The politics of envy


One of Powwerline’s lineup of contributors, Steven Hayward, is scheduled to speak at Yale today. Here’s an excerpt from his post on the topic:

Among other things, I am going to argue at length that the current furious egalitarian mood of the left is really just a case of envy run amok, but envy is something social scientists don’t study any more, largely because it would discredit the program of the left. In looking around for scholarship on this point, I stumbled across a terrific 1966 book by a German scholar named Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. I can’t believe I never came across this book before now. It is stupendously good.

There are too many great parts of his argument to summarize or quote (though I may make a series out of this topic), but here’s one:

It would be a miracle if the democratic political process were ever to renounce the use of the envy-motive. Its usefulness derives, if for no other reason, from the fact that all that is needed, in principle, is to promise the envious the destruction or the confiscation of assets enjoyed by the others; beyond that there is no need to promise anything more constructive. The negativism of envy permits even the weakest of candidates to sound reasonably plausible, since anybody, once in office, can confiscate or destroy. To enlarge the country’s capital assets, to create employment etc., requires a more precise programme. Candidates will naturally try to make some positive proposals, but it is often all too apparent that envy looms large in their calculations. The more precarious the nation’s economy at election time, the stronger the temptations for politicians to make ‘redistribution’ their main plank, even when they know how little margin is left for redistributive measures, and, worse still, how likely they are to retard economic growth.

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