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Conservative sociologists self-servingly marvel at the peaceful
proximity of abject poverty and ostentatious affluence in American - or, for
that matter, Western - cities. Devastating riots do erupt, but these are
reactions either to perceived social injustice (Los Angeles 1965) or to
political oppression (Paris 1968). The French Revolution may have been the last
time the urban sans-culotte raised a fuss against the economically enfranchised.
This pacific co-existence conceals a maelstrom of envy. Behold
the rampant Schadenfreude which accompanied the antitrust case against the
predatory but loaded Microsoft. Observe the glee which engulfed many destitute
countries in the wake of the September 11 atrocities against America, the
epitome of triumphant prosperity. Witness the post-World.com orgiastic
castigation of avaricious CEO's.
Envy - a pathological manifestation of destructive
aggressiveness - is distinct from jealousy.
The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines envy as:
"A feeling of discontented or resentful longing
aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck ... Mortification and
ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of another's superior advantages."
Pathological envy - the fourth deadly sin - is
engendered by the realization of some lack, deficiency, or inadequacy in
oneself. The envious begrudge others their success, brilliance, happiness,
beauty, good fortune, or wealth. Envy provokes misery, humiliation, and impotent
The envious copes with his pernicious emotions in five
They attack the perceived source of frustration in
an attempt to destroy it, or "reduce it" to their "size". Such destructive
impulses often assume the disguise of championing social causes, fighting
injustice, touting reform, or promoting an ideology.
They seek to subsume the object of envy by imitating
it. In extreme cases, they strive to get rich quick through criminal scams, or
corruption. They endeavor to out-smart the system and shortcut their way to
fortune and celebrity.
They resort to self-deprecation. They idealize the
successful, the rich, the mighty, and the lucky and attribute to them
super-human, almost divine, qualities. At the same time, they humble
themselves. Indeed, most of this strain of the envious end up disenchanted and
bitter, driving the objects of their own erstwhile devotion and adulation to
destruction and decrepitude.
They experience cognitive dissonance. These people
devalue the source of their frustration and envy by finding faults in
everything they most desire and in everyone they envy.
They avoid the envied person and thus the agonizing
pangs of envy.
Envy is not a new phenomenon. Belisarius, the general
who conquered the world for Emperor Justinian, was blinded and stripped of his
assets by his envious peers. I - and many others - have written extensively
about envy in command economies. Nor is envy likely to diminish.
In his book, "Facial Justice", Hartley describes a
post-apocalyptic dystopia, New State, in which envy is forbidden and equality
extolled and everything enviable is obliterated. Women are modified to look like
men and given identical "beta faces". Tall buildings are razed.
Joseph Schumpeter, the prophetic Austrian-American economist,
believed that socialism will disinherit capitalism. In "Capitalism, Socialism,
and Democracy" he foresaw a conflict between a class of refined but dirt-poor
intellectuals and the vulgar but filthy rich businessmen and managers they
virulently envy and resent. Samuel Johnson wrote: "He was dull in a new way, and
that made many people think him great." The literati seek to tear down the
market economy which they feel has so disenfranchised and undervalued them.
Hitler, who fancied himself an artist, labeled the British a
"nation of shopkeepers" in one of his bouts of raging envy. Ralph Reiland, the
Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise at Robert Morris University, quotes
David Brooks of the "weekly Standard", who christened this phenomenon
"The hatred of the bourgeoisie is the beginning of all virtue' -
wrote Gustav Flaubert. He signed his letters 'Bourgeoisophobus' to show how much
he despised 'stupid grocers and their ilk ... Through some screw-up in the great
scheme of the universe, their narrow-minded greed had brought them vast wealth,
unstoppable power and growing social prestige."
Reiland also quotes from Ludwig van Mises's "The Anti-Capitalist
"Many people, and especially intellectuals, passionately loathe
capitalism. In a society based on caste and status, the individual can ascribe
adverse fate to conditions beyond his control. In ... capitalism ... everybody's
station in life depends on his doing ... (what makes a man rich is) not the
evaluation of his contribution from any 'absolute' principle of justice but the
evaluation on the part of his fellow men who exclusively apply the yardstick of
their personal wants, desires and ends ... Everybody knows very well that there
are people like himself who succeeded where he himself failed. Everybody knows
that many of those he envies are self-made men who started from the same point
from which he himself started. Everybody is aware of his own defeat. In order to
console himself and to restore his self- assertion, such a man is in search of a
scapegoat. He tries to persuade himself that he failed through no fault of his
own. He was too decent to resort to the base tricks to which his successful
rivals owe their ascendancy. The nefarious social order does not accord the
prizes to the most meritorious men; it crowns the dishonest, unscrupulous
scoundrel, the swindler, the exploiter, the 'rugged individualist'."
In "The Virtue of Prosperity", Dinesh D'Souza accuses prosperity
and capitalism of inspiring vice and temptation. Inevitably, it provokes envy in
the poor and depravity in the rich.
With only a modicum of overstatement, capitalism can be depicted
as the sublimation of jealousy. As opposed to destructive envy - jealousy
induces emulation. Consumers - responsible for two thirds of America's GDP - ape
role models and vie with neighbors, colleagues, and family members for
possessions and the social status they endow. Productive and constructive
competition - among scientists, innovators, managers, actors, lawyers,
politicians, and the members of just about every other profession - is driven by
The eminent Nobel prize winning British economist and
philosopher of Austrian descent, Friedrich Hayek, suggested in "The Constitution
of Liberty" that innovation and progress in living standards are the outcomes of
class envy. The wealthy are early adopters of expensive and unproven
technologies. The rich finance with their conspicuous consumption the research
and development phase of new products. The poor, driven by jealousy, imitate
them and thus create a mass market which allows manufacturers to lower prices.
But jealousy is premised on the twin beliefs of equality and a
level playing field. "I am as good, as skilled, and as talented as the object of
my jealousy." - goes the subtext - "Given equal opportunities, equitable
treatment, and a bit of luck, I can accomplish the same or more."
Jealousy is easily transformed to outrage when its presumptions
- equality, honesty, and fairness - prove wrong. In a paper recently published
by Harvard University's John M. Olin Center for Law and titled "Executive
Compensation in America: Optimal Contracting or Extraction of Rents?", the
authors argue that executive malfeasance is most effectively regulated by this
"Directors (and non-executive directors) would be reluctant to
approve, and executives would be hesitant to seek, compensation arrangements
that might be viewed by observers as outrageous."
About the Author
Sam Vaknin is the author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited" and
"After the Rain - How the West Lost the East". He is a columnist in "Central
Europe Review", United Press International (UPI) and ebookweb.org and the editor
of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory,
Suite101 and searcheurope.com. Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor
to the Government of Macedonia.
His web site:
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2007-11-10 10:58:03 in Economic Articles