Viewpoint: Envy


"Politicians, academics and media men have in recent decades done much to articulate, institutionalize and organize envy and resentment against economically effective people. Envy and resentment may be as old as mankind, but especially in the West and in the westernized Third World countries these sentiments seem nowadays more insistent, persistent and extensive than they formerly were. Politicians and intellectuals have supplied articulation and a veneer of intellectual respectability to envy and resentment."

On reading those words, from P.T. Bauer's admirable new book, Equality, The Third World and Economic Delusion (Harvard University Press), one is immediately struck by the thought that it is unusual nowadays so much as to see the word envy in print. At a party in Washington recently, needless to say well-attended by liberals, I mentioned that the contemporary liberal intellectual spends most of his time trafficking in envy—either experiencing it or arousing it or appeasing it. The jeers and catcalls that greeted this statement were enough to convince me that I had struck a hidden nerve.

The world has been told, repeatedly and often, that capitalism is bad because it is based on greed; it panders to the baser instincts, such as self-interest; did not Adam Smith admit as much? I don't agree with this line of argument, despite its frequent repetition. There's something spiteful about accusing a man of greed for slogging off to work every day to toil away on behalf of some corporation—no matter how much he is paid.

But my aim here isn't to defend capitalism. I propose instead that the supporters of capitalism should move onto the offensive and begin to take a long, hard look at the motives and modus operandi of some of its enemies. What sentiments animate them, exactly? Maybe not greed; but maybe something even less appealing.

Take, for example, Howard Metzenbaum and Edward Kennedy, two millionaire senators who now both display a marked aversion to the voluntary operations of the private sector and a decided preference for the coercive operations of the State. As government officials, they stand to gain power as a result of the political changes they support (for example, transferring oil wealth to the federal coffers). They have attempted to implement this shift in power in their direction by arousing envy in their fellow citizens and then trying to make political capital out of this envy. To date, left-wing politicians have been allowed to get away with dressing up their appeals to envy in the garb of "compassion." Let us unmask the deception.

Likewise, many columnists and editorial writers in recent months attempted to undermine President Reagan's program of tax-rate reductions by arguing that it would "take from the poor and give to the rich." A tireless exponent of this thesis has been Carl Rowan, the prosperous columnist and television performer. Similar rhetoric has been adopted by writers for the New Republic and the Washington Post and by numerous other columnists.

Now, it is clearly not true that an across-the-board reduction in marginal tax rates "takes" or "gives" anything. This would only be the case if all wealth belonged to the government, who then distributed it according to a prescribed pattern. A shift in such a pattern could then be described as "taking" from one group and "giving" to another. But this is not the way our system works—although notice that it is an accurate description of the way in which many left-wingers and liberals would like it to work. A reduction in tax rates merely imposes less daunting penalties on the earners of incremental dollars; it does not take from anyone at all.

People like Carl Rowan are perfectly intelligent enough to have understood this all along, of course, but then I doubt if their goal ever was to describe the tax laws. I suspect they were more interested in whipping up envy and resentment among lower-income groups, with a view to generating political opposition to the tax-rate reductions.

Such tactics have frequently been tried in America before. It is to the credit of this country that appeals to envy have generally been unsuccessful, and once again they were unsuccessful when Reagan's tax bill passed. The last politician who found out that envy doesn't pay politically was George McGovern in 1972, who reportedly was amazed to discover how many Americans aspire to become rich and so opposed one of his "transfer the wealth" schemes.

That, I think, is one of the main differences between Europe and America. In America, rank, class, and income bracket are as fluid as capitalism itself. But in some European countries the disincentives to upward mobility and incremental earnings are so great that those on top are protected from competitors while those on the bottom "know their place." For this reason, political attempts to arouse envy have been far more successful in Europe.

There is no excuse whatever for attempting to arouse it here, where there are still plenty of opportunities to do well by working hard. Let us not forget that in Europe a concerted effort was made in the 1930s to arouse in the majority a resentment and hatred of a certain minority—the Jews. The effort was successful.

I am not suggesting, however, that rich Americans need to be protected from the envy-peddlers. The rich can look after themselves. What needs to be protected is our laws, which are always in danger of being changed and to some extent have already been changed in such a way as to make it difficult to become rich.

Tom Bethell holds the DeWitt Wallace Chair in Communications at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a Washington editor of Harper's and American Spectator. This is his inaugural Viewpoint column.