LiveScience Should Examine the Science of Envy, Using Itself as a Research Subject

Here’s a comment I wrote in response to a LiveScience article titled “5 Facts about the Wealthiest 1 Percent”:

“Hey LiveScience, have you ever thought about writing an article about the science of envy?

For manifestations of envy, you could point to this very article. It plays on people’s envy. It clearly implies and assumes that rich people getting richer is an inherently bad thing. But what if the rich get richer while the lower-income groups get richer as well (which by and large was happening until the Obama years)? That’s a good thing. Only the envious would think it’s a bad thing. And envy is an immature and destructive emotion; one should not base public policy on it.

And by the way, it is probably true that wealth inequality is rising. But wealth inequality is mainly a function of inequality of education. Our educational system is breaking down and our dropout rate is high, resulting in millions of uneducated, unemployable, and low-income people. And our lax immigration policies are resulting in millions upon millions of uneducated people arriving here from the third world who can’t even speak English. Do you expect them to be instantly rich or middle-class as soon as they cross the border? Of course not.

So you should have discussed the main factor that is causing rising income inequality, namely inequality of skill levels.

The ironic thing is that people on the left wail the loudest about inequality, yet it is they, through their support of near-open borders, of education-stifling teachers’ unions, and of job-destroying anti-business policies that give rise to worsening inequality in the first place.

Meantime, hey Natalie Wolchover (author of the article). I’m curious. Are you an envier? From the tone of this article, it appears so.”

And here’s a comment I posted in response to another LiveScience article titled, “Who Has the Money and Power?”

“Hey LiveScience, you should run an article on the science of envy. For manifestations thereof, you could point to your own articles such as this one, which really play on people’s sense of envy. The material here conveys the false impression that the rich are sinister and conspiring to hold the rest of us down. The graphs are really biased, too. Did you know that the top 1 percent’s income has actually substantially declined during the last few years, during the anemic economy? Nah – that wouldn’t jibe with the agenda you want to promote.

It’s also telling that in your race chart, you left out Asians, who have the highest income and net worth. I guess that would have been politically incorrect, eh? After all, you want to make it look like the evil white folks have all the money and power. Not that there’s anything wrong with Asians being the wealthiest race — they should be admired for that.”

A Success-Breeds-Contempt Case Study

One would be proud of hometown company that makes such quality products that it grows to become a worldwide phenomenon, right? Not in Seattle. Success breeds contempt – even if that company bends over backwards to try to please everyone, as is the case with Starbucks. It offers full healthcare coverage to even part-time employees. It buys only “fair trade” coffee beans. But measures like that cannot even come close to assuaging the ill will the company must engender just by opening coffeeshops in other countries and thus achieve the “multinational corporation” status. An acquisition in 2008 “already is drawing concern from the caffeine elite who’d rather buy from just about anyone than a hometown brand turned world corporation,” according to an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The naysayers must be thinking, “Hm. Multinational corporation. That must mean that somewhere in that mix there must be a certain something called a ‘corporate executive.’ Rich corporate executive. Hissssss.” You know how much the term “corporate executive” sends leftists into paroxysms of resentment. I’ll bet they get more emotional when they hear that term than when they hear, say, the term “terrorist”.

If you serve hundreds throughout a community well, you’re a hero. If you serve millions throughout the world well, you’re anathema.

A Little Bit of England Here in America

Excerpt from a letter to the editor, Flying magazine, December 2009, in which the writer quotes a friend who speaks of the “English disease”:

“A kid in the U.S. sees someone in a fine car and says ‘Someday, I’m going to have one of those!’ An English kid sees the same thing and says, ‘I’m going to drag that bloke down to MY level'”.

Alas, the virus unfortunately must have made its way across the Atlantic. Because a number of Americans evidently have been stricken with the disease. Multitudes of them are agitating for a cap on the pay of the envied financial industry executives. Even more alarming, the English disease even has infected most of the people in the highest levels of the government, i.e. the administration of President Barack Obama! He even has appointed a “pay czar” to restrict how much the executives get paid.

“Envy represents a vicious and hateful resentment of people,” writes author and psychiatrist Willard Gaylin, “that is independent of their actual encroachment on one’s pleasures.”

No Surprise that “Blue” States Unhappier

U.S. states with the highest levels of happiness tend to be “red” states while the least happy tend to be “blue” states, based on a recent survey.

