David R. Henderson  

How I Fought Envy

Hard-Wired Envy... The Feeling is Mutual...

I totally agree with Bryan Caplan's post on envy. Well done, Bryan. And I can say from personal experience that I fought it in myself. Some excerpts from my chapter, "Whose Income, Who's Distributing?" in my The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:

As I mentioned in Chapter 5, when I was a kid, we spent every summer vacation at our cottage in Minaki, Ontario, Canada. Almost everyone else who had a cottage there was better off than our family, whether measured by income or wealth. To get around the system of lakes and rivers, you needed a canoe or a motorboat. Every other family I knew there had a motorboat; we had to make our way around in a canoe that my father had bought in 1931. [DRH note: we still have it, by the way. I used it last week.] Also, everyone but us--at least it seemed that way--was a member of the yacht club, a fancy name for an organization that had a few small sailboats and a cocktail lounge. My father strongly resented this "conspicuous consumption" of "the rich" around him. His working definition of "the rich" was anyone whose income was at least 30 percent more than his, and included almost everyone else who owned a cottage at Minaki. My father often talked as if he thought "the rich" had somehow obtained their income dishonestly or, at least, dishonorably. It also bugged me that some of my friends had their own motorboat or at least occasional access to their parents' boat. Some of my hardest times were when I would see my cousins out on the lake, water skiing, and not having invited us.

Yes, I shared my father's deep resentment of people who had more than we had. And given that about half the families in Canada had an income higher than ours, I had a lot of resentment. I adopted, subconsciously at least, my father's view that those with much more than us had come by it dishonestly. I had no evidence, of course. Sure, I had a few stories about wealthy people who had taken advantage of others, but I had no basis for my grudge against the millions of people I resented. Because I couldn't have some of the material possessions other kids had, I felt left out, and that was enough.

Then, in my late teens, I started to learn economics. I started to understand that the vast majority of income in a relatively free society is earned. It's true that a small number of wealthy people did get their money by fraud or dishonesty. More common, especially in societies with lots of government controls, were people who got wealthy by using political pull. But I started to see that the typical high-income person in a relatively free society gets his or her income the old-fashioned way--by earning it.

This resentment over the good fortunes of others is not unique to me. Often, when one person tells another that he or she won a prize or is going on a great vacation, the other person responds, "I hate you." It's generally said jokingly, but the fact that it is said at all speaks volumes.

My resentment didn't vanish instantly. It took years and wore away bit by bit. I remember going for a walk one time in Brentwood, a wealthy section of Los Angeles. As I walked north through Brentwood and got into the hillier sections, the homes I saw were nicer and nicer. Even though this was a full four years after I had realized that the vast majority of "the rich" get their money relatively honestly, I felt the old resentment at these people who had what I could not imagine myself ever being able to afford. I looked down at my fists and saw that I had clenched them in anger.

Even at my most resentful, though, I didn't see any basis for rejecting my belief in human freedom, which includes people's right to keep what they earn or are given. That was one reason I felt so upset after my walk in Brentwood: I didn't even have the consolation of being able to say, "I'll get you" or "Your taxes should be raised and your wealth expropriated." But imagine how easy it would be, if you had no strong belief in people's freedom, for your resentment of the rich to lead you to conclude that the government should take what they have. In 1969, I heard Will Herberg, a prominent American Communist in the 1930s and 1940s who had later become a strong anticommunist, speak at a conference. My friend Clancy and I asked him how he had come to be a Marxist. Immediately, his eyes lit up. He talked passionately about growing up with very few possessions, but because he was smart, being hired as a teenager to teach the dumb kids of wealthy parents. He told us of his intense resentment of the fact that he was smart and had nothing, while they were dumb and had a lot. "That," he said, "is how I became a Marxist. I hated the rich." We were shocked. We had thought that virtually all intellectuals came to their views via their intellect, not via their resentments. Herberg must have read our faces, because he added that his route to Marxism was a very common one. "The number of people who became Marxists by reading Marx," I still remember him saying, "can be counted on the fingers of one hand."

