Poverts Love To Say No

Webster’s offers no definition for “povert.” It should.

A povert [PAHvurt] is someone who has not had much economic success, and who then justifies this failure in his own mind by denying that economic success is either desirable or legitimate. A povert praises poverty as a way of life.

In almost all cases, a povert is middle class, meaning a middle-class American, meaning wealthy beyond most men’s dreams, today or in the past. He is a rich person by the world’s standards, but unsuccessful in his desire to keep up with the Joneses. So, he dismisses the Joneses as misguided.

Poverts tend to be envious. They resent the success of others. They delight in seeing successful people fail, or even better, lose what they possess. Even if they are made worse off by the failure of the successful, they rejoice.

One of the strongest motivations behind socialism is that it is offered to the masses as a way to tear down the rich. Socialists favor socialism even they know the poor will be worse off. For decades, academic studies showed that poor people were worse off under socialism because of the low economic growth of socialist economies. But not until the Soviet Union collapsed did socialists finally admit that the failure of socialism was comprehensive, not just comparative and the fault of external circumstances. Then they turned to ecology as a justification for imposing controls on the economy. Someday, I may write an article, “From Katyn to Kyoto.”

Three decades ago, Murray Rothbard introduced me to Helmut Schoeck’s masterpiece, Envy (1969). Schoeck, a sociologist, had made a comprehensive study of envy and its negative effects on societies. Rothbard wrote this regarding the inevitable failure of socialism to eliminate envy.

Helmut Schoeck’s Envy makes a powerful case for the view that the modern egalitarian drive for socialism and similar doctrines is a pandering to envy of the different and the unequal, but the socialist attempt to eliminate envy through egalitarianism can never hope to succeed. For there will always be personal differences, such as looks, ability, health, and good or bad fortune, which no egalitarian program, however rigorous, can stamp out, and on which envy will be able to fasten its concerns.

There are armies of these envy-driven bureaucrats who are drawing upper middle-class salaries in regulatory agencies all over the world. Their job, as they see it, is to put entrepreneurs in their place. If this harms consumers, what is that to them? The important thing is to retard the expansion of business, because that retards the creation of personal wealth.


The famous response of Mark Twain regarding tainted money — ‘taint yours, ‘taint mine — gets to the point. Money is tainted by how people get possession of it. It is not the source of the tainting.

The povert assumes that money is the source of the tainting. Therefore, he is willing to forego it, just so long as a successful person has to forego even more of it. He feels good about himself in his moral stand against tainted money.

Years ago, a church was given $175,000. The pastor wanted to build a day care with it. The day care would have brought in well over $250,000 a year, with at least $40,000 going to the church. But the rumor got out that his wife might become the day care’s director. A faction was determined to keep her out. They voted to build a gymnasium with the money. As soon as it was built, most of them transferred their membership. The pastor soon left the church. Then the building was turned into a poorly designed school. It generates a fraction of the money it would have, had it been designed as a day care. But the members got what they wanted. The pastor’s wife never got the position, assuming that she would have, which was never publicly discussed.

Recently, another man approached his congregation to ask to be able to rent space for a day care. He was ready to pay a good rent. The congregation is shrinking. It can barely pay the pastor’s salary. But the church’s elders turned down the offer. “We just don’t feel good about this,” they told him. In short, they would much rather lose the church than let him make $80,000 a year, which he probably would have. The important thing for them was that no one in the congregation might put the money-losing empty building to a profitable use, which included young child evangelism.

Last February, I mailed an ad to 10,000 pastors showing them that they could increase their churches’ budgets by over $50,000 a year, and double their salaries, if they put the empty church building to use as a day care, Monday through Friday. Not one of them did it. They complain about low budgets. They talk up young child evangelism. But when it comes to solving their financial problems, they refused. Why? Fear of envy is a big reason. Their churches are filled with poverts, and they know it. They don’t want trouble.

In contrast, when I went to my mailing list and to this site to offer a free manual on how to start and run a Christian day care, about 20 people (out of perhaps 150,000), all of them laymen, decided to move forward on a starting day care. They are not pastors. They are not church board members. They are not poverts. So, the thought of earning $100,000 a year and owning a $60,000 a year, paid-off $500,000 facility in 15 years did not appall them.


I have learned the hard way that success is deeply resented, not just by your run-of-the-mill socialist but by people who proclaim their devotion to “the free enterprise economy and the American way of life.” Schoeck argued a generation ago that preaching in the West reduced the influence of envy, but it took almost two millennia to get this idea across.

Today, the tax-funded school system has undermined the message of Christianity that envy is morally wrong. The result is a society of voting poverts who are ready and able to pull down anyone who gets ahead. They are ready to keep the Joneses from getting ahead, even if this also keeps them from getting ahead. No personal price is too high to “put the rich in their place.”

May 18, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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