Bryan Caplan  

Hard-Wired Envy

A Review of My Review... How I Fought Envy...
If people envy people richer than themselves, I say we should fight envy, not inequality.  A number of people have objected that "Envy is 'hard-wired.'"  They're right - but it doesn't matter.

Why not?  Most, if not all, of our emotions are hard-wired.  We're hard-wired to resent it when strangers take our stuff without our consent.  We're hard-wired to yell at people who make us angry.  And judging from how sexist kids are - even faced with constant adult objections - I'd add that humans are probably hard-wired to be sexist, too.

The catch, in every case, is that "hard-wired" does not mean fixed.  All humans may feel these emotions to some extent.  But there's plenty of room to maneuver.  You can become less envious than you are.  Make an effort to monitor your thoughts and behavior.  Count your blessings.  Give credit where credit is due.  Focus on improving yourself instead of comparing yourself to other people.  Spend more time with less envious people. 

Will you achieve the nirvana of zero envy?  Probably not.  But you will become less envious and more enviable at the same time.

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The author at Evolving Economics in a related article titled Envy has its benefits writes:
    Bryan Caplan writes: If people envy people richer than themselves, I say we should fight envy, not inequality. A number of people have objected that “Envy is ‘hard-wired.’” They’re right – but it doesn’t matter... [Tracked on August 17, 2011 12:31 AM]
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Various writes:

I agree completely. I think the root of many cultural institutions and conventions was that they were intended to put a lid on envy. Property rights, the rule of law, the 10 Commandments, etc. These were all positive developments in my opinion. I say it is good thing to try and quash envy.

Pandaemoni writes:

I think eliminating envy would be undesirable. The normal response to seeing your neighbor succeed and feeling envious is not to try to take his success away, it's to strive to succeed yourself. Envy is a motivating factor in what makes us better ourselves.

What needs to be questioned is the means by which we ameliorate our envy. If we strive and achieve on our own, that's good. If we attempt to deprive another of something (to give that thing to our selves or not), that's bad.

Plus, telling people of limited means to "envy less" sounds a bit like telling those with limited food to "hunger less".

Tom West writes:

Oddly enough, human society is often designed both to suppress tendencies that are damaging *and* curb the sort of situations were these tendencies are most pronounced.

Hitting someone who is loud and verbally abusive will get you sent to jail, but we also socially reject people who are loud and abusive.

I think we have seen a disintegration of those cultural conventions that tended to curb the sort of behaviour (conspicuous consumption, extreme salaries, etc.) that excited envy.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I think that is a very good post. I recently made a similar comment on the envy that people feel when someone derives a great benefit from copying them. Humans feel many emotions which we all understand are unacceptable to act upon. That is the difference between civilized adults and young children. When a child is young, if they want a toy another child has, they will often him that other child in order to take said toy. Those who wish to promote equality through redistribution are like that child. They are unable to control their emotions.

mersault writes:

We are not hardwired for any of those things. Everything you cite is a cultural construct. Just look at other cultures and you can see it. You're just too biased in the direction of Western finance/economic groupthink.

This envy canard is just something the wealthy trot out when someone talks about tax increases because it's completely subjective and unprovable, as opposed to the objective and irrefutable metrics on the damages of income disparity. Heaven forbid it actually be about objective economics, incentives, and investment.

Perhaps Warren Buffet is just envious of you?

PJ writes:

"But you will become less envious and more enviable at the same time."

Best sentence I've read in a while. Rings true to me.

joeftansey writes:

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Clay writes:

Why should envy be discouraged?

Envy of success is beneficial and should be encouraged. It is jealousy, resentment, and bitterness of the success of others that is destructive and should be discouraged.

Randy writes:

Envy is a method of competition. It is useed because it often works. Fortunately, there seems to be a natural limit to how well it works. Also fortunately, there are better methods of competition available to the capable.

Dave Budge writes:

I wonder if Tyler is (again) chuckling. If so, I'll take your advice and give you your due.

Well said.

Blacktrance writes:

There are two different kinds of envy. When your neighbor gets a BMW and inspires you to "keep up with the Joneses", that's one kind. When you slash his tires, it's the other kind. (I believe Scott Sumner has written on this subject.) The first kind encourages work. The second kind encourages destructive behavior. Redistributionists have more of the second than with the first.

Adam writes:

Yes, great point. Read Helmut Schoeck's ENVY: A Theory of Social Behaviour to understand the destruction consequences of envy.

It seems unclear that increased income redistribution would even decrease envy. Why wouldn't the dimension of envy simply switch from income to something else that is still relatively more unequal (good looks, success with the opposite sex, intelligence, athleticism, etc...)? By its very nature, envy is relative, not absolute.

Kevin L writes:

Wouldn't envy still exist in a society where income is perfectly distributed? Government cannot distribute ability or aptitude (except perhaps by lobotomizing the exceptional), so those with greater aptitude who are more productive will be envious of those who are less productive. Of course, since there is no immediate incentive to do otherwise, those productive people will cease to be productive. The only way to promote work without sacrificing income equity is to threaten the productive people with imprisonment or execution unless they work harder. It all descends into an authoritarian system where people are punished for not "doing their share" instead of rewarded (monetarily) for being productive and increasing overall wealth of society.

You might say there should be non-monetary reward systems, but in the end these are all the same as a monetary system because some people will have more influence and be able to get more of what they want, and envy still will exist. No one ever feels they get all they deserve.

effem writes:

I agree in spirit - good post.

The issue I see is that so much of the current wealth distribution has resulted from several philosophical decisions by the US govt.

For example, why is it that the US is comfortable letting the value of labor fall sharply while it takes every opportunity to vigorously defend the value of capital?

Envy for the sake of envy is an unhelpful emotion. But envy can also be a helpful alert that you are being "robbed." We have built a very effective system for shuttling wealth to a very small percentage of the population. There would be a lot less envy if the deck weren't stacked quite so badly.

effem writes:

Bryan, would also be interesting to see you review the studies that show strong links between inequality and various health & quality of life measures (among rich countries). Does inequality increase envy, which decreases health? If so, maybe we need to be more careful not to foster inequality. Do we have an obligation to keep our system from promoting unhealthy outcomes? In some ways, inequality resemebles an unhealthy externality that we should seek to minimize.

Clay writes:

@Blacktrance, slashing tires is more than simple envy, that's jealous and hate and resentment.

Society should steer people to channel their envy in constructive ways, not eliminate envy itself.

david nh writes:

" A number of people have objected that "Envy is 'hard-wired.'" They're right - but it doesn't matter."

Of course, you're right - we call the process of checking our more destructive but hard-wired impulses "civilization".

Jim Object writes:

Preach it, Bryan.

Barry Milliken writes:

I recommend "Envy by Helmut Shoeck
See reviews at

Gene Callahan writes:

"The catch, in every case, is that "hard-wired" does not mean fixed."

Of course, if hard-wired means anything at all, it means "fixed."

Nemi writes:

Fighting envy?
Without envy – what incentive will rich people have to work?
The intrinsic joy of creativity?
What are you – a communist?

Chris E writes:

Nemi -

I think Bryan just means eliminating envy for the poor. Presumably they should just go and eat cake.

Here's my take on the subject:
How to Deal with Envy

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