Bryan Caplan  

The Envy of the World

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I just re-read a series I wrote on envy and the history of economic growth, and with the benefit of hindsight, there are few posts I'm prouder of. What do you think about a book inspired by...

  • "What Took You So Long?"
  • "The Tribal Trap"
  • "Escaping the Envy Trap"

    Perhaps I should call it The Envy of the World?


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    TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
    TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/607
    The author at Mike Linksvayer in a related article titled Schoeck’s Envy writes:
      What better way to celebrate thanksgiving than to ponder envy? Helmut Schoeck’s Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior (1969, German original 1966) makes the case that envy and envy avoidance are important determinants of human social behavior and tha... [Tracked on November 24, 2006 11:25 PM]
    COMMENTS (5 to date)
    sourcreamus writes:

    How about something like "Battling the Green Eyed Monster"

    Bruce G Charlton writes:

    I published something about this a while back - http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/evolpsych.html.

    The envy is a constant, what changes are the socio-economic conditions - the most crucial of which was probably the invention of agriculture and storage of food. Once you can store surplus food, the wealthiest can begin to pay a gang to protect the surplus and extract more.

    HOWEVER - all this may be thrown into doubt by UCal Irvine Greg Clark's mega-important forthcoming book 'A farewell to alms' - in which he describes the Malthusian Trap: universal until c 1800 in Britain.

    He seems to prove that variations between pre-1800 societies were merely oscillations around an inescapable Malthusian mean.

    Brad Taylor writes:

    Sounds mightily interesting.

    Nietzsche's critique of morality is obviously related: The weak majority set the moral rules to enslave the strong minority.

    You could also view the desire for equality as a indivdual commitment device. Nowak, Page and Sigmund argue in this paper that demands of fairness beat reason in ultimatum games where repeat contact is likely. The conditions they assume probably wouldn't be far off what you would find in small tribal communities.

    I don't like the title though. How about The Envious Ape?

    Ajay writes:

    Interesting stuff about envy taxes. As a libertarian myself, I broadly agree. However, the market for the richest few has never been very efficient, only the pendulum may have now swung in their favor, and I'm not sure taxing them a bit more hurts anybody. For example, is the average CEO's work worth 100 times more than the average person's work? Probably not. The markets for CEOs and basketball players are very small and prone to a lot of irrational thinking by the people who make the salary decisions. Basketball (NBA) and hockey (NHL) team owners were so irrational about how much they would pay their top players that both leagues put in individual salary caps to take that power away from the owners. Similar stupidity can be found in the decision-making process at corporate boards. A big part of the problem is that people systematically overvalue what one person can do to change an organization rather than what a lower-paid team of people can accomplish: everybody's always looking for a savior.

    The question is what to do about it. Hard caps are stupid because there is occasionally someone who is worth that much (NBA scoring leader Kobe Bryant was probably underpaid at $16 million last year, the maximum he was allowed under the rules). The best system we've come up with is to let people make what they make, then tax them some percentage off the top. This keeps people who make the most from hoarding their loot and actually leads to more stuff being produced as the lower-paid people who get taxed less consume more, bringing the cost of goods down. The trick is not to tax too much and to have a system that isn't filled with loophooles. The current tax system is so leaky that the richest group actually ends up paying less than the next richest group because they pay accountants to find the loopholes. I would favor a flat tax (which can be fairly progressive), a concept that many eastern european countries have adopted as The Economist lays out. Not quite an envy tax but then I'm not sure what policy Bryan advocates.

    RogerM writes:

    Envy is definately the driving force behind socialism. But I think the concept of limited wealth is important, too. Hechsher (?) in his book "Mercantilism" claims that the limited wealth philosophy caused the wars of the 17th and 18th centuries.

    [It's spelled with a 'k': Eli Hecksher (1879-1952). See also Hecksher's work, The Continental System; and "Mercantilism" by Laura LaHaye in the CEE.--Econlib Ed.]

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