Envy and Poverty

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1966, the German sociologist Helmut Schoeck wrote a classic book,
A Theory of Social Behavior
. He argued that envy is the
root cause of socialism and other forms of compulsory wealth redistribution.

Most people
think the cause is jealousy. The jealous person says: "You’ve
got something I want. I’m going to take it away from you."
Schoeck said this explanation misses the more intransigent underlying
outlook: envy. "You’ve got something I want. I can never possess
it. So, I’m going to destroy what you have. I don’t want anyone
to have it until everyone can have it."

Schoeck said
that a jealous person can be bought off. He is willing to settle
for a piece of the other person’s action. The envious person can’t
be bought off. The fact that someone else is in a position to buy
him off enrages him. His sin therefore is self-reinforcing.

Envy undergirds
socialism, he argued. He therefore concluded that it is impossible
to buy off hard-core socialists by offering to share a larger percentage
of national wealth with them. They will not go away. They will demand
all: complete equality. Will this undermine economic production?
They don’t care. They are not jealous. They are envious.

Schoeck recognized
that envy was one of the medieval church’s seven deadly sins. He
believed that generations of preaching against envy was one of the
pillars of Western economic growth — one that has not been widely

The New Testament’s
position is that every sin is deadly. "For whosoever shall
keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of
all" (James 2:10). "For the wages of sin is death; but
the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord"
(Romans 6:23). But envy is surely a sin to be avoided.

There is a
common phrase in English: "I really envy you." It is harmless.
It is actually a kind of compliment. A person has done well. The
other person acknowledges this.

Yet in some
cultures, the phrase would be considered a threat. In such societies,
envy is never mentioned except as something totally evil. There
is a widespread fear of it and its effects. People believe that
either the gods or practitioners of "the evil eye" are
ready to bring negative sanctions against anyone who gets too high
in society, other than agents of the gods. People who are successful
therefore hide visible signs of their success. They accumulate wealth
in forms that are not easily detected.

One result
is that people with wealth hesitate to cooperate with those who
do not have wealth. They separate themselves, out of fear of being
envied. They do not want the stigma of visible wealth. So, they
do whatever they can to avoid contact with people who might become
envious. This reduces the division of labor. People who could learn
about what it takes to become productive are not given the opportunity.

For well over
a thousand years, the church preached against the sin of envy. This
preaching had a positive effect wherever it took hold in people’s
thinking. Listeners were hesitant to indulge in the sin of envy.
They had been warned of coming judgment against the envious.

The story,
more than any other, which served as the vehicle for sermons against
envy was the story of Cain and Abel.


Both men brought
a sacrifice to God. Cain’s was agricultural. Abel’s was a dead animal:
shed blood. "And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of
his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto
Abel and to his offering: But
unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very
wroth, and his countenance fell" (Genesis 4:4—5). His
fallen countenance was visible to God. God warned him: "If
thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not
well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire,
and thou shalt rule over him" (Genesis 4:7). Cain’s problem
was internal. Sin lay at the door, ready to devour him.

Here was his
situation. He could not get praise from God directly. He could trade
his agricultural output with his brother. He could buy an animal
to sacrifice. But he was unwilling to do this. He was not willing
to admit that he had a less desirable sacrifice to offer. God was
being unjust. But, since he could not get even with God, he got
even with his brother.

An acceptable
solution was free trade, but he preferred violence. Even though
his act of murder would increase his guilt, thereby making his agricultural
sacrifice even more useless, he did not care. He killed his brother.

By slaying
his brother, he made his situation worse. He was deeper in the clutches
of sin. Sin was now well inside the door. He owed God more, for
his sin was greater. He would pay a heavy price. This text was familiar
to Western audiences for over a thousand years.

And now art
thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive
thy brother’s blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground,
it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive
and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain said unto
the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou
hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from
thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond
in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth
me shall slay me (Genesis 4:11—14).

Cain’s overt
sin was murder, but his act of murder was grounded on the sin of
envy. He wanted to tear down his brother, despite the fact that
he himself would be made much worse off. This did not stop him.
In his view, it was better to kill his brother because of God’s
slight to his honor, rather than to offer to exchange a part of
his output in exchange for part of his brother’s output. He preferred
violence to exchange.

He offered
Abel no way out. For a man consumed by envy, the target of his envy
has no way out.


Less familiar
is the story of Abraham’s wells. When his son Isaac returned to
the land of Philistia, these wells were filled with dirt. "For
all the wells which his father’s servants had digged in the days
of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled
them with earth" (Genesis 26:15).

What had been
the point of filling up the wells? A well was a source of wealth
in the desert. When Abraham left the region, the Philistines could
simply have commandeered the wells, "in the name of the People."
But they didn’t. That would have meant acknowledging that Abraham
had created wealth through his efforts and capital, when they had
not been able to. Even though the stolen water would have made them
better off, they preferred to fill in the wells. They resented the
wells as symbols of Abraham’s advantage over them. Surely, they
did not offer to buy or rent his wells.

This destructive
mentality may seem crazy to modern men, yet a similar attitude toward
other people’s advantages exists in today’s society. The constant
cry against inequality of all kinds has escalated for almost two

Among those
who demand equality, there are few who pursue it personally. The
demand for equality today come from politicians who live in luxury
or professors in elite universities, who are paid huge salaries
for doing little work and who are protected for life by tenure contracts
that prevent them from being fired.

