Friday, November 9, 2012

Clarifying the concept of envy & The Inevitability of Envy

This is a quick post providing some supplementary information to another article I wrote for Students for Liberty entitled "Envy and Libertarianism". The book I cite is entitled "Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior" by the late Austrian-German sociologist Helmut Schoeck. You can find a copy through Liberty Fund

Clarifying Envy

            Citing a careful definition provided by William L. Davidson in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Schoeck writes:

Envy is an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent. It is aimed at persons, and implies dislike of one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him [the envied]... There is in it also a consciousness of inferiority to the person envied… He who has got what I envy is felt by me to have the advantage of me, and I resent it. Consequently, I rejoice if he finds that his envied possession does not give him entire satisfaction – much more, if it actually entails on him dissatisfaction and pain… (Schoeck, pg. 20-21)

With this definition, we see that envy is complicated. It is generally a painful emotional state, but can give rise to pleasure if the envier subjectively perceives that the envied person is in some way set-back or dissatisfied. Typically the object of envy is something material, but it need not be, as in the case of fixating on the envied persons “good looks” or “superior intelligence”. Schoeck elaborates that “envy very often denies the asset itself” (pg. 19). By this, he means that the envier fixates more on the perceived level of satisfaction of the envied person than the actual object of envy, in some cases preferring the loss or destruction of the object to the perceived detriment of the envied person. Even dissatisfaction suffered by the envied person unrelated to object can please the envier.
Shoeck goes to great lengths to distinguish what he perceives to be some misconceptions about the concept of envy. One of these misconceptions is the idea of envy as emulation. When advertisers use a phrase like “Be the envy of all your friends with Product X!”, they’re probably not trying to invoke the destructiveness which typically characterizes envy proper. They’re attempting to awaken the “animal spirits” (to basterdize a Keynesian phrase) by ingeniously tapping into our deepest desires for admiration and respect.
Another common misconception is the conflation of envy with jealousy. Where with envy, one would ignore/destroy the object of envy, the coveted asset in the case of jealousy is the prize to be won. Additionally, Schoeck writes: “…the jealous man is often in doubt as to the nature of his antagonist: whether he is a genuine, honourable rival on his own level or an envious man… intent merely on destruction” (pg. 19). The sense of inferiority is implied with the experience of envy, not necessarily so with jealousy. Jealousy differs from envy also in that it typically requires competition between two individuals over a prize: “Jealousy arises out of an opinion of what is one’s due…” (Schoeck pg. 21). It’s not clear that envy requires this competition, as we can imagine the envious person dreaming up all sorts of violent fantasies directed towards the envied person who remains totally unaware of their existence.

The Inevitability of Envy

            Can there be such a thing as an envy-free society? If by envy-free we mean “a social reality in which nothing is left that is enviable” (Schoeck pg. 341), then as we have seen from our definition of envy, this is seemingly impossible – the object of envy can very easily transfer from distributions of wealth to intangible personal attributes. The presumption that envy emerges because of unjustifiable economic inequalities has led some utopian dreamers to the conclusion that a strictly egalitarian society, where all are thought to be treated exactly the same, can solve the problem of envy. The “socialist” experiments in the Soviet Union are a tempting example of the failure of egalitarianism, but the USSR’s hierarchical decision-making and bureaucratic nature make it a poor sample of strict egalitarian societies. Instead, Schoeck cites examples of life on the kibbutz (an Israeli communal settlement and deliberate experiment in strict egalitarianism first pioneered in the early 20th century), discussing some of the serious challenges that kibbutzniks face.
In the case of electing leaders for important tasks, the artificial expectation of intense mistrust of anyone with an elevated social status, even if democratically imposed, leads to a ‘refusal pattern’, where “all seek to evade nomination or acceptance wherever anyone has to be chosen for necessary office” (Schoeck pg. 347). As natural divisions of labor emerged due to the unique talents of individuals, Schoeck recounts an experience that kibbutznik Melford Spiro encountered when he lived on a kibbutz: “One man told Spiro that he found it impossible to develop his poetic gift because he could not help thinking of his comrades, capable only of manual labour, who, as children, had sat next to him in the latrine…” (Schoeck pg. 351). The kibbutznik come as close as any modern society to establishing strict egalitarianism, but the problems of envy continue to persist. It would seem then that envy is an inevitable part of social life. 


Schoeck, H. (1969). Envy: A theory of social behaviour. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Government and The Psychological Need for Autonomy

This was an essay I wrote for the California Review, an alternative newspaper at UC San Diego, some time ago. It published under the name "No! End Government Worldwide!", which was in response to another essay. Modified it a bit for publishing on this blog.

