, a decline in opportunity:
The root cause of increasing envy is a belief that opportunity is in decline. According to a 2007 poll on inequality and civic engagement by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, just 30 percent of people who believe that everyone has the opportunity to succeed describe income inequality as “a serious problem.” But among people who feel that “only some” Americans have a shot at success, fully 70 percent say inequality is a major concern.
People who believe that hard work brings success do not begrudge others their prosperity. But if the game looks rigged, envy and a desire for redistribution will follow.
According to Pew, the percentage of Americans who feel that “most people who want to get ahead” can do so through hard work has dropped by 14 points since about 2000. As recently as 2007, Gallup found that 70 percent were satisfied with their opportunities to get ahead by working hard; only 29 percent were dissatisfied. Today, that gap has shrunk to 54 percent satisfied, and 45 percent dissatisfied. In just a few years, we have gone from seeing our economy as a real meritocracy to viewing it as something closer to a coin flip.
Unfortunately, the American people are not deluded. Even more unfortunately, they are partially responsible for the nation’s current political conditions.
The nation’s political leadership has failed to promote what Brooks calls a “radical opportunity agenda.” To do so, he adds, it would need to get serious about regulatory and tax reform.
If government seems to be in the business of punishing enterprise, people are right to believe that it is favoring some at the expense of others.
Equality of outcomes is obviously absurd. Yet, equality of opportunity, a sense that everyone has a chance to succeed is eminently desirable.
Worse yet, Brooks adds, the government that stifles opportunity has gotten itself into the business of producing envy in those who are most likely to be suffering from its policies. It’s a cynical, demagogic manipulation.
In his words:
… we must recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation. We need aspirational leaders willing to do the hard work of uniting Americans around an optimistic vision in which anyone can earn his or her success. This will never happen when we vilify the rich or give up on the poor.