Envy Isn’t Just a Left Wing Vice April 26, 2010

Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and it involves wanting to deny other people things whether you have them or not. We generally think of it in terms of what the Australians call the Tall Poppy Syndrome; the more talented and outstanding people get cut down to “size” by the rest. And in many cultures excellence or superiority in any field is often blamed on witchcraft.

We tend to think of envy as a vice of the left. The left wishes to tax the wealthy heavily enough to control or liquidate fortunes, and it gets some of that energy from resentment of people who have money. Although as Michael Barone is supposed to have said, “The real meaning of `the rich’ in American politics is `not me.’” If he is right, much of the demand for soaking the rich in terms of taxes may not be based on envy but on fantasy – the fantasy that the rich have enough resources to carry the political and philanthropic burdens of the country without asking much of the rest of us!

But when I read some of the comments on this story about a ruling on affordable housing in Pleasanton in the Bay Area, it occurred to me that envy can be a factor on what is sometimes considered the ‘right’ as well. We can resent people who have things that we do have, or even not quite as much as we have (I don’t think the Section 8 housing will be as big or as commodious as the gentleman’s house) if they have not “paid their dues” or “worked hard” as we have, or at least think we have. Howard Husock has written about envy as an incentive for people to make the effort to relocate to a better community precisely because other people who don’t pay their dues can’t go there.

These people may have some legitimate concerns if a criminal class is being brought in. I find it, myself, morally questionable to try to profile people’s “moral character” by their income, in either direction. The idea that people who make less (or more) money than myself are morally inferior, or at least undesirable neighbors, I call Incomism. I use this term instead of Classism because I believe that social classes are more a cultural phenomenon than an economic one, though there is some correlation. There is class prejudice too. And while racism has not entirely vanished from the scene, I suspect that incomism and classism are probably at least as serious problems, if not more serious, in the present day American scene. That the government should allow enough housing (not compel people to build it, or control prices) is a justice issue. My way of dealing with the possible crime issues would be through strict “broken windows” policing, as Giuliani did in New York City in the ‘90s.

Related: “Alameda land-use ruling could reshape state” by John King at SFGate.com

jelowsky 04/28/2010

Although you’re not specifically talking about coveting, what you are saying is very poignant, and reminds me of someone I dealt with in Southern New Jersey in my church there who considered herself poor – and she probably was by income standards. But I’ll always remember what she said to me – that the poor like herself could be just as covetous as the rich. It’s not your income that determines whether or not you covet. Rich or poor can covet. And, she said, sometimes she felt the poor covet even more because of what they don’t have. But income is not the decisive factor; values and character, along with faith, are much more determinative of whether one is content with what he or she has.

Incomism is an interesting idea. It’s probably, more than not, what people mean when they use the word class. In the US, at least, people put more value and emphasis on income than on class.

Thanks for the post.

curt.deckert 05/02/2010

Initial envy could be an incentive for people to make an added effort to relocate to a better community for the betterment and protection of their families; but for some, more aware of class, the effort to relocate to a better community may be because people who don’t pay their dues will not be there. In the present economy there is no longer much flexibility to be upwardly mobile in the housing market, but cities should make provisions for all income levels by planned functional segmentation of density. One needs to place more value on contentment and character based on a living faith. Faith based communities with less overhead could greatly reduce government involvement, racism, and spending. This could bring down pricing and give more people added flexibility with less envy leading to coveting. Envy can work both ways with the rich and poor—for example, a rich person who is a wise steward could envy a poor person who drives a better car and the poor person could envy the rich person’s house. Less extreme left wing and right wing beliefs with more balance like 40 (or more) years ago might reduce extreme envy, coveting, and associated crime.

Anna 05/03/2010

Food for thought, on power, social isolation and empathy, from Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide (and from his blog)
“[When the] dictator cannot see the responder – the two players are located in separate rooms – the dictator lapses into unfettered greed. Instead of giving away a significant share of the profits, the despots start offering mere pennies, and pocketing the rest. Once we become socially isolated, we stop simulating the feelings of other people. As a result, our inner Machiavelli takes over…

The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that, in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with severe brain damage. “The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior,” he writes. “You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad combination.”

Of course, we live in an age when our most powerful people – they tend to also have lots of money – are also the most isolated..”

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