The Reading Room

Envy and Inequality

Is a desire to reduce inequality largely motivated by envy? In his pioneering work Envy, sociologist Helmut Schoeck explores the ramifications of what he claims is our indelible human tendency to compare ourselves with others. He makes several distinctions. Malicious envy is the most pernicious form - a desire not to raise oneself but see others brought down. By contrast, emulation is the desire to raise oneself without bringing others down. Finally, indignation is the desire to punish those who have (are perceived to have) done wilful injustice to oneself or others. 
Sometimes these attitudes are conflated under the term “envy”, but the distinctions between them should be clear. Malice is destructive and negative-sum. No society could endure if malice frequently motivated sufficient numbers. Emulation, however, drives us to try achieving what others have done, allowing for positive-sum gains. Without the tendency to compare ourselves with peers, we might be content not to create more value. 
So, what motivates some to care so much about reducing inequality? I claim we should add two more features that aren’t as prevalent in Schoeck’s analysis: ignorance and the social bases of self-respect. 
Many people are ignorant of what very rich people may have accomplished to gain their riches. A common attitude is that someone like Jeff Bezos must have cheated his way to the “top”. If many could be convinced that Bezos became so rich by providing others an unusually high amount of value, their ignorance might be dispelled without malice. Of course, currently prevalent negative attitudes toward the rich are compounded by the fact that some of them indeed eagerly take advantage of a partially rigged system and thereby gain at others’ expense. In this case, we see indignation - not envy - toward a class that gets to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us.
The term “social bases of self-respect” comes from egalitarian philosopher John Rawls. The idea here is that, unless people have confidence that their position in society is respected, they cannot see themselves as free and equal members of that society, which can take a major existential and psychological toll. What features of institutions enable people to have this confidence? We may best start addressing this question by asking what features undermine their having this confidence. Some (not exhaustive) candidates: mass incarceration and onerous post-carceral conditions, disenfranchisement, housing restrictions, unnecessary criminal laws, poor but mandatory educational systems, occupational licensing, and NIMBYism.
Many appeals to reduce inequality arise not so much from envy or indignation but despair toward institutional structures that disproportionately restrict some people’s personal and political freedoms for no decisively good reason. This despair is saddening since it suggests throwing up one’s hands, or lashing out, rather than working to right the more tractable wrongs such as those mentioned above. Some sense that ours is a world where they are unwelcome and that nothing productive can be done to address this disregard. 
Advocates for reducing inequality can recognize that inequality of outcomes needn’t be bad per se. As David Schmidtz argues, unequal treatment is the culprit, not unequal shares. Regardless, little is gained here by appealing to absolute well-being. Of course almost all of us are better off now than we would have been 200 years ago, but that’s not the issue. Most of us don’t take constant solace in the fact that we have it better than our ancestors. If Schoeck is correct, we’re more concerned about comparing our everyday lived situation with others in the world we inhabit now. Exclusively highlighting the genuine accomplishments in our status quo is Panglossian; it risks downplaying the unequal treatments many still face, implying that they’re concomitants of those accomplishments when that needn’t be the case.   
Rolling back all these restrictions on our freedoms - restrictions which disproportionately harm the poor and minorities - is not a panacea. Even if we could make them disappear today, there’s no reason to think they’d stay gone indefinitely without a culture that values equal freedom for all its members. My main point here is that a concern for inequality can be just as much a concern about unnecessary restrictions of certain people’s freedoms.   
We should always be alert to where envy may lurk, lest trying to assuage it as a political policy harms the kind of progress often also resulting in large inequalities of wealth and income. At the same time, we should be slow to blame on envy the kinds of social problems for which no identifiable person or group may own all the blame. Envy should not be the default diagnosis precisely because, if Schoeck is correct that we indelibly compare ourselves to others, the drive to compare should meet with a world where others’ gains are at least non-threatening, consistent with justice, and even sometimes sources of emulation.