Ayn Rand wrote about envy in her novels, her popular nonfiction, even in her journals and letters. It was a problem she examined from every angle. But why did the champion of individualism, achievement, and free-market capitalism concern herself with such an ugly topic?
The reason is that Rand considered envy uniquely evil––a personal failure, a social cancer, and a corrupt and cynical political ploy.
What is Envy?
Rand recognized that the term “envy” is variously applied to different things. Envy is not to be confused, for example, with a legitimate resentment of unearned success, as when the immoral defeat the moral, or with an acknowledgment that a failure was deserved, as when the immoral lose. Rand distinguishes those responses as proper to “a sense of justice.” The recent college admissions scandal is a good example. An acknowledgment that the people involved are liars and cheats has nothing to do with envy of their wealth or status.
Nor is it envy to dislike a policy-maker who demands you sacrifice your future for the sake of the planet. If you value yourself, then you consider self-sacrifice a vice not a virtue, and you can legitimately resent that policy-maker’s demands.
She didn’t even regard the desire for other people’s successes, advantages, and riches as true envy. Rand even conceded that that desire could be a powerful motivator. We can envy another person’s beauty, health, expertise, wealth, success, or happiness, and, if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that we would like such an accomplishment for ourselves. Then we can transform envy into aspiration and get to work.
Nevertheless, she held, the core meaning of envy––and its vicious essence––is “the attitude of a person who characteristically resents someone’s success, happiness, achievement or good fortune––and experiences pleasure at someone’s failure, unhappiness or misfortune.”
Envy is therefore a combination of covetousness, nihilism, and schadenfreude.
Envy is a moral failing that has a cascading series of bad effects. In the beginning, it is the envier who is diminished. He observes others who are accomplished, but rather than letting the accomplishment inspire him to achieve for himself, he refuses to act. He fails to accept the challenges of survival––using his reason to identify his purpose in life, to get an education, to find a job, to develop expertise in order to advance, and to safeguard his health and his finances. Such an individual in effect chooses not to live.
But the failure of envy does not stop with the envier. Because envy is the hatred of the good for being good, the envier goes on the attack. He turns what could have been love for accomplishment into a hatred of the accomplished. They must be chopped down to size. He tells himself that it is not his fault for failing to achieve, it is the fault of the accomplished for embarrassing him. They are disrespecting him. No one should be doing so well.
Envy and Social Justice
Rand published “The Age of Envy” in two parts in her monthly periodical, The Objectivist, in July and August 1971. According to David Kelley, Ph.D., ‘The Age of Envy’ is still the best guide to the victims' lobby that has since emerged.”
Envy was becoming a core component of identity politics, Rand noticed. Special interest groups were no longer focused on achievement and advancement. They were focused instead on eliminating what they considered unfair advantages. In the name of equity, the needy, the poor, and the apathetic no longer needed to rise. The able, the wealthy, and the successful had to fall.
High achievers were being targeted as privileged and disrespectful. Their achievements were being labelled acts of oppression. Social justice became the rallying cry of special interests.
Rand opposed the egalitarian values and methods of identity politics, but she was not indifferent to real problems minorities faced. Rand adamantly denounced all forms of racism, which she derided as a “barnyard sort of collectivism,” and defended women whether they chose to pursue a career or raise a family.
As individualists and libertarians, we cannot ignore the problem of prejudice either.
David Kelley has argued for years that, “We let the Left take the fight against prejudice away from us.” As a result, we often come off as indifferent to the struggles against prejudice:
As individualists and advocates of reason, we ought to be the ones promoting this. We ought to be the ones saying, "Judge people by who they are as individuals, not by the groups they belong to. Be rational in how you apply standards of justice. Don't let prejudice and bias affect your judgment." We should be the ones saying that. But we shy away from doing so because the fight against discrimination got infected with leftist premises.
Social justice is not the solution, however. Social justice is envy paraded about under the pretext of justice, and educators and politicians are cynically using it both to embolden the troubled and cynical and to manipulate the young and innocent.
