Culture and Envy
By Joel F. Wade - March 07, 2012

We have a genuine problem. Envy, fear of envy and deflecting envy may be the most dangerous and difficult aspects of human nature for us to wrestle with as we seek to progress toward greater freedom.

As formerly poor and unfree countries open up and allow the potential for personal achievement, the disparity between the opportunities for those individuals and what they see in places like the United States becomes a source of great dissatisfaction. This is a global problem. It is a major factor behind the pendulum swinging back and forth from the right to the left. It is a serious quality of human nature that we have to face if we are to live in a freer world.

People are least happy not when they have very little, but when they have less than their neighbor. Many people, given the choice, would prefer that everyone be poorer than to be wealthier in general but poorer than their neighbor.

Today, with modern communications and media, those neighbors can be thousands of miles away.

The human quality of envy is something that those on the left try to solve by apologizing and leveling our economy towards those countries that are less well developed – and trying to "spread the wealth around" within our own borders. It is the liberal way of appeasing envy; show everyone that you are trying to make them more equal and then they will like you.

But this is the old way, the primitive way, the tribal way.

Mankind has existed for most of our history in small bands or tribes. There is a pecking order to these arrangements, with the leadership significantly above the others in terms of power and prestige. Mankind was also significantly more violent in primitive times, with torture, maiming and genocide against competing tribes more the norm than the exception.

Still, this is a popular approach, used by dictators, monarchies and even the supposedly egalitarian revolutionaries – communists, socialists and fascists. It works like this: Have in place ruling elite who get the power, prestige and the really good stuff, who then force the rest of the people into equal shares of poverty.

The most radical element of the American Revolution was its focus on the individual as the fundamental moral unit. This allowed for an ethic of personal accomplishment to create a meritocracy, where each individual could rise or fall according to his or her own effort and abilities. This cultural creation allows for an unprecedented level of accomplishment, wealth creation and personal achievement on nearly every level.

This ethic of individualism has allowed for us to create a culture of aspiration. Valuing and celebrating success and achievement in America is so fundamental to our national character that I think most of us take it for granted, assuming that this is just a natural quality of humanity in all cultures.

It is not.

Culture is something that is created by people. It includes rules and guidelines, values and priorities; and it can be very different from society to society. America was founded and pioneered by people wanting to get away from their culture of origin, seeking some way of making a better life for themselves personally, and often for their families as well. This act is in itself, all philosophy and theorizing aside, a profoundly individualistic act.

Our culture, and the culture of freedom worldwide, has been created and developed by individualists, whether or not they had even heard of the idea. It still is. (Even many on the left, often in contrast to their stated values, are very individualistic in their daily lives. This is why the progressive's usurpation of the word "liberal" was so strategically important for them. It affirmed the value of liberty if only as an illusion, even as the actual policies acted to undermine it.)

That our founders were brilliant in understanding and articulating a vision and a legal framework for this has been a profound blessing; we could not have strengthened and maintained our culture without them. But even without these ideas and documents and legal framework, we had already built our culture, and have continued to build our culture according to a belief and a vision of individual human worth, and of purposeful, individual development.

It is this cultural strength that has inoculated freedom loving people, more than anything else, against the scourge of envy.

Human nature does not change. It has been the same for millennia and, progressive and Marxist wishful thinking aside, it will continue to be the same for millennia. So how can we – how have we – been able to work around its darker elements and, with some success, encouraged our better angels?

I see human nature as similar in quality to individual temperament. We come into the world with individual temperament styles. One person is more emotionally sensitive while another is more thick-skinned; one person enjoys novelty while another prefers to stay closer to what's familiar; one person is more emotionally expressive while another is more cerebral.

We come into the world with these styles, and to some extent they determine some parameters of how we will function in the world. A person who is naturally averse to novelty is not likely to be an adventurer; a person who is not naturally physically active is not likely to become an athlete.

But that is not the end of the story. A rough guess is that about half of our temperament is fixed and about half is available for adaptation. A more sedentary person can become an athlete – perhaps even a great athlete – if he or she desires it enough to counter their own predisposition for long enough to generate powerful and enduring new habits. A person who is slow to warm up to new people and situations can become a very socially outgoing person – if he or she is willing and motivated to counter his or her temperament.

But it's harder to do this against your temperament than with it.

It is the same with human nature. With enough encouragement and incentive, individuals can let their more negative impulses and desires subside while bringing their better natures to the foreground. This is how America has been able to limit the tremendously negative forces of envy to a significant degree: by valuing personal achievement and actively discouraging indulging in envy.

Progressives and other mostly left-wing ideologues have long sought to deny or bypass the issue of human nature in order to mold mankind into a "better" being. But their fundamental mistake is their belief that this is something that can be forced upon individuals collectively.

What they miss entirely is that overcoming our personal demons is a supremely satisfying challenge for individuals to meet. Ask a recovered addict what their proudest achievement is and they will likely tell you it is triumphing over their addiction. Ask a person who has taken a troubled life and changed for the better what has been most meaningful in their lives and their own redemption will be at the top of their list.

We need laws to deal with criminal behavior – not everyone wants to improve. But those who would use the force of law to micromanage human behavior with byzantine regulations and penalties ignores that within each of us is the potential to wrestle with and triumph over the negative aspects of our personal nature; and this is a supremely individual undertaking.

And there is another twist: These "negative" elements, under the right circumstances, have their place. It would do us no good to erase envy, greed, violence or self-indulgence from the human psyche. This would be like transforming the world, with all of its terrible risks and hazards, into some sanitized, child-proofed, safety-guaranteed theme park – or worse, a drug induced "peaceful" dystopia of obedience and passivity.

Envy, greed, violence and self-indulgence all contribute to much evil in the world but that evil is in the application and the lack of self-control. It is as though we have all been given firearms at birth, and while most of us learn how to use them responsibly there are those who don't – and it is they who do the majority of harm.

The beauty of a culture of freedom, and the free exchange of goods and services that is fundamental to that culture, is that it has allowed for a healthy expression of greed and self-indulgence through personal achievement's natural rewards – but for the most part those rewards come through free exchange as a result of improving other people's quality of life.

It has isolated the motivation for violence to those who have limited self-control by minimizing the role of poverty in fueling desperation; and it has channeled envy into productive efforts to achieve one's own aspirations, rather than confining many people's options to passively dreaming of having what others possess.

The most effective way so far has been supported by America's founding principles: Open up the ability for individuals to strive for their own personal success. Celebrate achievement. Honor great deeds. And weather the inevitable storms of envy, ride them out, struggle against them as they flow and channel them into encouragement toward personal achievement as they ebb.

It is this cultural strength that will pull America back from the precipice that we face today. It is this cultural strength that has affected the rest of the world in a profoundly positive way. It does not fulfill the visions of perfection held by the progressives and other leftists; it does not bring about the enforced moral vision of some on the right, but it is how we can genuinely continue through our imperfect nature toward a better world over time.

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