DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development And The “War On Envy”

The idea that societies with more economic inequality -- whether in terms of income, net worth, or something else -- are less moral is nothing new.

In the past, people have usually made this argument from a philosophical perspective -- for instance, John Rawls' famous argument that, if you designed a society from scratch, with no idea where you personally would end up on the economic scale, you'd choose a society where inequalities were only allowed if they benefited the worst-off.

Today, however, people are increasingly making this argument in psychological terms.  The larger the economic inequalities in a society, advocates of this view argue, the more emotional distress and "lack of social trust" -- i.e., envy -- people will feel.

For example, in The Spirit Level, a book Evan pointed out to me, epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson claim that societies with more wealth inequality, and therefore more (if you will) envy per capita, tend to suffer from lower lifespans, more teenage pregnancy, and a host of other problems.  Not surprisingly, Pickett and Wilkinson argue that -- at least, in already rich countries -- more wealth redistribution will create a healthier and happier population.

Thinking about this argument raises two interesting questions for me.  First, even assuming envy creates social ills, is designing government policy with the goal of reducing envy a good idea?  Second, are there other ways to reduce society-wide envy that don't involve the use of state power?

Mission Creep In The "War On Envy"

I'll admit, the argument that the government should act to combat envy is disturbing to me.  One reason is that, although The Spirit Level and similar books focus on envy created by inequalities of wealth, there are obviously many other forms of inequality that cause jealousy.

For example, suppose I resent what I see as your biological superiority -- maybe you're taller and have lost less hair than me.  Or perhaps I'm jealous of your relationships -- maybe you're married to the woman of my dreams, and I wish she were with me.

If money-related envy causes social ills, I'd wager that other types of envy have similar effects.  In other words, if wishing I were as rich as you renders me more susceptible to disease and shortens my lifespan, surely "wishing I had Jessie's girl," or that I had somebody else's athletic talent, will also be debilitating.

You can probably tell where I'm going.  Does this mean the government should engage in "sexual redistribution," and compel attractive people (by whatever measure) to accept intimate partners they wouldn't otherwise choose?  Should we adopt Harrison Bergeron-style rules requiring, say, people with natural athletic ability to wear weights on their legs?

In other words, if we're willing to redistribute wealth in the name of fighting a "War on Envy," it's hard to see why social policy shouldn't reach into other areas of our lives in ways most people -- regardless of political persuasion -- would find repugnant.

Does Self-Development Soothe Envy?

Earlier in this series, I discussed critics of personal development who cast it as a sort of modern-day "opiate of the masses."  These critics argue that practices like psychotherapy, meditation, and affirmations, precisely because they're geared toward relieving human suffering, are socially harmful.

Why?  Because, these authors say, the main source of human angst in modern times is economic inequality.  At best, self-development practices only offer a temporary "high," because they don't attack the root of this problem.  At worst, these practices perpetuate injustice, because -- like "cultural Prozac" -- they distract the masses from the inequality-induced suffering that would otherwise spur them to rise up against an immoral capitalist system.

What if we took this critique at face value for a moment, and assumed that self-development does reduce some of the pain caused by envy?  In other words, what if meditating, saying affirmations, or doing similar practices actually can cause people to feel less jealous of others?  In my own experience, this has some truth to it -- the more I've kept up my meditation practice, the less I've found myself unfavorably comparing myself to others.

Perhaps the widespread adoption of these practices would make people less interested in redistributing wealth.  But if that's true, in all likelihood, these practices would also lessen people's tendency to suffer over other kinds of inequality -- envy about other people's intimate relationships, jealousy over others' looks and natural aptitudes, and so on.

So, if we take Pickett and Wilkinson at their word, and assume envy causes all kinds of social ills, it stands to reason that personal development -- at least, the types of self-development with real emotional benefits -- may help create a happier and healthier society.  On balance, maybe a little "cultural Prozac" isn't such a terrible thing after all.

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: "Money Doesn't Buy Happiness" Cuts Both Ways
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?
  • Comments (7) Trackbacks (0)
    1. Chris, I don’t think these people say that envy creates the problem, they say that inequality does – I think you are reducing and misrepresenting their argument.

      They do not advocate a government reducing envy – they advocate government increasing equality.

      No doubt government not redistributing wealth will be popular with the wealthy (they tend to be envious of the poor – strange but true. The Warren Buffet’s who are proud of paying their taxes are rare in my experience. So rare that one of them saying this makes the newspapers!).