My resentment toward "the rich" has declined over the years. That's fortunate, because envy is very self-destructive. Three things have helped me become less resentful, and I recommend all three to you if you sometimes envy those who have more.

First, when I feel envious of those who are wealthier than I, I remind myself to take deep breaths, look around me, and think. When I start thinking, I realize how incredibly wealthy I am and how incredibly wealthy almost everyone in the industrialized world is. As I detailed in the previous chapter, the modern world, compared to the world of 200 years ago and even compared to the world of 30 years ago, is a world transformed.

In subsequent posts, I'll cover steps two and three.

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TRACKBACKS (1 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/5324
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]
COMMENTS (17 to date)
Tom West writes:

I have to say, as a child of middle-class parents of the majority race, I realize that while I have earned my wealth, it's also been incredibly easy for me given my background. In fact, I'd have to have fought to get off the track of decent school, decent university, decent job, decent marriage and now decent kids.

Meanwhile, I look at quite a number of people who have to fight incredibly hard to get half as far as I have because absolutely everything about their life points them in a very different direction, and I'm utterly amazed that there isn't *more* envy and resentment on the part of the more capable, but less privileged.

GITVCO writes:

There's wisdom in the ancients:
Exodus 20:17 "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that [is] thy neighbour's."

SkippyMaximus writes:


Very apropos discussion at a time when Washington is looking to squeeze more blood out of the "wealthy" stone.

As we've discussed, there's one thing psychologically worse than wanting something. It's losing something.

I'm curious if the feeling of resentment towards the wealthy increases as the prospects of loss of one's own wealth (to taxes, cuts, etc.) increases.

Could help explain why the discretionary budget is on the chopping block (if the "super Congress"...ugh...doesn't meet its goals) instead of the increasing non-discretionary budget (entitlements).

Mike writes:

Very nice post sir.

jh writes:

Materially, we compare ourselves upwards. We see what those above us have and ignore our own riches compared to those below us.

Morally, we compare ourselves downwards. We see how awful those heathens are below us and ignore how we could be even better.

Lori writes:

Surely immorality and heathenry are two different things.

fundamentalist writes:

A wise man wrote "Thou shalt not covet" for a reason.

Socialism elevates envy and covetousness to virtues.

Lori writes:

No it doesn't

PrometheeFeu writes:

I think you are overselling the point that rich people "earned" it. While very few actually stole it or earned their wealth through some dishonest means, some amount of luck and being in the "right" profession is often involved. Most of my friends are researchers of sorts. (I'm excluding those who are still grad students) They work long hours every day, often including the week-end. They are working on projects which may one day serve to cure the world's worst diseases. In order to get to the point where they are now, they had to obtain PhDs which again required spending long week-ends in labs. Some of the grad students will come spend an evening hanging out and around 10 or 11 leave for lab so they can start or finish an experiment by the morning. I am a software engineer at a large firm. I relatively frequently have to put in some overtime to get something done, but it's reasonable. I don't spend my week-ends at work and I make more than twice what my friends make. Now, is that really "earned"? Do I really "deserve" twice what they make? I am not sure. I can definitely see why it is better to be in a free society where my income is not redistributed to my poorer friends and their colleagues according to some bureaucrat's perception of value, but I doubt that I am actually deserving of two times their income.

Floccina writes:

I never had much feeling of envy perhaps because it was in the poorer areas of town where I was treated badly. When you walked around the wealthier areas you get to enjoy the architecture when you walked around certain ares you feared being "jumped". Maybe I envied the tough and athletic and those with pretty girl friends.

M.R. Orlowski writes:

Wonderful post, I am glad that Bryan brought up the topic of trying to get rid of envy. Next time I hear people bring up inequality, this would be a great comeback.

