Envy and the Politics of Discontent

Envy is mere unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable means, and desires not so much its own happiness as another’s misery.—Samuel Johnson

Many writers have referred to socialist and progressive systems as forms of “institutionalized envy.” But to understand why this is a problem we have to understand the nature of envy itself. In the classic Rambler essay No. 183 Samuel Johnson discusses the problems of greed and resentment. At first glance it would seem that acquisitiveness, the desire “to rob for gain [rather] than to ravage only for mischief” would be more widespread. “Yet,” says Johnson, “I am inclined to believe, that the great law of mutual benevolence is oftener violated by envy than by interest, and that most of the misery… is inflicted by men that propose no advantage to themselves but the satisfaction of poisoning the banquet which they cannot taste, and blasting the harvest which they have no right to reap.”

Following the classic theologians, Johnson defines envy as a sterile vice. “Almost every other crime is practised by the help of some quality which might have produced esteem or love, if it had been well employed….” In other words, things like adultery, pride or avarice represent the misplaced or excessive desire for real goods. But envy, the deprivation of another’s good with no immediate hope for personal gain, is pointless. Resentment extends not only to the perceived material advantages of others but to superior intellectual or spiritual qualities. Even when a person’s conduct poses no immediate threat to the malcontent, the response is a “defamation of blameless actions” and “the obstruction of honest endeavours.”

Of course mob resentment is often predicated upon the vague hope that by dragging down others one will gain thereby. But the overriding blindness and futility of envy remains. The spiteful person would rather see a man prevented from acquiring riches through onerous wealth redistribution even if there was no benefit to his own standard of living. It is clear that the enduring polemic against “capitalism” and “wealth” is based on emotional, not empirical, motives. If, in a market economy, the “rich get richer,” so does everyone else, even if not at the same rate. Putting aside questions of criminal behavior—which is always the exception—it is not clear why there should be a moral outrage against mere success. No other system is capable of correcting this supposed disparity. Quite the opposite. In Russia in 1917 radical peasants were eager to rob and kill their landlords, but when they realized that life was worse under Lenin and Stalin, it was too late. Envy is a timeless human failing. What has changed is the growth of a sham altruism which perpetuates resentment on a large scale by those who would exploit men’s worst passions for their own ends.

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