Politics of Envy

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

I published this on my blog, but had a belated thought that it might be of interest here too.

A good piece by Janet Daley in the Telegraph blogs today had me thinking about the politics of envy, what it means and why it is generally applied to the left, when envy is pretty much universal in humans (and even many animals).

The piece points out that in Labour before New Labour, and in society before Margaret Thatcher, “… self-determination and individual aspiration had to be seen as the exclusive province of the petit bourgeois middle classes”. Libertarianism was, in effect, incompatible with British society before Mrs Thatcher. Since she was voted in on my sixth birthday it is hard for me to have a clear impression, but from what I know I can quite believe it.

So now consider envy. It is, as I have said, a human emotion, not specific to any class or political group. However I can think of three rational responses to envy.

  • Work hard to achieve more of what inspires envy
  • Demand that you deserve what inspires envy, and it should be given to you
  • Prevent the people who are envied from having their enviable benefits

The first is of course one of the driving forces of capitalism. In his book The Armchair Economist (a fascinating book, by the way) Stephen Landsburg suggests quite convincingly that the reason top executives are well paid is not to make them work hard, but to make the rest of the management work hard. Envy of his salary makes people want to achieve his position.

The second and third are both embraced by socialism.

If you are a driver on an underground train your work is not terribly specialised; most people could be trained to do it. Therefore the natural salary is not high. A driver who envies others’ high salaries could work lots of overtime, or work to improve his qualifications and find another job. The socialist worker goes on strike for higher pay. The socialist government takes the benefits from the envied and gives them to the envious.

Finally we come to the connection with my quote from Mrs Daley. If “self-determination and individual aspiration [are] seen as the exclusive province of the petit bourgeois middle classes” then the only way to cope with envy is to prevent self determination, and thwart aspiration. Hence the left-wing attacks on education, the very engine of aspiration, and hence the strong connection between socialism and authoritarianism.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, to give him what little he is due, understood that individual aspiration is not exclusive, and Thatcher at least understood that self-determination not class underlies aspiration.

In that way Tony Blair could justify to a limited degree his silly claim to be the heir to Thatcherism. It is in delivery that they part, she largely succeeding, he seeming to mistrust self determination and being prevented by his out-of-date party (as even he acknowledged; the “forces of conservatism'” did not have a capital ‘C’) from actually making anything of this revelation.

That is why the Thatcher years were remarkable for social mobility, and New Labour years for the return of social stagnation. It is in the response to the politics of envy.



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