Why we shouldn’t envy – or admire – the rich

Photo heyjoewhereyougoinwiththatguninyourhand, Creative commons

Photo: Broderick, heyjoewhereyougoinwiththatguninyourhand, Creative Commons

The knee-jerk reaction of the Right to criticism of inequality is to call it ‘the politics of envy’. No need to engage with arguments, just slap down the critics with a smart-arse phrase that saves the need to think. My critique of the rich is about the politics of injustice, not envy; indeed, like most critics of inequality I think envy is a mistake and part of the problem.

Envy, as a vice, involves resenting those who have something that we’d like to have ourselves, such as a special ability or an advantage, where there is nothing unfair in the way they have got those desirable things; for example if it is a matter of natural luck, like having beautiful eyes, or a product of hard work, imagination and intelligence, or some mixture of all these.

Adam SmithAdam Smith, that much misunderstood – because rarely read – founder of economics, described envy as an “odious and detestable passion”, defining it as “that passion that views with malignant dislike the superiority of those who are really entitled to all the superiority they possess.”[i] But the rich do not owe their wealth to superiority, unless we mean their superiority at exploiting unfair systems.

Envy of the rich means resenting the rich and yet wanting to be rich oneself. This implies despising those who have inherited money and other advantages and who can live off unearned income based on control of assets, because it’s them, not you, that’s doing it! Those who are envious in this way make the mistake of missing the unfairness of the situation, and instead resent the fact that someone else – not them – is the beneficiary. It’s unethical.

And it’s a mistake to envy the rich for their disproportionate power over others; again the envier just wants to be in that position instead. Never mind that it’s arbitrary, that it can’t be generalised to everyone, and that it’s undemocratic.

Envy of the rich and their lifestyles is also misplaced because vast private material wealth is wasteful: it distorts economies so that they overproduce luxuries for the rich and underproduce goods for the poor. It wastes the earth’s resources; and the carbon footprints of the rich are far more excessive than other peoples’ – far beyond what the earth can sustain. And many of the rich are banking on unsustainable growth, or get unearned income from the fossil fuel energy system and so have a vested interest in continuing to trash the climate. This is hardly something to envy! 2014-09-24 15.41.59

Finally, it’s a mistake to envy those for whom getting money and material wealth is an end in itself and who put this before everything else. They show a complete lack of wisdom in terms of understanding human well-being. Those who can come to terms with the fact that we are social beings, dependent on others, needing them, and who appreciate the importance of giving and of love and friendship are wiser and more likely to be happy.

But actually if you think about it, while the desire to be like those richer than us is common, this is not usually driven by bad feeling towards the rich, but by something more akin to admiration. The problem here is not envy but misplaced admiration, because as my book shows, the wealth of the rich has more to do the fact that property rights are defined in such a way that those who control certain kinds of property can use it to extract wealth from others without creating wealth for them in return. Free-riding on the wealth produced by those in a weaker position than you is hardly ‘admirable’, or something deserved to which the recipients can justifiably claim to be ‘entitled’, and it has no particular connection to superiority. Rich landlords don’t need to be superior. They just need to own houses or land when other people lack these so they can get something – rent – for nothing. There’s nothing admirable in this.

Talented people who give others a lot of pleasure, such as sports stars, musicians or actors are of course generally viewed with gratitude and admiration by those who love their work, and they often wish they could be as good as them. Sometimes we say we ‘envy’ stars their talents, but we don’t mean envy in the sense of ‘malignant dislike’ of them – quite the opposite. Some of them may make a lot of money in the process, particularly where they gain access to global communication and advertising systems that reach huge audiences, as economist Sherwin Rosen explained.[ii] Consequently, fans sometimes feel conflicted about their heroes. It’s not unusual to love a pop star’s music but be angry at their use of tax havens to avoid paying tax, and lots of football fans think top footballers are overpaid. In such circumstances a conflicted response is absolutely understandable. We admire their talents, but don’t approve of their excessive wealth or the attitudes that often go with it.

So neither envy as a vice, nor envy in the softer form of wishing one had something others have while admiring them rather than resenting them for it, is appropriate for the rich.

But the bizarre thing about the politics of envy jibe is that some on the Right seem to believe envy is actually a good thing. Here’s London’s Mayor, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson:

Photo: bixentro, Creative Commons

Photo: bixentro, Creative Commons

“I stress – I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to human activity.”[iii]

Johnson was born into a rich family and sent to public schools, including Eton, so he hardly needed a ‘spur’; like many public school boys he oozes a sense of entitlement from every pore, and is seemingly incapable of self-doubt. Like Tony Blair he assumes wealth is a reflection of contribution, of special ability, including high IQ. This is what we should say to them: ‘What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7).[iv]

[i] Adam Smith (1759) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Liberty Press, VI.iii.16, p.243-4

[ii] Sherwin Rosen (1981) ‘The economics of superstars’, The American Economic Review, Vol. 71, No. 5., pp. 845-85

[iii] Boris Johnson 2013 ‘What would Maggie do today?’ Margaret Thatcher Lecture, 27th November

[iv] I came across this in a great book by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly – Unjust Deserts, published by New Press, New York in 2008. I’m an atheist by the way, but a good quote is a good quote.


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