Under social justice, victimhood has become a fast track to attention and power. Victims know that when you group people into classes and pit them against each other, a mindset of exploiters and exploited develops. Resentment follows.
Jussie Smollett is one example of someone ruthlessly exploiting social justice to enact a hate-crime hoax, playing the victim apparently for no other reason than self-aggrandizement. His victimhood followed the social justice script: “Turn grief into grievance. Find someone to resent, to blame, and to pay.”
Smollett was enjoying success on a popular television show when he apparently decided to stage an attack on himself, claiming that his attackers, Chicagoans wearing MAGA hats, targeted him because he is black and gay. The facts will come out in the trial. But the social justice warriors wasted no time condemning the attack and cynically embracing every prejudice against Smollett’s imaginary attackers.
In a notorious television interview, Smollett claimed to believe in justice. He even shed a tear, for which he was rewarded with an outpouring of phony social-justice love. But he and his defenders were oblivious to the real injustice he inflicted on others.
The innocent, on the other hand, buy into social justice out of a mistaken sense of justice. The idealistic and able, those who have the most to contribute, are turned against themselves. In public schools, and by Progressive and Socialist politicians, young people are urged to squander their education and abandon their own goals for social justice’s sake. Over and over they agree to spurn the mindset and actions that will preserve their own survival and their own happiness under the delusion that their lives come at the expense of someone else’s, and that the lives of others are more important than their own.
They are the ones who leave college and martyr themselves in filthy living conditions to block a legal natural gas pipeline. They renounce modern industrial society to squat in abandoned buildings or on city streets to protect the planet. Some young women have even declared that they won’t have children, not for personal or professional reasons, but for environmental ones. They are afraid to add another carbon footprint. These individuals sacrifice critical years when they could be gaining expertise, building careers, building wealth, finding love, getting married, starting a family.
For the troubled, the nihilistic, and the criminal, social justice is a convenient rationalization. These are the young people who join Antifa and run riot. They use terrorist tactics to stifle free speech and violate property rights.
The Zachary Greenberg incident is an example. Greenberg, who is 28 years old, was caught on video sucker punching Hayden Williams on the UC Berkeley campus. Williams, who is 26 years old, was tabling for the conservative organization Turning Point USA. Neither Greenberg nor Williams are students at Berkeley. Both were on campus for legitimate reasons––Greenberg, a software engineer, had been studying in the library.
Greenberg, who has had legal trouble in the past, flew into a social justice rage because he felt victimized by Williams’s conservatism. Greenberg appears to consider himself the injured party.
In his article “Blood Brothers,” Robert Bidinotto explored the psychology of such acts of social justice violence:
The collectivization of personal identity is a theme stressed by numerous researchers. In “Psychology of Terrorism,” forensic psychologist Dr. Randy Borum writes, “Perceived injustice, need for identity, and need for belonging are common vulnerabilities among potential terrorists.” Israeli political scientist Ehud Sprinzak says, “It appears that, as radicalization deepens, the collective group identity takes over much of the individual identity of the members; and, at the terrorist stage, the group identity reaches its peak.”
Not surprisingly, the stages of excuse-making that lead to terrorist violence are similar to that which leads to mass murder. Borum says it “begins by framing some unsatisfying event or condition as being unjust, blaming the injustice on a target policy, person, or nation, and then vilifying, often demonizing, the responsible party to facilitate justification for aggression.” Not that different from what we know of the motives of Seung-Hui Cho [the Virginia Tech killer] and other mass murderers.
Within the confines of such a group, the perspectives of individuals become divorced from reality and independent judgment. “The actions of terrorist organizations are based on a subjective interpretation of the world rather than objective reality,” observes researcher Martha Crenshaw. Simultaneously, the member is gradually exposed to, and becomes inured to, extreme and violent acts.
Jussie Smollett now faces 16 felony charges. Zachary Greenberg has been charged with three felony counts. Both have pled not guilty.