      I think the deeper question this raises is about the nature of people. I think that we are social creatures not only individual creatures. Our relationships are part of who we are in a sense. Self-development and social context are inevitably mutually influencing.

    2. Hi Evan — the whole idea of The Spirit Level appears to be that inequality causes psychological distress, which in turn causes various social ills. The authors make statements such as: “the scale of inequality provides a powerful policy lever on the psychological wellbeing of us all,” “social status carries the strongest messages of superiority and inferiority,” and inequality “diminishes social trust.” I think envy is a fair label for the psychological harm they say inequality causes.

      On humans being social creatures, I think an ideal goal of personal development is to have us recognize our connectedness with each other, which I think meditation helps with at its best. I am leery of the notion that the government, through social policy, can make us nicer or compassionate people (which I’m not specifically attributing to you) — I think that is essentially what the Marxist regimes tried, as with the Khmer Rouge moving everyone back into the countryside to make them sort of agrarian supermen.

    3. Chris, I reference Michael Marmot’s The Status Syndrome as well on this. You can find it on Amazon. A brief video (slide) presentation is:

      The relation of health to social status is incremental – rise in health status rises along with social status. What is it that goes up in increments like this? In my view it is agency – those at the top get more control than those at the bottom. This is very different to envy. I suppose we’d need surveys of where envy is most prevalent (in my experience it is among the middle class not the working class) to distinguish conclusively.

      I’m not convinced that diminishment of social trust is necessarily envy either, I don’t see why it can’t as easily be insecurity or fear.

      As to the Marxist societies. I believe they made the lives of millions more awful (the minorities they persecuted such as followers of different religions). Do you really believe this was not the case. Wouldn’t the removal of secret police and laws permitting torturing of minorities have improved people’s lives? It seems to me that what governments do does influence people’s lives to a greater or lesser extent. I don’t think this is an option. Which means that we need to clarify our values and which policies we want government to pursue. (My conservative preference is for lots of small experiments to avoid major disasters, which are studied closely and learned from and gradually leading to wider and wider reforms).

      I do think meditation can lead to an increased perception of our connection to others.

    4. From where does envy come and why are we enslaved by it? I find within myself that I tend to envy someone who I perceived is much better than me–in any aspects which I conceive. I think the solution will never reside in any system that addressed only the effect. The real source of envy is within our own nature. There’s a reason why we need to envy. If we take it in a positive way, we would do our best to alleviate ourselves from the very ground where our envy had ensued. It is unfortunate however that most people take the negative response of stagnancy, criticism and the perception of inequality.

      We are all animals of this planet, and within us are genetic codes which controls our responses to certain situation. Our only liberation perhaps is the awareness of our propensities and to do something to liberate us from such control. :-)

    5. Gentlemen, apologies for the long absence.

      @ Evan — the argument that “agency” increases with social status is interesting — to me, agency, unless I don’t understand the way you are using it, sounds more like something we would expect to increase along with absolute wealth, as opposed to relative wealth — i.e., people tend to have more health care options the wealthier they are. Or perhaps you mean that people who are wealthier in relative terms tend to have more political influence, and they can cause laws to be written that make health care more accessible to them than people who are poorer in a relative sense?

    6. Hi Walter — thanks for stopping by. I think that’s a great point — that envy is part of the human psyche, not a product of the political system, and there’s no system that could completely eradicate it. In the USSR, after all, some people got to be party commissars and some didn’t, even if the commissars’ take-home pay wasn’t that much bigger than your average collective farmer (even though, in reality, in my understanding, people at the top of the Soviet political system were in fact much wealthier than their collective-farmer counterparts). :)

      Anyway, I’d agree that noticing when we are acting from a place of envy is key — and that practices such as meditation and psychotherapy help us to develop that kind of awareness better than any political measure probably could.

    7. Agency at work – the Whitehall studies were of workers – means more choice about what you do.

      In general I think agency means having choice about what you do. This probably does apply to absolute wealth to. The important thing about relative wealth is that health status improves in increments with the status – this correlation likely tells us about what improves our health status (correlation is not causation but it certainly looks interesting). What increases step by step up the hierarchy in my view is agency – having control over what you do with your time. I think this is hugely important – and would lead to huge differences in how we spend money on health.

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