Government and The Psychological Need for Autonomy

END GOVERNMENT WORLDWIDE! Or rather, encourage and practice self-government and personal accountability. What is really meant by such a statement? Why should government end? Doesn’t government provide for us some of our basic human needs, like safety, subsistence, and social order?  Many people today would respond with a resounding “Yes!” Governments produce roads, provide clean water, generate, adjudicate, and enforce law – if government doesn’t provide these necessary social services, who or what will? The answer to this question is at once simple and extremely complicated, far too complex to be translated into effective public policy. The people who will provide for our basic needs will be (and has always been) none other than you and me, us and them… every single being, together

            As an individualist anarchist, it may seem strange that I arrive at this conclusion of the power of collective action. Perhaps it is imagined that the typical individualist suffers from some sort of solipsism, a tyrannical ego, or some combination of the two. I contend that my fascination with individualism, as a relatively new intellectual tradition, is a reflection of my fascination with the source or foundation of life. My perceived experience of life is all that I have; the concepts which populate my mind are formed by the activity of my own brain. When it comes to the formation of personal identity and self-concept, or all concepts really, all social or endogenous exchanges are factors. This fact, however, does not negate the deeply personal experience of life. Now, what does all of this have to do with ending government and social harmony? Quite a lot!

 The basic human need which is expressed by individualists worldwide is that of personal autonomy, independence and freedom. It is important to consider the ways in which governments, defined as groups of people who participate in the centralized planning of a larger society within a geographic region, are unaware of or outright deny this basic need. Plans require means, economic or otherwise, and governments typically acquire these means in a variety of ways. One harmful method, in terms of providing for this basic need for autonomy, is the practice of taxation. Taxation is a compulsory levy imposed on a population by its government. It is argued that taxation is unavoidable, a necessary evil of any well functioning society – but if the stated goal of a government is to increase social harmony and to provide for basic human needs, it has failed from the start. When the means contradict the ends, or the ends are used to justify some means, there is dissonance. To claim that something created and imposed by human beings is unavoidable is essentially to undermine the human capacity of choice. A whole host of internal contradictions, bizarre psychological dilemmas, are the product of denying one’s own personal choices. The consequences of self-denial can be devastating (e.g. self-destructive practices like drug abuse, unrestricted consumerism, violence, self-imposed isolation or even suicide). I leave it to the reader to consider the ways in which the U.S. government and its multi-million dollar corporations have encouraged or discouraged the practice of self-affirmation and personal choice in the average American.

According to the Humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, human beings are subject to a unique hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy, physiological needs like subsistence, safety, and procreation motivate action. As people gradually satisfy each tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, they approach the highest need – that of self-actualization. Self-actualization is described by Maslow in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation as “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially” (pg. 10). His hierarchy is a good starting place; however it says nothing about the means to achieve such needs.  Should we depend on the generosity and benevolence of others to accomplish our lower-tier needs until we have reached a point where we can finally begin to create a healthy self-concept for ourselves? I argue that self, or ego, is an ever-present element of our existence and is formed by all of our actions, even those that contribute to lower-tier needs like subsistence. Therefore, it is important for people to act in their own interest and to understand their actions as contributing to, or detracting from, the health of their egos. 

            The plea of the anarchist is not to ignore basic needs but to find a non-hierarchical, fair, or voluntary means of meeting those needs, a social organization which does not depend on an unquestioned authority. Many, many minds, men and women from cultures all across the globe at different periods throughout history, have wrestled with the possibility of sustaining such a society.  It is arguable that human history, Western or otherwise, has been nothing but a cyclical process of achieving anarchy then escaping it into an unsustainable government. What compels a government, initially established to satisfy basic needs, to turn on its people, its goal, and itself by increasing its use of force, seeking to increase its own power over others? Perhaps it has something to do with autonomy and freedom of choice – the basic human need it frequently overlooks. Implicit in this desire to increase power over others is the assumption that others can be perfectly manipulated, managed, or molded. It is easy to identify this assumption in the reasoning of all governments, from nation states to tribal/family heads – the superiority of one individual or groups choices over another’s, and the subsequent justification of the use of force. But this is not reason at all, nor is it in service to the basic needs of life. With that said, it is very likely that an anarchist society will be one of plurality, reflecting the complexity of human choices and the variety of human thought. But the consequences of an action should always lie with the actor; this is the best basis for personal growth as well as the growth of a society. In the words of the American libertarian author Albert Jay Nock in his book Memoirs of a Superfluous Man: “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” (pg 307).