The Politics of Envy - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Liberals & Conservatives

The Politics of Envy

We are hearing a lot these days about the "politics of greed". Conservative economic proposals to help business or reduce taxes are routinely denounced as "greed".

The basic objection is that these policies will only help the rich, and why do they deserve any more than they already have? The very idea of the government adopting a policy to help people who are already rich is supposed to stir us to absolute moral indignation.

For example, a few months ago Congressional leaders proposed some tax cuts, and the president came out against it. He explained that he opposed this tax cut plan because it would cut taxes for the rich more than it would cut taxes for the poor.

We might reply that any significant tax cut will inevitably reduce taxes for the rich more than it does for the poor, for the simple reason that the rich pay more taxes than the poor do. The poorest people pay no taxes at all.

But this is beside the point. The real answer to this objection is to say, Duh ... what? You are telling me that I should oppose a proposed policy, not because it will harm me, but because it will benefit someone else more than it benefits me? Does he really think that I am so small-minded, that I not only begrudge any benefit to my fellow human beings, but that indeed I would prefer to suffer myself rather than see my neighbor prosper?

Let's take the extreme case: Suppose a proposed policy would help my neighbor a great deal, but do absolutely nothing for me. I might try to have it changed so I benefit also. But why in the world should I oppose it, if it does me no harm? That is simply jealousy, envy, and spite.

I once heard a story about a man who finds a magic lamp with a genii inside. The genii tells him that he can have anything he wants, but whatever he wishes for, his neighbor will get double. The man thinks a moment and replies, "Make me blind in one eye". I guess the man in the story is a liberal Democrat, for that appears to be their philosophy.

No policy can be so carefully designed that every single person in the country receives exactly the same benefit from it.

  • The selfish person says, "If I benefit, I don't care what happens to anyone else."
  • The pragmatist says, "Overall, does it do more good than harm?"
  • The humanitarian says, "Does it help as many people as possible? I can live with some loss to myself if it does enough good for others."
  • But the liberal democrat says, "I'm for it as long as it hurts someone else more than it hurts me."

If conservatives are guilty of a politics of greed, it is a curious kind of greed. It is a greed that says, "Let's do things that make us all richer." What liberals offer as the morally superior alternative is a politics of envy: "I don't care what happens to me, as long as my neighbor suffers."

© 1996 by Jay Johansen


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