That’s because people who lean right tend to be happier than those who lean left. The latter tend to be upset and stressed out about various nonexistent problems, such as “evil” corporations, which are actually good – without them there would be few or no products available necessary for human consumption, resulting in most of us either living in poverty or dead from starvation. Or they’re stressed out about perceived racism or sexism that doesn’t actually exist. There’s also the powerful emotion of envy, which is much more prevalent among lefties than righties.

Yep, places like New York and California are rife with members of the Angry Left, which is why those states rank dead last in the happiness survey.

Envy Management

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)

The top 1 percent. Tax cuts for the rich. Wealth and privilege. Those are powerful phrases. Powerful because they appeal to one of the most prevalent and universal of all human emotions: envy.

The politics of class warfare will always be with us because envy will always be with us. Though no one ever admits it, this emotion is undoubtedly a factor behind some people’s support for higher taxes on the rich. Taken to extremes, it in large part gave rise to degenerative ideologies such as communism and even anti-Semitism. It is also the basis of many wrongs, small and large, that people commit in their everyday lives.

Where did envy come from in the evolutionary scheme of things? My initial conjecture was that it is so prevalent today because humans are not biologically “programmed” for industrialized societies, in which specialization and the division of labor necessitate differences in incomes. Millions of years of evolution designed us to live in hunter-gather societies, where everyone generally was in the same boat economically.

But that conjecture was wrong. Helmut Schoeck’s classic Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior makes clear that unchecked envy was actually far more common in pre-affluent societies. There are plenty of things other than economic status to get envious about, such as someone’s leadership position, hunting skills, social skills, or access to members of the opposite sex.

And in fact, envy based on economic differences was very pronounced in such societies. Small differences in incomes rather than large ones actually are more often a cause of envy. Within a given group, whenever someone accumulated a disproportionate amount of assets based on skill or hard work (or luck), that person often would be ostracized and/or his possessions confiscated. It is one reason why primitive societies stayed primitive; no one was permitted to get ahead economically. “No one dares to show anything that might lead people to think he was better off,” writes Schoeck. “Innovations are unlikely. Agricultural methods remain traditional and primitive, to the detriment of the whole village, because every deviation from previous practice comes up against the limitations set by envy.”

Among the Mambwe, an African tribe, achieving success brought accusations of sorcery. Villagers were convinced that that if someone regularly produced a better crop than his neighbors, it was not the result of better cultivation methods, but of sorcery. Successful people were looked upon as sinister, supernatural, and dangerous.

Sound familiar? In our society, those who become rich through working hard and producing things of value are often suspected of getting where they are through devious means.

A comment by the actor Ethan Hawke, brought up by a “socially conscious” mother, is telling: “I was raised to have a general mistrust of anybody who was wealthy,” he told an interviewer.

Only in societies where enough people hold their envy in check can economic advancement take place. Ours is one such society. In fact, I would venture to guess that envy is less prevalent in the United States than in any other society, which is one reason why we’ve been so economically successful.

Of course, Americans are still subject to the same laws of human emotion as everyone else, so one does not have to look hard to find manifestations of envy. Politicians exploit that emotion all the time. Notable was Al Gore’s “top 1 percent” mantra during his presidential campaign, presidential candidate John Edwards and his “two Americas” rhetoric – “one privileged, the other burdened,” and President Barrack Obama’s plans to raise taxes on the top five percent.

One may ask, how could Gore, Edwards, and Obama, who are wealthy themselves, be envious?

First, they may not be, but exploit the fact that plenty of other people are. Second, maybe it’s guilt. Many wealthy people engage in class-warfare-style thinking because they feel ashamed about their possessions, or don’t want to be the object of envy, according to Schoeck. Third, the rich can be envious of those who are even richer. A Fortune magazine cover a few years ago playfully betrayed this sentiment. It featured business magnate Richard Branson with the sub-headline: “The Money. The Family. The Island. (Damn him.)”

The great conundrum is how the emotion of envy ever got programmed into our brains during the course of evolution. “What adaptive value could envy have had in the prehistoric past?” asks author and psychiatrist Willard Gaylin. “None that I can imagine, for it never brings gratification.” Envy represents a vicious and hateful resentment of people, he writes, that is independent of their actual encroachment on one’s pleasures.

Thoughtfulness and reason can do much to counter the emotion of envy. It is useful to realize, for example, that rich people are the ones responsible for providing most of the rest of us with jobs, products, and (through their savings) loan money to buy a house or go to college.

