God is a Capitalist

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Obama inflames envy

"I believe this is the defining challenge of our time," Obama said in a speech at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress, a pro-Obama think tank. "It drives everything I do in this office,” 

“The growing gap between rich and poor can be closed by actions ranging from an increase in the minimum wage to better education to following through on his health care plan, Obama said.”

The quote above was from an article in USA Today. If people care about the poor, they will give their own wealth and encourage others to voluntarily do the same. Focusing on inequality is more than just a legitimate concern for the poor: it’s an attempt to inflame envy, as the sociologist Helmut Schoeck explained in his book “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior.” Schoeck demonstrated that almost all intellectuals, poets, historians and philosophers through the ages condemned envy and feared it as a persistent threat to society. Organizing society to assuage envy kept humanity poor and on the edge of starvation until Christianity tamed it in the 17th century, which led to the industrial revolution.

The West has tried to expunge envy from its vocabulary, but envy has not ceased to exist because human nature has not changed; we have only ignored it. Since WWII we have absorbed envy into the definition of social justice. Social justice requires equality of outcomes, especially wealth, not just equal treatment under the law. Schoeck demonstrated that the insistence on equality of outcomes is the leading symptom of the disease of envy. By defining envy as justice we have expunged it from the deadly sins and elevated it to a virtue:

 In socialist economists such as Abba P. Lerner, we find the envy-motive used indirectly, appearing now as a social virtue. Thus, a progressively rising income tax is proposed on the grounds that, for the psychological good of the collective, the appeasement of envy in the normal wage-earner – on witnessing the penalties of the highly paid – was quantitatively more important and beneficial than the discomfiture of the few, despoiled by the state for the benefit of the envious. This thesis overlooks the fact that there are countless, and often far more painful, occasions for envy than those few really large incomes or inheritances which can be mulcted; it also overlooks the fact that by raising envy to the status of virtue in the interest of the state one only intensifies the suffering of those with a truly envious disposition because politicians feel compelled continually to reveal new ‘inequalities’ in the society. [1]

Envy thrives in politics. To gather votes, politicians exploit the latent guilty consciences of wealthy groups who suffer from something like survivor’s guilt, wondering “why me” or “what have I done to deserve great success when so many fail?” Fundraisers for political campaigns and non-profit organizations push that hot button. Schoeck discovered envy in the progressive income and inheritance taxes, once considered gross violations of the rule of law.

Obama’s switch from healthcare to inequality is nothing but a blatant attempt by a politician to rescue his legacy from ashes by inflaming envy in voters. 

Free markets cut inequality in the West as measured by the Gini ratio to roughly a third of its level in 1800 by 1973 according to Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Fogel in Escape from Hunger and Premature Death.  Socialists complain that inequality has risen sharply since 1970. But they should consider that inequality began rising in the US only after the implementation of largest effort in US history to reduce inequality - President Johnson's "Great Society" of 1968.

Social Security, Medicare, medicaid, and the many welfare programs for the poor consumed 57.4% of total federal outlays in fiscal year 2012 and over 10% of GDP. Yet since their implementation, inequality has only grown. Intelligent people could be forgiven for thinking such programs make inequality worse.

[1] Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987), , 300.

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