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Watch Dogs For the Envy of the Gods

April 26, 2010

Every baseball fan knows the first rule about a no-hitter is not to talk about the no-hitter. It’s sacrilegious. To speak of the “no no” is to jinx it. Lord knows what kind of causation is at work here, but only a fool wants to claim responsibility for ending it with blasphemous talk. Even fans on an opposing team know this and honor it. (For the uninitiated, a “no-hitter” is a rare event in baseball when a starting pitcher holds the opposing team hitless for a complete game.)

Odd as it appears, this irrational fear of ruining a good thing by making it known to what…gods?…the vast mysterious unknown?….is deeply rooted in human nature. Some knock on wood after expressing optimism about an object or an event or a relationship in the belief that this knock will protect their wish. Again, protect them from what?–not sure, but you’d be an idiot to tempt fate, a phrase even the secular take heed of. At weddings, Jewish custom requires breaking a glass to remember the destruction of the Temple during your highest joy. And similarly, in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, it is inauspicious to celebrate the beauty of a baby and many other good things, lest the public compliment irritate and draw the attention of a lurking “evil eye” who will level all those who embody beauty and excellence.

The ancient Greeks institutionalized this crypto-religious sentiment in their concepts of fate, hubris, and nemesis. The Greek for fate is “moira” a term that also means portion or allotment. It suggests a sense of distribution, something fate doles out according to her measure. In a literal sense hubris ought to be understood as taking more than the share fate has alloted you, a portion so large it arouses the envy of the gods. To satisfy them, fate then calls forth Nemesis, the enemy of too much happiness, to rightfully restore the natural balance.

The Greeks took their envy very seriously. Part of the appeal of Greek tragedies rests on this theme and seeing its logic made vivid, however irrational that may be. And if your success was too much to bear in Athens, 6,000 citizens could vote to exile you for 10 years.

In his book Human Universals, the anthropologist Donald Brown catalogued behaviors found in nearly every human culture. It’s no surprise that he lists envy. What I find more interesting is this–every culture also develops a symbolic means for coping with envy.  Envy and the fear of arousing envy are two very different phenomena. There is an old, but good criticism of egalitarianism and other left-wing progressive doctrines that they are motivated by envy. And it is true that many politicians have found success in pandering to and fomenting the envy of the rabble against the well to do. But I now think that this criticism is a bit misguided, since the perennial philosophy in human history involves a fear of arousing the envy of the gods. It’s not the envious that matter so much nowadays. Instead, I think we ought to beware of the watch dogs for the envy of the gods and the engineers of envy-avoidance. For it is far easier to convince the many that the successful few might arouse envy not in you, but in the gods or in others, and thereby cause social instability. The Greek gods had their leveling lightning bolts. The left has progressive taxation. Human nature is very clever at bottling old wine in new bottles.

Envy, afterall, concentrates on a definite target, someone who is our social proximate. It arises in its greatest intensity against someone from the same class, the same profession, or the same status group. Worst yet, in the family. The more equal we are, the more envious we may become. “Beggars do not envy millionaires,” Betrand Russell once said, “they envy other beggars who are more successful.” Whereas the primeval fear, our anxiety about another person’s envy, is not so local and no where near as definite. Surrounded by innumerable, potentially envious people, we look everywhere for rivals. Our fear attaches to no one in particular, but much more efficiently instead, assumes it of everyone and  calls them the gods. People come to believe something has to be wrong because times are so good.

Twenty-five years ago Robert H. Frank proposed a thought experiment to show that libertarians would voluntarily accept progressive taxation to support side-payments to the unproductive and envious. (Chapter 6 of Choosing the Right Pond.) Frank believes people are self-interested, but instead of maximizing wealth, they chose to maximize their relative status. Envy-inducing status matters more than greed in his model,  so people will tend to forgo higher wealth for the chance to obtain higher status.