Those feeling the pangs of envy coming on should ignore it. Laugh it off. Lie down until the feeling goes away. Recognize it as a useless emotion that never produces any benefits, and that causes untold woes.

Envy Management

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)

The top 1 percent. Tax cuts for the rich. Wealth and privilege. Those are powerful phrases. Powerful because they appeal to one of the most prevalent and universal of all human emotions: envy.

The politics of class warfare will always be with us because envy will always be with us. Though no one ever admits it, this emotion is undoubtedly a factor behind some people’s support for higher taxes on the rich. Taken to extremes, it in large part gave rise to degenerative ideologies such as communism and even anti-Semitism. It is also the basis of many wrongs, small and large, that people commit in their everyday lives.

Where did envy come from in the evolutionary scheme of things? My initial conjecture was that it is so prevalent today because humans are not biologically “programmed” for industrialized societies, in which specialization and the division of labor necessitate differences in incomes. Millions of years of evolution designed us to live in hunter-gather societies, where everyone generally was in the same boat economically.

But that conjecture was wrong. Helmut Schoeck’s classic Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior makes clear that unchecked envy was actually far more common in pre-affluent societies. There are plenty of things other than economic status to get envious about, such as someone’s leadership position, hunting skills, social skills, or access to members of the opposite sex.

And in fact, envy based on economic differences was very pronounced in such societies. Small differences in incomes rather than large ones actually are more often a cause of envy. Within a given group, whenever someone accumulated a disproportionate amount of assets based on skill or hard work (or luck), that person often would be ostracized and/or his possessions confiscated. It is one reason why primitive societies stayed primitive; no one was permitted to get ahead economically. “No one dares to show anything that might lead people to think he was better off,” writes Schoeck. “Innovations are unlikely. Agricultural methods remain traditional and primitive, to the detriment of the whole village, because every deviation from previous practice comes up against the limitations set by envy.”

Among the Mambwe, an African tribe, achieving success brought accusations of sorcery. Villagers were convinced that that if someone regularly produced a better crop than his neighbors, it was not the result of better cultivation methods, but of sorcery. Successful people were looked upon as sinister, supernatural, and dangerous.

Sound familiar? In our society, those who become rich through working hard and producing things of value are often suspected of getting where they are through devious means.

A comment by the actor Ethan Hawke, brought up by a “socially conscious” mother, is telling: “I was raised to have a general mistrust of anybody who was wealthy,” he told an interviewer.

Only in societies where enough people hold their envy in check can economic advancement take place. Ours is one such society. In fact, I would venture to guess that envy is less prevalent in the United States than in any other society, which is one reason why we’ve been so economically successful.

Of course, Americans are still subject to the same laws of human emotion as everyone else, so one does not have to look hard to find manifestations of envy. Politicians exploit that emotion all the time. Notable was Al Gore’s “top 1 percent” mantra during his presidential campaign, presidential candidate John Edwards and his “two Americas” rhetoric – “one privileged, the other burdened,” and President Barrack Obama’s plans to raise taxes on the top five percent.

One may ask, how could Gore, Edwards, and Obama, who are wealthy themselves, be envious?

First, they may not be, but exploit the fact that plenty of other people are. Second, maybe it’s guilt. Many wealthy people engage in class-warfare-style thinking because they feel ashamed about their possessions, or don’t want to be the object of envy, according to Schoeck. Third, the rich can be envious of those who are even richer. A Fortune magazine cover a few years ago playfully betrayed this sentiment. It featured business magnate Richard Branson with the sub-headline: “The Money. The Family. The Island. (Damn him.)”

The great conundrum is how the emotion of envy ever got programmed into our brains during the course of evolution. “What adaptive value could envy have had in the prehistoric past?” asks author and psychiatrist Willard Gaylin. “None that I can imagine, for it never brings gratification.” Envy represents a vicious and hateful resentment of people, he writes, that is independent of their actual encroachment on one’s pleasures.

Thoughtfulness and reason can do much to counter the emotion of envy. It is useful to realize, for example, that rich people are the ones responsible for providing most of the rest of us with jobs, products, and (through their savings) loan money to buy a house or go to college.

Those feeling the pangs of envy coming on should ignore it. Laugh it off. Lie down until the feeling goes away. Recognize it as a useless emotion that never produces any benefits, and that causes untold woes.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.