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Equality and Envy

Critics of egalitarianism, meaning by that equality, or close to it, of income and wealth among the members of a society, often claim that it rests on envy. In response, defenders say that there are respectable reasons to favor equality. (I’m assuming that envy doesn’t count as a respectable reason.) For instance, it can be argued that inequality is unjust, that it leads to the rich having power over the lives of the poor, and that it makes it difficult for the poor to maintain their self-respect. The philosopher T.M. Scanlon canvassed these and other reasons in Why Does Equality Matter?, which I’ve reviewed here. Scanlon is thus saying that opposition to inequality does not have to rest on envy, and he’s right about this, even if you think, as I do, that the arguments he and others give for equality are wrong. It doesn’t follow from this, though, that some people’s opposition to inequality does not stem from envy, and what I want to do in this week’s column is to give examples of this.

To distinguish the attitude I’m going to highlight from respectable reasons to oppose inequality, let’s look at what Scanlon has the say about the superrich, who constitute the most extreme examples of inequality of income and wealth. “It does seem plausible, however, that my own lack of distress about the difference between my life and that of the super rich is due in part to the fact we belong to different non-comparing groups. The way they live does not make me subject to status poverty or agency poverty, because their life does not set any norm of expectation for me” (Scanlon, p. 37). In other words, Scanlon doesn’t feel envy for the superrich just because they have more money than he does: he sees no need to compare himself with them.

By contrast, here is what Rob Larson, an economics professor at Tacoma Community College, says about certain very expensive apartments:

Besides the return of in-city mansions for the affluent and their cars, New York and London have also seen the growth of “poor doors.” These are entrances to new luxury buildings, erected with a city requirement to include some affordable housing units for regular working people, in addition to “market rate” units that sell for seven figures and up. The Guardian describes a luxury London development where the main door opens to luxury marble tiling and plush doors, and a sign on the wall alerts residents to the fact that the concierge is available. Round the back, the entrance to the affordable homes is a cream corridor, decorated only with grey mail boxes and a poster warning tenants that they are on CCTV and will be prosecuted if they cause any damage. (Larson, Capitalism vs. Freedom, Amazon Kindle edition, pp. 51–52)

To me, this is an amazing passage. In Larson’s example, some “regular working people” are housed in some of the most luxurious apartments in the world. But Larson still objects because these people don’t get to use the fancier entrances made for the superrich who pay market rates. As you read Larson, you can feel his seething hatred for the rich: he would like to pull them down, just because they are able to afford things others cannot. He offers no evidence that the working people in the apartments are dissatisfied. If I had to guess, I would imagine them to be happy to be getting the windfall that results from the government’s interference with the free market on their behalf; but whether I am right does not in the present context matter. The point is simply to expose Larson’s emotion for what it is. As an analogy, consider someone who resents first-class air travel, not because he finds coach uncomfortable, but just because others travel under better conditions than he does. And the case that envy and hatred are involved in Larson’s example are stronger than for the air travel case. Except for the entrance, the working people are getting the luxury good—but this is not enough for Larson.

A much more prominent economist illustrates the same attitude. Thomas Piketty’s central idea is that inequality is the supreme social sin and must be radically curtailed. He doesn’t deny that capitalism results in economic growth and an enhanced standard of living, but the income and wealth of the rich have grown far faster than those of the poor. You might ask why this matters, even granting his dubious statistics: Don’t people care about how well they are doing, much more than they resent the rich, if in fact they resent them at all? 

To ask questions like this is, for Piketty, to look at society from the wrong perspective. For him, equality trumps prosperity. If another of his proposals, “greening” the economy in order to reduce carbon emissions, is adopted, most people will need to live with a lower amount of material goods. But, projecting his own egalitarian commitments onto others, he thinks people will be willing to make the sacrifice so long as the rich have to pay their “fair” share of the costs. “[T]he considerable adjustment in lifestyles to deal with global warming will only be acceptable if a fair distribution of the effort is guaranteed. If the rich continue to pollute the planet with their SUVs and their yachts registered in Malta … then why should the poor accept the carbon tax, which is likely to be inevitable?” (Piketty, Time for Socialism, p. 164).

One might raise this objection to what I have so far said. Even if I have succeeded in finding prominent examples of economists who base part of their egalitarianism on an unacceptable reason, can’t a similar charge be leveled against defenders of the free market? Isn’t part of the attraction of luxury goods for those who can afford them that other people can’t? Why is this attitude better than the envy and hatred I have criticized?

To this, two replies can be offered. First, my discussion is about reasons for favoring egalitarianism, not the attitudes of those who have more or less in an unequal system, so the point about the attraction of luxury goods, even if it is correct, leaves my contention untouched. Second, the two attitudes are not on a moral par. Those motivated by the desire to display superiority do not endeavor to worsen the position of others: the rich do not try to make the poor poorer than they already are. (In fact, their investments and spending make the poor better off, but that is another topic.) Those whose advocacy of egalitarianism is based on envy and hatred wish to tear others down, a very different matter indeed.

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