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Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour

Schoeck defines envy as “a drive which lies at the core of man’s life as a social being…[an] urge to compare oneself invidiously with others.” Denying the egalitarian dogma that envy is spawned by circumstance and can be cured by removing socioeconomic inequalities, he maintains, less flatteringly but far more believably, that envy is inherent in our nature, citing such compelling evidence as sibling rivalry among small children.

Envy is not wholly negative; Schoeck plausibly argues that social forces could not operate without it. Awareness of the potential envy of others, and fear of arousing it, comprise a mighty force for social control. For example, envy of possible gains from receiving inequitable treatment deters most people from seeking favors from government and thus helps preserve equality under the law. Excessive envy, however, exacts serious economic penalties. Fear of other people’s envy discourages innovation, effort, and achievement. Measures inspired by envy or a desire to appease it, such as progressive taxation, do likewise.

Schoeck’s study of envy in primitive societies yields surprising insights powerfully supportive of both capitalism and Christianity. Private property emerges not as the cause of envy, as egalitarians assert, but as a defense against it–“a necessary protective screen between people,” deflecting envy that would otherwise be directed at people onto material goods.

After showing that envy’s dominion in primitive cultures, including superstitious fear of arousing the envy of their gods, is a crippling barrier to progress in developing countries, Schoeck rightly argues that one of Christianity’s greatest achievements lay in freeing people to innovate; it “provided man for the first time with supernatural beings who, he knew, could neither envy nor ridicule him” and offered strong moral condemnation of human envy. The New Testament’s achievement in liberating people from envy and an inherent guilty fear of being unequal “alone made the modern world emotionally and socially possible.” This theme of Christianity’s role in advancing civilization by opposing envy makes Schoeck’s work especially valuable for religious scholars and clergy.

Schoeck rejects the damnation of luxury popular in some religious and political circles as an envy-minded anachronism. While “it is still possible in cases of pathological greed and avarice to speak of acquisitiveness as a social sin … as a general concept it no longer makes sense. … As soon as there is real economic growth, and the technology to produce any item in as many copies as there is a demand for it, covetousness and acquisitiveness, as terms of social criticism, lack any real meaning.”

Because envy is ever-present, unappeasable, powerful when aroused, and highly destructive, a society’s “civilizing power of achievement” depends on how well it controls envy. Unfortunately, several forces in modern life are turning envy loose. Politicians find pandering to envy a tempting path to power. Egalitarian and socialist theories appeal to envy and give it intellectual legitimacy. And since World War II, social sanctions against envy have crumbled. “This public self-justification of envy is something entirely new. In this sense it is possible to speak of an age of envy.”

Most attempts at constructing a socialist or egalitarian utopia, Schoeck argues, seek to remove envy’s evil effects by removing its targets, so that the envious have nothing to envy. But because envy creates its own targets regardless of how equal people are, these efforts are doomed to fail. Moreover, they neglect envy’s positive social role.

“We are thus confronted by an antimony, an irreconcilable contradiction: Envy is an extremely anti-social and destructive emotional state, but it is, at the same time, the most completely socially oriented. And without universal consideration of at least a potential or imaginary envy in others, there could not be the automatic social controls upon which all association is based. We need envy for our existence, though no society that hopes to endure can afford to raise it to a value principle or to an institution.

Now, the twentieth century has gone further toward the liberation of the envious man, and toward raising envy to an abstract social principle, than any previous society since the primitive level, because it has taken seriously several ideologies of which envy is the source and which it feeds in precisely the degree to which those ideologies raise false hopes of an ultimate envy-free society. And in the twentieth century, too, for the first time, certain societies have grown rich enough to nourish the illusion that they can afford the luxury of buying the good will of the envious at ever steeper prices.“

Envy’s combination of thorough scholarship and dispassionate, readable style lends its arguments compelling weight and makes it the best treatment of envy available. A smashing refutation of egalitarianism’s view of human nature and its utopian delusions, Envy is a must for all friends of liberty and civilization. His care in arguing envy’s positive aspects renders Schoeck impervious to charges of polemicism. Hence his criticisms of envy and his foreboding observations about modern times are all the more powerful. Widespread study of Envy would do much to combat the evils of its subject, and hopefully lead many to concur in its conclusion: “The time has surely come when we should stop behaving as though the envious man was the main criterion for economic and social policy.”