Politics & Policy

Sinful

The politics of envy.

As my wife will attest, I often suffer from futterneid. This is the term Germans use to describe the envy we feel when, for example, someone orders a better meal than ours. I’m also prone to schadenfreude, the tendency to take pleasure in the misfortune of others. So if I get the braised short ribs and you get stuck with the snail tartare, your futterneid will fuel my schadenfreude.

#ad#Perhaps it’s no coincidence the Germans have so many words for the chillingly petty emotions that run like cold streams through the human heart. Poor, dark, and divided, Germany was an ideal location to harbor resentment against one’s neighbor, be he a slightly more prosperous farmer, a Jew, a Catholic, or even a nation. Latecomers to unification, industrialization and empire, Germany’s 20th-century thirst for war and conquest might be blamed less on high-fallutin’ philosophical theories or Romantic poetry and more on plain old envy. The Germans craved their “moment in the sun” and they were going to have it, no matter what.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a column about Germany. Rather, it’s about envy, which Thomas Aquinas defined as sadness for the good of others. We almost never discuss envy anymore. “One may admit to pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, and laziness, and one may even boast of them,” Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora wrote 20 years ago in Egalitarian Envy. “There is only one capital sin no one admits to: envy. … Its symbol ought to be a mask.” This is a shame; the most pathetic of the seven deadly sins is perhaps the most consequential.

Indeed, just look again on the 20th century. Envy turned Germany cruel. In Russia, the ideology of envy — socialism — likewise ran amok under the label Bolshevism and threatened to overrun the world. The consequences of envy run even deeper. It will never be known how many millennia man endured in misery and darkness under the moldering blanket of envy. Helmut Schoeck writes in his timeless masterpiece, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, that whole societies, hobbled by envy, rejected innovation, and prosperity, preferring the arrested development of all to the advancement of the few.

In primitive societies, “No one dares to show anything that might lead people to think he was better off,” Schoeck observed. “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.”

Bigotry has many wellsprings, but it always draws on the groundwater of envy. “How can that (choose your slur) have two horses when I only have one?” the envious man asks. Hence August Bebel’s famous description of anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools.”

In America, we have our own politics of fools. John Edwards leads an all-star cast of liberal politicians and intellectuals (Edwards is decidedly not the latter) who worship at the altar of Invidia, praying that she will exact penance from the undeserving half of our “two Americas.”

Like the “scientific socialism” that concealed envy behind a slide rule, today’s liberals invoke social science as justification for their covetousness. In one famous study, a majority of people said they would rather make $50,000 if others earned $25,000 than earn $100,000 if others were making $200,000.

Such studies are deeply flawed. For starters, as Arthur Brooks notes in the current edition of City Journal, they don’t address the question of whether people would be happier in a world of total equality. Rather, they ask whether people would be happier in a world of inequality so long as they could be richer than everybody else.

More damning, however, is that these studies turn a vice into a virtue. With the exception of the self-esteem movement, which glorifies pride, it’s difficult to imagine another area where we so shamelessly tout a sin as the basis of public policy. All men lust in their hearts; shall we dole out concubines for those of us who can’t live like Hugh Hefner? Envy has its social utility, of course. Schoeck argues, along with Nietzsche, that envy helped hone our sense of justice. Fine. But America is supposed to be different, in part because unlike, say, Germany or Russia, America had no feudal past and hence lacked the historic breeding swamps of envy. America’s egalitarianism is supposed to be political and nothing more: No man is the involuntary servant of another. Beyond that, he is the captain of his self.

The man who orders a better meal than me has done no harm to me. And it is no man’s (or bureaucrat’s) job but my own to cool the fever of my futterneid.

© 2007 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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