Is Envy Worse in a Free Society?

Is Envy Worse in a Free Society?

Stephen Hicks Ph.D

12 Mins
March 25, 2019

Is a free and open society more susceptible to the dangers of envy?

It’s an interesting question to me, because most often the envy charge is used against socialism, or any kind of outcome-egalitarian form of society. The argument there goes like this: Socialism is just based on envy! Socialism is motivated by this anti-rich sentiment, anti-success, envious feelings by those people less successful, less wealthy, and so forth—and that’s simply an illegitimate motivation. So we can dismiss socialism on moral grounds.

Or sometimes the envy-charge against socialism is that it institutionalizes envy. Under socialism, we are all supposed to be equal in outcomes. But to keep everyone roughly equal requires a lot of monitoring about who has what and how things are distributed. And that leads to everyone in the society—not just the government—snooping and scrutinizing everyone else constantly. Does his apartment have more windows? Did she get a new dress—where did the money for that come from? On a smaller scale, we can imagine this: If you come from a large enough family, you’ve got a bunch of kids sitting around the dinner table, and the mom says she’s going to give everyone an equally sized slice of cake. Well, just imagine how hyper-scrutinous all of the kids become: they are looking very carefully at every cut of the cake that the mom makes, and then all of the complaints and the bad feelings if someone’s slice is slightly smaller or slightly bigger. So that’s an institutionalization of envy if you have some sort of socialist distribution going on and everyone is supposed to be equal.

I think the envy charge does work against some motivations for socialism, as envy can be one crude route to socialism: Often people who feel envious want to bring their betters down, and one way to do that is by grabbing their stuff. And socialism can rationalize that redistribution. But socialism is not only motivated by envy. There are several routes to socialism, so one cannot simply dismiss all socialists as envy-based.

Also, there are more sophisticated forms of socialism, or more broadly anti-liberal social thinking, that will argue that the phenomenon of envy actually counts more against liberal capitalism.

The charge here is that envy is worse in a free society because a free society leads to greater inequalities. Envy, from this perspective, is a natural response to great inequalities. Envy, we also know, leads to social conflict. It’s an anti-social force. And the issue isn’t whether it’s justified or proper—the fact just is that it happens and it happens in very destructive form. So what should we, psychologically-informed social thinkers, do about that? And we might say, as part of our political theory: Well, the purpose of government is to keep the peace, and if lessening inequality is going to lessen social conflict, so be it. Or we might, in just more democratic form, say: You know, the purpose of government is to give people what they want, and what they want is a sense that things are more fair. Now whether the people broadly speaking have a sense of fairness that is perfectly correct, that doesn’t really matter—government should just be responsive to whatever the people actually believe and want. So, this line of argument concludes, some kind of egalitarian or semi-egalitarian socialism is going to be the solution against the great inequalities that might lead to envy and thereby lead to social conflict.

There are some big-name sources historically and more recently who are behind this. Many can be named here, but I’d mention stand-out Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. One of the things he points out there—particularly in the more modern and more complicated societies that were developing in the early modern world—that there are great inequalities of earnings, great inequalities of assets: some people are a lot more beautiful, some people are physically stronger, some people are better dancers, some of them are more charming.

And Rousseau points out or he believes that human beings are a lot more passional than they are rational: they react emotionally a lot more than they give nuanced judgments about circumstances. And so they react in very strongly negative emotional ways to all of these differences in beauty, physical strength, dancing, partners, charm, and so forth. So there are all of these comparisons that are going on, and they are going to generate, and they do generate, a lot of bad feelings. As a result of that, there is a lot more social conflict, and so Rousseau argues we should become more egalitarian to alleviate all of the envy that these more modern forms of society are generating.

Also, Rousseau notes rising competitiveness and the rise of a society in which competition is valorized. But, Rousseau points out, teaches people to compare themselves to each other, and that’s going to lead to a lot of bad feelings as well. So this highly unequal, highly competitive society, he thinks, needs to be overturned: We are not going to go back to primitive savagery, but he thinks we should go back to some sort of tribal state where people are a lot more equal, so the number of zones for comparisons and the range of inequalities is going to be a lot less.