With this in mind, he said libertarians who set off across the ocean in an ark would not be happy without poorer,  less productive people hanging around them. Isolated rich people–on a seastead, we can imagine–are not as content as less wealthy folk who have poor people around, because isolated rich guys have no one to compare themselves to.  Status matters more than wealth. So we can imagine the rich guys paying poor people to join their community. Now, tho slightly less wealthy, these libertarians get to bask in their superiority over the unproductive court of the envious.

Making these side-payments is the equivalent of a redistributive policy. So Frank says libertarians ought to accept progressive taxation. QED. That argument didn’t convince anyone 25 years ago, but Frank has decided to try to resuscitate it in yesterday‘s NYTimes. For one rebuttal, I recommend Angus’s analysis of Frank’s sophistry at Kids Prefer Cheese.

It is troubling that Frank ignores this human tendency to fear the envy of the gods. He seems to relish playing the role of its watch dog. You know this because like all other watch dogs in human history, he shifts the blame from the envious to the envied man or what is enviable. For Frank, it is no longer a vice to envy. It is a vice to arouse it. Disapproval falls upon those who have attained too much happiness and now society ought to be organized for envy’s benefit. Of course, none of the measures he suggests will do anything to actually assuage the sting of envy in the less productive. If you subsidize a behavior, you can expect more of it. Envy has never been eradicated, not even in the most egalitarian societies. So paying people off to publicly accept their inferiority doesn’t even pass the giggle test. It will only make their envy worse.

Frank is deservedly well known for incorporating status-seeking into a fruitful model of human behavior. Eric Falkenstein recently wrote about how this assumption better explains some anomalies in finance, positive psychology and other fields. H.L. Mencken found envy at the heart of democracy. Amy Chua credits it for the rise of exploitative demagogues in poor regions of the world. It is the keystone of Rene Girard’s philosophy. And Robin Hanson’s blogging at Overcoming Bias consistently returns to the topic of status and relative standing. There is much to learn here. But it’s important not to forget envy’s correlative: the symbolic systems we use to express our fear of those who might arouse envy not in us, but in others.

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6 Comments
  1. Mala Lex permalink
    April 26, 2010 9:41 pm

    So if we take Frank’s logic, then we can assume all collective action to reduce poverty actually aims to exacerbate it, since the median voter wants to juice his relative status. So this would be a great libertarian argument to get the gov’t out of the so-called poverty-reduction business, no?

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      April 27, 2010 6:14 pm

      If we can raise our status either by increasing our own or by lowering another’s, then I could see that dynamic operating in the voting booth. The probability that my vote will affect the outcome is extremely low; the costs for whatever policy I vote for are slow-coming and highly distributed….meanwhile in the voting booth, I can vote for subsidies to any small group because by doing so, I lower their status. Sure they receive some money, but simply by asking for the subsidy, they lower their status and thereby raise my own. Plus, I also raise my status by appearing compassionate.

      I would like to a see a fully fleshed out public choice theory based on Frank’s assumptions.

  2. April 28, 2010 12:36 pm

    Well, a hallmark of PC is to assume gov’t workers are motivated by the same stuff as the rest of us. So gov’t policy is not only perverted by grandstanding politicians, status-wrecking electorate and special interests, but now you’ve got status-wrecking gov’t workers adding their own sabotage to the status-wrecking goals of the electorate.

    I suppose this would all be consistent with Charles Q. Murphy’s negative appraisal of welfare – if we take Frank’s assumptions that gov’t workers actively try to further impoverish the poor, on behalf of an electorate who wants the same.

    My personal sense is that most people want to move into the best neighborhood they can – the hordes don’t flock to the deepest hood in order to lord it over their poorer neighbors. Similarly, I think most people would take, say, a free scholarship to the local elite school, even if they’d be the poorest parents at the PTA meeting.

    So I think Frank’s obsession with dragging others down may reflect a personal preference of his. It seems slanderous to ascribe his own psychological problems to the rest of us – he should deal with his own problems first, perhaps with his therapist.

  3. James permalink
    April 28, 2010 6:31 pm

    I read the title of this post to mean that we should look to dogs to see what it means for beings to envy their gods (we being gods in the eyes of our pets).

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