As envy has
increased, government intervention into the economy has followed
in its wake. Yet economic inequality remains. The thousands of programs
that were legislated because they would produce more equality have
all failed to do so. These programs hamper production by substituting
bureaucratic control (negative sanctions) for free market profitability
(positive sanctions). They substitute fear for optimism. So, they
lead to a smaller pie. Meanwhile, inequality remains or even increases,
as it did in the Soviet Union. Yet the defenders of equality demand
more of the same.

There is nothing
like someone else’s well filled with water to upset the defenders
of equality. They will do whatever they can to remove it from their


Let us say
that two politicians come before you, seeking your vote. Each offers
a different scenario.

  1. A world
    in which American economic growth will remain at 2% per year,
    but with China growing at 5% per year. At some point, the Chinese
    will be richer than Americans. "Vote for me. I’ll do nothing
    about China."
  2. A world
    in which America’s economy grows at 1% per year, but China’s also
    grows at 1% per year. America will retain its supremacy in per
    capita income. "Vote for me. I’ll stick it to China, good
    and hard."

If you choose
scenario #1, you do not suffer from envy. You understand that 2%
a year is better than 1% a year. More is better than less. What
China does is a concern for China.

There is something
else to consider. Would you rather buy the nicest home in a lower-income
neighborhood or the smallest house in a rich neighborhood, if you
could buy either one for the same amount of money? Real estate investors
recommend the latter. The better your neighborhood, the more likely
you will find a rich buyer for your house if you ever decide to
sell. Meanwhile, you may get invited to parties where you can meet
new contacts — contacts with a lot of money.

If China can
keep growing at 5% a year — it is said to grow at 8% — year in
and year out, then residents of the United States will eventually
have to content themselves to keeping up with the Joneses. The Wongs
will be way out of reach.

How do the
Wongs make their money? By increasing their output. They invent
new gadgets, find ways to cut costs, and generally increase the
amount of goods that are available to buy.

If, five decades
from now, rich people in China will be able to afford to buy the
equivalent of Star Trek’s hologram decks, while most Americans will
have to content themselves with Chinese-made, wall-size, 3-D video
screens, so what? If you like video, 3-D screens are better than
what we have today.

A person consumed
by envy compares what he has with what those in a different postal
zip code have, and he curses the universe because he has not done
as well. Not being able to do anything about the universe, he contents
himself with voting for policies that will take away the advantage
that residents in the other zip code possess.

people living in lower-income zip codes organize politically to
get legislation passed that would cut residents of the better zip
codes down to size. And so it goes, zip code by zip code. "We’ll
get even with you!"

It should not
matter to anyone how well the residents of other zip codes are doing.
What should matter is whether he can avoid having to move into a
lower-income zip code, due to circumstances beyond his control,
or whether he can afford to move up, due to circumstances within
his control. What should matter most of all is whether there is
sufficient economic growth to let people in his zip code do better,
year after year. How well the other zip codes are doing ought to
concern him only in his capacity as a charitable donor or in his
capacity as a marketer.


It is never
a question of inequality vs. equality. It is always a question of
which kind of equality, enforced by whom.

cannot safely say this. They must pretend to promote this or that
program that is guaranteed to increase equality. (Note: there is
no money-back guarantee.) The best we can hope for is that the program
confiscates half the water in someone’s well. This will lead to
a reduced number of future wells.

Of course,
the debate isn’t over water wells these days. It’s
over oil wells.

When this debate
escalates, it moves from sharing wells to bombing wells. Or maybe
the debate doesn’t escalate at all. After all, Cain did not escalate
his debate with Abel. Instead, he launched a pre-emptive strike.

If only there
were a political party that would come out foursquare in favor of
inequality — an inequality based on the decision of each consumer
to buy from one person and not all the others offering things for
sale. Its slogan would be taken from Mel Brooks’ script for The
Producers. "If you’ve got it, flaunt it!" That’s a
lot better than the operational slogan of the envious society: "If
you’ve got it, hide it!"

We are not
created equal. Rather, we are created responsible. This has been
preached by churches for two millennia. A social order should pursue
personal responsibility. It should enforce this rigorously in its
courts. But when people of varying talents pursue their ends responsibly,
without resorting to fraud or violence, the result is inequality.
Why? Because people have different skills, capital, experiences,
possessions, and opportunities. They face different consumers. F.
A. Hayek put this choice clearly in his book, The
Constitution of Liberty
(1960). The courts must either treat
people the same legally and therefore allow inequality, or else
treat them differently in a futile attempt to create material equality.

From the
fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat
them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position,
and that the only way to place them in an equal position would
be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material
equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict
with each other; and we can achieve either the one or the other,
but not both at the same time. The equality before the law which
freedom requires leads to material inequality.


find ourselves in a political world whose representatives assure
the voters that the government is pursuing equality as a moral principle.
Then these agents use the government to confiscate wealth in order
to expand the operations of the state and benefit special-interest
groups. They do this in the name of the People.

The age of
envy is with us still. So, until this changes, I leave you with
this advice: "If you’ve got it, hide it."

18, 2007

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 19-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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