That’s the middle part of the 1700s. If we jump to the middle 20th century, 1971, John Rawls in his bestselling and very influential A Theory of Justice in a more moderate form makes a similar argument that we need to take cognizance of envy. One of the things Rawls argues is that we need to have a well-ordered society (p. 468). That’s a legitimate function of government. And that requires attending to principles of justice, but a well-ordered society is also going to include a strong measure of social stability. But Rawls points out that too much envy—this is just as Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out—too much envy leads to instability, and that counts against the legitimate function of a government to create a well-ordered society (p. 466). So even though Rawls recognizes that envy is not a moral emotion—he calls it a vice, at one point (p. 468)—we should have to arrange society in a way that will not “arouse envy to a socially dangerous extent” (p. 466). That is to say that Rawls is arguing that in crafting our principles of justice we do need to appease envy to some degree.

So: Is envy worse or better in a free society?

This is a challenge to those of us who are advocates of a liberal free society, free-market capitalism, democratic republic that will have a lot of inequalities and a lot of competitiveness in it. How do you respond to arguments like this?

One kind of argument in response is to say that the kinds of problems that lead to envy—freedom solves a lot of those problems. So one kind of envy, for example, is a response to not having stuff: somebody else has a lot more stuff than you do, you feel resentful or you feel envious or some emotion in that area, and that’s bad. But the point then will be that the free-market capitalist economies are enormously productive: they produce a lot of stuff and they lower the prices of those things, making them more widely available to people. So if envy, for example, in the old days before capitalism used to be about some people having nice clothes and some people having no clothes or lousy clothes—well, now pretty much everyone has plenty of nice clothes. Or if it used to be that some had electricity, cars, air-conditioning, white teeth, cell phones and other people didn’t have those things or there was this big gap, well, basically capitalism has made it possible for everyone to have all of those things. So what we don’t now have is: some people have cell phones and some people don’t (or it is a tiny percentage of people who don’t) or some people don’t have electricity and other people have awesome electricity. Instead, what we have is: some people have slightly better cell phones than other people have. So the range of inequalities has lessened significantly.

The point is that by being so economically productive, free-market capitalism raises the have-nots to also being haves, and it thus eliminates one source of envy.

Envy as a worse anti-social problem in earlier societies

Another strategy is that contrary to the claim that in earlier times (when things were more tribal, more egalitarian) that there was less envy compared to modern societies that are more competitive and unequal, that it does seem on anthropological grounds, there is a lot of good anthropology that suggests the opposite is true. That when we look at the pre-modern and tribal societies, we see a lot more envy in them than we do in modern liberal-capitalist societies.

Helmut Schoeck wrote a book called Envy, a classic study now, where he cites and summarizes the research of a lot of anthropologists who had studied primitive and developing cultures all over the world. And what he noticed was a striking phenomenon: Many anthropologists reporting that the envy barrier and the widespreadness of envy was initially to them shocking. But then, as the data came in, not so shocking—it became understood as a built-in feature of a lot of these tribal and developing countries. The widespreadness of this—they had studied places in South America, Haiti, parts of Africa, some of the Pacific islands, East Asia, and any place where tribal-scale societies were to be found. These were all largely subsistence-level economies, but they were riven with huge amounts of envy. And it seemed that those two phenomena were connected. The subsistence-level living made everyone intensely aware of slight differences in the tribe in economic status and social status. The smallness of these societies led to constant communal monitoring of each other. As a result of that and the envy, these slight differences and the constant monitoring led to, the anthropologists found, a lot of hiding of assets: people wouldn’t show what material assets they actually had, they would be less likely to tell their neighbors about their own personal successes or about how well their children had done. This was largely driven by their fear of envious reactions that they had learned at a very early age—envy was everywhere, envy was manifested very easily, and so socially people were isolating themselves from each other out of fear of these reactions.

To some extent, even in modern societies, we can have a hint of this. We have our own stereotype of small-town mentalities, with their small-mindedness and nosey neighbors. One neighbor paints his fence, and the other neighbors are like: “Oh look who’s getting all fancy now.” Or one of the young kids, a teenager, is telling his friends that he is planning to go off to the big city, he is going to go to college, he has got big dreams, and the reaction of his small-minded neighbors is to say: “So you think that you’re so much better than the rest of us, do you?” As a result of that, there are various kinds of passive-aggressive behavior and envious sabotage that occur.