That both men face charges is a reminder that justice still matters. Should social justice replace justice, if envy becomes tolerated in our society under social justice’s deceptive mask, we will all lose.
The events in Portland, Oregon in October 2018 are a harbinger of life under social justice. During a protest against a recent police shooting, Antifa attacked several people, damaging their cars and other property. An elderly woman in a wheelchair who complained about noise from a group of Antifa protesters was surrounded and roughed up. The protestors rationalized their violence as “mourning,” but their actions were aimed nihilistically at destroying civil society. The Portland police refused to intervene for fear of escalation, a decision the Mayor of Portland, Ted Wheeler, endorsed in compliance to the angry mob.
Ayn Rand knew the nihilism of envy. In her novel, Anthem, which you should read if you haven’t yet, she illustrated the horror of a stagnant and decrepit society destroyed by envy. Ambition, accomplishment, self-interest, even love are forbidden. Nothing is undertaken for fear of upsetting social equity. Life is reduced to a stark, subsistence level marked by uniformity, apathy, and need. It is not worth living.
Victim or Victor?
Fortunately, we can work against envy and victimhood. We can expose the pretence of social justice and restore the virtues of individualism, justice, and achievement. As Jennifer Grossman points out, we can start by nurturing those virtues in ourselves. In "A Prayer for Production," Grossman reminds us that each of us is responsible for respecting individual rights. We must value the first amendment rights to free speech, assembly, and conscience. We must value the rights of everyone to production and trade. We must respect property rights and the economic benefits we all receive from the rare individuals who are willing to take the risk and start a business. Their grocery stores, farms, factories, oil wells, trucking companies, airlines, and so much more enrich us all. Their innovations lengthen our lives, ease our workload, and add variety to our leisure.
David Kelley reminds us to take the moral high ground, to remember how important life is, and that it is a waste to sacrifice it on the altar of victimhood:
Don’t let the "victims” claim the moral high ground. Expose their views for what they are—the expression of envy, the rejection of individualism and personal achievement. Above all, as an individual, know that your life is yours to live. You have a mind, you have a life, and your life is what you make of it. Yes, of course, some people start with more advantages, but wherever you started in life, you have opportunities. Take advantage of them, take pride in what you achieve, and never apologize for success. Do not envy the success of others; it diminishes you. And don’t let the envy of others spoil your enjoyment of what you have earned.
The best antidote for envy––for the hatred of the good for being the good––is always to love the good. Ayn Rand knew this, and she put it into words at the conclusion of “The Age of Envy.” This aspect of Rand, her commitment to love, is often overlooked. Her concluding words, however, are the words of a woman deeply in love with humanity and with life’s possibilities. They are worth remembering:
What is the weapon one needs to fight such an enemy? For once, it is I who will say that love is the answer––love in the actual meaning of the word, which is the opposite of the meaning they give it––love as a response to values, love of the good for being the good. If you hold on to the vision of any value you love––your mind, your work, your wife or husband, or your child––and remember that that is what the enemy is after, your shudder of rebellion will give you the moral fire, the courage and the intransigence needed in this battle. What fuel can support one’s fire? Love for man at his highest potential.
"Two Strains of Altruism," David Kelley
"A Prayer for Production--An Objectivist Ode to Thanksgiving," Jennifer A. Grossman
"The Assault on Civilization," David Kelley
"Epistemology and Politics: Ayn Rand's Cultural Commentary," David Kelley
"A New Beatitudes for the Age of Equality," David Kelley
"Blood Brothers," Robert James Bidinotto
"Ayn Rand’s Thoughts on Israel," Edward Hudgins
Senior Editor Marilyn Moore thinks that Ayn Rand is a great American writer, and with a Ph.D in literature, she writes literary analysis that proves it. As Director of Student Programs, Moore trains Atlas Advocates to share Ayn Rand’s ideas on college campuses and leads discussions with Atlas Intellectuals seeking an Objectivist perspective on timely topics. Moore travels nationwide speaking and networking on college campuses and at liberty conferences.