Gaelen writes:

I think this post misses the point. The issue is not a question of whether the well off 'earned' their wealth through hard work, it is rather a question of the opportunity afforded to those starting off from less advantageous positions. Envy of those that have things that people want, such as money, material goods, or a attractive spouse is human nature. So while is is laudable to try to overcome this baser instinct, the inequalities in opportunity that have been given to many of the wealthy should be something that we keep in mind, and work to correct. A libertarian must, I think, try to mitigate the lottery of birth to the greatest degree possible.

MP writes:

I think the researchers with PhDs are the least deserving of extra compensation. Unlike the unemployed or people working menial jobs, they obviously had both the skills and the opportunity to pursue more lucrative professions. Getting to work on science is their compensation.

Clay writes:

You didn't fight your envy, you fought your resentment. You still admire and aspire to the success and wealth of others, which is what envy is, but you eliminated the jealousy and resentment associated with it.

matt writes:

Envying the rich is probably more destructive than other types of envy because you can premise a lot of social policies on it that might not be consistent with revealed preferences.

Many many people are envious of the attractive, yet never set foot in the gym- because, while they would prefer to be more attractive they don't actually care enough to do anything about it.

Many, many people envy the wealthy but work less than 50 hours a week, in industries (e.g. academia) and locations (e.g. where there family is from) that do not maximize their income. They would enjoy free money in exchange for nothing but don't enjoy money enough to actually do much to earn more of it. A high percentage (but obviously not all) of rich people work like 70-100hrs/week and in some respects live unpleasant lives because of it.

GITVCO writes:

The rich may have earned theirs' by selling a lot of hours, or by delivering an original technology, artwork, process or athletic achievement. They may have earned it because more talented competitors quit the lucrative callings and pursued PH.Ds, families, travel, teaching or what-not.

How do you devise a policy that identifies and punishes the unmeritorious rich while leaving the others alone?

Big John Stone writes:

"More common, especially in societies with lots of government controls, were people who got wealthy by using political pull."


How did Michele Obama make money? Husband was state senator the U of Chicago Med Center saw "pull" potential, created a $300K position for her.

"Oddly absent from most of the unflattering press coverage of UCMC's patient-dumping scheme is any mention of the role our new First Lady played in devising the program. A laudable exception has been the Chicago Sun-Times, which reported last August that "Michelle Obama -- currently on unpaid leave from her $317,000-a-year job as a vice president of the prestigious hospital -- helped create the program."" (American Thinker) - by the way the Sun-Times article has disappeared from their website, as has the position at the U of C.

How did Rahm Emanuel make money? He worked at Arby's in high school, never made any money until AFTER he left the Clinton's staff, and once he had "pull" he was very valuable.

Wikipedia on Rahm
"Although he did not have an MBA degree or prior banking experience, he became a managing director ... in 1999 and, according to Congressional disclosures, made $16.2 million in his two-and-a-half-years as a banker.
Emanuel was named to the Board of Directors of the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) by President Clinton in 2000. His position earned him at least $320,000, including later stock sales."

Valerie Jarrett: Also involved with the Patient Dumping above. But, she got rich from her Chicago Housing scams.

(Judicial Watch) Chief Executive Officer of the Habitat Company Jarrett also managed a controversial housing project located in Obama's former state senate district called Grove Parc Plaza. According to the Boston Globe the housing complex was considered "uninhabitable by unfixed problems, such as collapsed roofs and fire damage...In 2006, federal inspectors graded the condition of the complex an 11 on a 100-point scale -- a score so bad the buildings now face demolition."

and finally of course, you have the Daly family's scam the goverment PULL deal of all PULL deals" AFTER SCHOOL MATTERS" where all of Daley's staff find $200K/year jobs

(Crains Chicago Business) "but according to After School Matters' last available federal income tax return, for 2008, it received $10.8 million in government grants in that year alone"

Look at all these "Chicago" government folks and you will see money flowing from power and power flowing from money.

The only way these government guys know how to money is not to make money by EARNING it by creating a good or a service sold on the open market, they trade in government largesse.

This maybe explains the whole envy thing as well. They don't know a lot of folks who made money without being part of a system of patronage.

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