And we have this phrase: the “crab-bucket mentality.” If you imagine a bunch of crabs all stuck in a bucket, all with their claws aimlessly trying to do whatever it is that they do with their claws, but one of the crabs tries to climb out of the bucket and then (this is a metaphor here) the other crabs in the bucket grab that crab with their claws and pull it back down, so none of the crabs can actually get out the bucket. But the point is, in the case of humans, we are aware that others function like the crabs—they want to get their hooks in us and get us down—so we learn in those stereotypically small towns or small cliques not to let our dreams and ambitions be known by other people, knowing that they will make us pay a social cost for doing so.

And it seems then that the closer we get to the to small-town or tribal communalism as a society, the more pronounced is its culture of not showing or not sharing one’s success, not discussing your dreams and your ambitions. And so for all of their closeness, there is much effort expanded to withdraw from the gaze of other people, to isolate oneself, to hide what’s really important to you.[*]

So on anthropological grounds, in contrast to Rousseau’s valorization of these primitive and tribal societies, actual tribalism seems to be more dominated by envy and its anti-social manifestations.

And so by contrast—this is an interesting thing: We talk about conspicuous consumption as a weakness of free-market capitalism—the very willingness of so many people in successful liberal-capitalist countries to share their successes openly–that is, by this account, a sign of cultural health. Part of the ethos of liberal capitalism is respecting other people’s accomplishments and admiring their achievements. And if we then have a culture—as most free-market capitalist cultures seem to be—of celebrating success, encouraging people to have big dreams, it is more likely then that those are going to be celebrated rather than envied, they are more likely to be shared openly rather than hidden away.

Potential problems in free-market capitalism

But it is also true that free-market capitalism’s successes also do create the potential for new kinds of problems. Here, this is partly philosophical, partly political, partly economic, partly sociological, and somewhat speculative as well, but one thing that does seem to be the case is as societies are freer, they do become wealthier, and that combination of freedom and wealth does lead to the development of new kinds of social dynamics.

  • So one thing that happens is as people are freer and wealthier, they become more ambitious: we expect more out of life, we start to believe that life should be great, it should be awesome, it should be perfect. The expectation is our kids will have a better life than we will; our grandchildren even more so. So this cultural ethos and expectation of awesomeness of life means we become much more ambitious. But then that also means, though, that with these higher ambitions we are going to have more failure. Not everybody is going to succeed at their very high ambitions, and they are going to realize that they are failures. So by raising the bar, we will set more people up who will fail. It is not that we are setting them up for failure, but there is a numbers gain: there is going to be a lot more people who will dream big dreams and won’t succeed at their dreams. And that’s going to then be more fertile soil for more envy in a society.
  • It is also the case that as people are freer, they start doing different things. As people in more successful economies have more wealth, life becomes more complex: there are more areas of possibility. What counts as a successful life is going to involve putting together accomplishments in a wider arrange of fields. It is not just you stand behind a plow 40 hours a week, you raise your kids, you enjoy a pint of beer, and go to church on Sunday—that’s a successful life. Instead, we expect ourselves to be Renaissance men and Renaissance women. And to be able to do all of these awesome things, we are going to be successful in our education, in our career, in traveling the world, in having beautiful straight teeth, and becoming an accomplished guitar player, and wearing stylish clothes, and having magnificent houses, and so on, and so forth. And so a free society is going to be generating so many opportunities that it’s going to create a lot more dimensions of success and failure in life. So the claim here is going to be: that puts a lot more pressure on people. People are going to then be comparing themselves along more social dimensions. And since it’s really difficult for any of us to be awesome in all of these areas of life—I’m striving to be a Renaissance man; well, I’m going to be better at some things and not at other things, but there are going to be more aspects in my life that I’m going to feel inadequate when I compare myself to other people who are more accomplished in those areas. So maybe a free society then is going to be again a more fertile soil for envy.
  • There is also the phenomenon in free and wealthy societies of first movers and followers: those who take advantage of some opportunity in a free society are more likely to succeed spectacularly. So maybe Jeff Bezos is an example here: he had the idea for Amazon in the 1990s, and he built it up wonderfully, and he surged far ahead of the competition. So he is the first mover in the internet retail. Those of us who come along later, we are going be aware of the gap. What’s the likelihood that I’m going to be able to succeed on the scale of Amazon, even though I have the knowledge of what’s possible? How realistic is it,  if I start an Amazon competitor right now, that I’m going to succeed? I’m so far behind what Amazon has already accomplished. And that’s not just going to be an internet retail—it is going to be in all economic zones. This is the way the argument goes. The first movers have this advantage: they can build up, make an unbridgeable gap for those who come along later. And those of us who come along later then are going to be more likely to feel envious: you know, I was just unlucky to have come along so late, and it’s kind of unfair in some sense that I can’t also build my own Amazon company. So again, more possible fertile soil for envy.
  • Also, the psychological point about raising children. Free-market societies, we might grant, they create a lot of wealth, and that makes it easier for people to live the easy life. But one of the downsides of that is that we will then have a lot more spoiled kids and a lot more semi-spoiled kids: people who can be raised in relative comfort. We are going to teach these kids that life is easy; they can have great ambitions; they can expect almost as a matter of course for their life to be great and wonderful. But at the same time, we are not raising these kids with the same character and the same skill set that makes it possible for people, in the first place, to create all of that wealth. So there are the stereotypical spoiled and semi-spoiled kids, and we are going to have a society in which there is a lot of them. So there is going to be a lot of people who are raised with an expectation that their life is going to be excellent and awesome, but they are not raised with what it takes to achieve that excellence and awesomeness. So we set them up for failure or at least for some level of under-performance in their lives. And that expectations gap can also then generate more envy when those semi-accomplished kids—we put them out into the world, and then 10, 20 years later they haven’t accomplished very much in their life, and so the gap has set them up for envy when they see other people who have gone out and accomplished various things. And the point is just that it’s the very success here of free-market capitalism that is making it possible for more semi-spoiled kids to be raised to become only semi-competent adults.
  • Another line of argument here can be that there are better communications technologies that have been created under free-market capitalism: all of the social media, television, radio, cell phones, and so forth. So all of us now are hyper-aware of the best of everything and the best of everyone else’s accomplishment. And we all want the best of everything in our own lives, but these communication technologies make us constantly aware: there is all this awesomeness out there, and I’m not participating in it. I can see on social media that my old college friend is out there climbing Mt. Everest—well, I kind of wanted to climb Mt. Everest too, but I’m not doing it and I feel inadequate by comparison. And a hundred other reminders like that every day. The telecommunications powerhouse—that’s another accomplishment of liberal capitalism—but it is making me more aware of the range of possibilities and all of the ways in which my life is not succeeding, or not succeeding to the degree that I thought I could.

