(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)
The top 1 percent. Tax cuts for the rich. Wealth and privilege. Those are powerful phrases. Powerful because they appeal to one of the most prevalent and universal of all human emotions: envy.
The politics of class warfare will always be with us because envy will always be with us. Though no one ever admits it, this emotion is undoubtedly a factor behind some people’s support for higher taxes on the rich. Taken to extremes, it in large part gave rise to degenerative ideologies such as communism and even anti-Semitism. It is also the basis of many wrongs, small and large, that people commit in their everyday lives.
Where did envy come from in the evolutionary scheme of things? My initial conjecture was that it is so prevalent today because humans are not biologically “programmed” for industrialized societies, in which specialization and the division of labor necessitate differences in incomes. Millions of years of evolution designed us to live in hunter-gather societies, where everyone generally was in the same boat economically.
But that conjecture was wrong. Helmut Schoeck’s classic Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior makes clear that unchecked envy was actually far more common in pre-affluent societies. There are plenty of things other than economic status to get envious about, such as someone’s leadership position, hunting skills, social skills, or access to members of the opposite sex.
And in fact, envy based on economic differences was very pronounced in such societies. Small differences in incomes rather than large ones actually are more often a cause of envy. Within a given group, whenever someone accumulated a disproportionate amount of assets based on skill or hard work (or luck), that person often would be ostracized and/or his possessions confiscated. It is one reason why primitive societies stayed primitive; no one was permitted to get ahead economically. “No one dares to show anything that might lead people to think he was better off,” writes Schoeck. “Innovations are unlikely. Agricultural methods remain traditional and primitive, to the detriment of the whole village, because every deviation from previous practice comes up against the limitations set by envy.”
Among the Mambwe, an African tribe, achieving success brought accusations of sorcery. Villagers were convinced that that if someone regularly produced a better crop than his neighbors, it was not the result of better cultivation methods, but of sorcery. Successful people were looked upon as sinister, supernatural, and dangerous.
Sound familiar? In our society, those who become rich through working hard and producing things of value are often suspected of getting where they are through devious means.
A comment by the actor Ethan Hawke, brought up by a “socially conscious” mother, is telling: “I was raised to have a general mistrust of anybody who was wealthy,” he told an interviewer.
Only in societies where enough people hold their envy in check can economic advancement take place. Ours is one such society. In fact, I would venture to guess that envy is less prevalent in the United States than in any other society, which is one reason why we’ve been so economically successful.
Of course, Americans are still subject to the same laws of human emotion as everyone else, so one does not have to look hard to find manifestations of envy. Politicians exploit that emotion all the time. Notable was Al Gore’s “top 1 percent” mantra during his presidential campaign, presidential candidate John Edwards and his “two Americas” rhetoric – “one privileged, the other burdened,” and President Barrack Obama’s plans to raise taxes on the top five percent.
One may ask, how could Gore, Edwards, and Obama, who are wealthy themselves, be envious?
First, they may not be, but exploit the fact that plenty of other people are. Second, maybe it’s guilt. Many wealthy people engage in class-warfare-style thinking because they feel ashamed about their possessions, or don’t want to be the object of envy, according to Schoeck. Third, the rich can be envious of those who are even richer. A Fortune magazine cover a few years ago playfully betrayed this sentiment. It featured business magnate Richard Branson with the sub-headline: “The Money. The Family. The Island. (Damn him.)”
The great conundrum is how the emotion of envy ever got programmed into our brains during the course of evolution. “What adaptive value could envy have had in the prehistoric past?” asks author and psychiatrist Willard Gaylin. “None that I can imagine, for it never brings gratification.” Envy represents a vicious and hateful resentment of people, he writes, that is independent of their actual encroachment on one’s pleasures.
Thoughtfulness and reason can do much to counter the emotion of envy. It is useful to realize, for example, that rich people are the ones responsible for providing most of the rest of us with jobs, products, and (through their savings) loan money to buy a house or go to college.
Those feeling the pangs of envy coming on should ignore it. Laugh it off. Lie down until the feeling goes away. Recognize it as a useless emotion that never produces any benefits, and that causes untold woes.
Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.