So we have lots of ways then—the arguments run—that liberal capitalism, despite its great successes, can generate more fertile soil for envy.And that can support one kind of argument for an egalitarian-type socialism. That there is going to be so many inequalities under free-market capitalism that it is going to create much more widespread envy. And that envy is going to lead to lots and lots of social conflict. That’s an argument that Rousseau made strongly; that’s an argument that John Rawls made more moderately. And both of them are assuming that envy is an un-eliminable or sometimes perhaps a justifiable emotion and one that we have to accommodate. And if we are going to accommodate it, then we need to lessen or undercut the degree of freedom that free-market capitalism has.

Answer of supporters of free-market capitalism

So those of us who are wanting to defend a free and open society that is going to have some measure of inequality are going to have to reject those moral-psychological assumptions, such as the ones we find in Rousseau and in Rawls. Envy is not a necessary psychological response to inequality. Envy is not a justifiable emotion that needs to be tolerated. And it is not one that certainly in crafting our principles of justice or more broadly our principles of proper function of government needs to be accommodated.

But it does point up a challenge for moral education in a free society. It is true that a free society is more complex, and it does leave open the possibility of more dimensions of expectation, more dimensions of possible envy. So part of what makes a free society more complicated is the moral demands that it raises on it: it calls for us to be a better kind of person to be able to handle the greater complexity of a free society. And I do think that the phenomenon of envy shows that a free society has actually more need for character education than other kinds of society. It has to be able to handle envy. Becoming the kind of person who can live well in a free society includes learning how to set goals for yourself that are both idealistic and realistic. It does include learning how to assess how one is doing at achieving one’s life goals. And it does include learning how to make comparisons of yourself to other people in healthy ways. All of those are psychologically and morally complicated things, but there is no getting around them, I think, if we are going to have a free and open society.

How to compare yourself to others

Observing other people and learning about other people—that is a natural part of life. We are social beings. And comparing oneself to other people is a natural phenomenon, and it is a useful phenomenon because comparing yourself to others can be a great source of knowledge and inspiration. When I look at other people—particularly when I’m young and I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life and what’s possible for me—I don’t yet know what is humanly possible, but other people can show me this. Others can show us what human beings are capable of accomplishing, so they expand our sense of what can be done. I’m a kid or I’m a person with some undeveloped capacities—what can humans actually do with these capacities? And so when I see lots of other people out there, doing all sorts of things—that’s a great source of knowledge.

Now, of course, I need to craft that for myself individually: I’m a human being, but I’m also a unique human being. So what, in fact, is possible for me? And here what I can then do, again learning from others who are setting examples: well, I will try to do what those other people have done, and I will measure my results against theirs. That gives me some feedback about realistically assessing my own capacities. The same thing holds for other people’s problems and their failings—those are human failings, and learning from other people’s failings: well, I’m a human being—those in principle are failings that I need to be aware of as possible. And I can also learn from the kinds of things that I see other people doing and succeeding at it that I, as a human being, might fail at those things too. That’s important knowledge, but that’s important knowledge that can only come from comparing myself to other people as well.

But it is also morally and motivationally that comparing myself to others leads to inspiration and, of course, on the flip side warnings. Other people’s successes and seeing people doing things awesomely—that can be enormously energizing for me. I can watch the Olympic athletes and I can see what they can do, and that can inspire me to become a better physically fit me. Or I can read a wonderfully written article, and that can inspire me to become a better writer. And, of course, it goes the other way conversely: I can read a terribly written article and that can motivate me not to do the kinds of things that made that article so terrible. And I can see someone make bad life choices and be suffering—that can motivate me to be more careful not to make similar bad choices.

So all of these social comparisons can serve very important cognitive and motivational functions. So the point is not that we don’t want to compare yourself to others—we do! That’s important; that’s very useful. But it is critical to also realize that when we are making these comparisons, that how other people are doing in their lives—this is not the primary market of how you are doing in your life or how I am doing in my life. And this is the mistake that people who are consistently envious make. Because outside of formal competitive situations, other people’s success is not a measure of your failure and other people’s failure is not an indicator of your success. Here there is an individuality point that needs to be insisted upon: we are social, but are individual social beings. And the problem of envy is comparing yourself socially and letting other people’s successes or failures be the standard by which you judge your own success or failure in life.

So there are a lot of subtle nuances that need to be explored here, but there is one anecdote about this particular point that I’ll make here. I recall when I was a kid—I think I was about six years old—going to Toronto with my family. We were all in the car; my dad was driving down the highway. And I can remember being really impressed with how fast we were going down the highway. And I wanted my dad to drive really fast. I remember sometimes my dad would accelerate and we’d pass another car. And I would feel this Yes! feeling. We’re going faster than those guys! And I’d feel the kind of pride: Oh, my dad is a great driver, and, by extension, we were a great family because we were able to pass those guys. But then sometimes we’d also get passed by other cars that were going faster than ours. And I’d feel this kind of disappointment: Awwww, drat. And somehow I’d feel like the dad who was driving that other car was now better than my dad. But then I remember part way along this drive to Toronto I realized: It’s not actually a race. There’s no actual competition between the cars who are on this highway right now. That’s all just in my head. How fast we get to Toronto compared to how fast other people get to Toronto—nobody actually cares. Nobody’s keeping track of this. And in fact, I also realized this when I saw cars entering the highway and leaving the highway at various point, not everybody is going to Toronto, it’s not a race. And even those of us who are going to Toronto, it’s not a competition. Everybody on the highway is going to their own destinations; they are going for their own reasons; they are going at their own pace. So my six-year-old competition and feeling better or worse about my dad or feeling better or worse about my family depending on how fast we were going—that was not the right way to make those speed comparisons.

And that realization really holds generally: Life is not a race. We’re all on our own paths, we are going at our own speeds, and we going for whatever destinations we have set in our lives for our own reasons.

* Update: I’m reminded of this line from Rand: “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” (The Fountainhead)

This article originally appeared on Stephen Hicks.org and is reprinted with permission.

Stephen Hicks Ph.D


Stephen Hicks Ph.D

Stephen R. C. Hicks PH.D. is the Senior Scholar for the Atlas Society, Professor of Philosophy at Rockford University, and the director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford University. In 2010, he won his university's Excellence in Teaching Award. Professor Hicks has written four books; Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Nietzsche and the Nazis, Entrepreneurial Living, and The Art of Reasoning: Readings for Logical Analysis.

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