While many politicians love to talk about greed, are they often too quick to bypass envy? Envy, of course, lacks an ability to capture powerful headlines, such as when Bernie Sanders recently declared that Verizon Communications is the “poster child” for corporate greed. In popular culture, Gordon Gekko summed up the caricature of capitalism run amok in the film “Wall Street,” stating, “greed … is good.” It’s not.
Envy, along with greed, is included among the seven deadly sins in the Christian tradition. The Ten Commandments warn against covetousness. The 19th century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville said that envy thrives under American democracy. “Envy,” he wrote, is a feeling that only strongly develops among equals; and that is why it is so ardent in democratic times.”
In periods of economic decline, populist movements and political rhetoric often dramatically shift to greater focus on the greed of the affluent or materially wealthy. For some, envy may even appear to be just or virtuous when harnessed for political goals and power. It’s much easier to justify the confiscation of wealth lawfully than unlawfully.
With the first American generation hitting the workforce that feels less optimistic about their economic future than their parents, many young people find redistribution of wealth and plunder of private property appealing. They have no memories of the Cold War or those enslaved economically under command economies. For them, the economy is a zero-sum game, with fixed winners and losers. Many young voters possess a powerful bond with Sanders, the oldest candidate in the presidential race, largely because of promises of free college, debt relief, and income leveling.
This is not too say that Sanders does not have prescient points about cronyism and a vanishing middle class, but his proposals, to tax and spend on an even grander scale, would only exacerbate our problems, not fix them. The correct course of action of is to truly create conditions under which everyone is given the opportunity to be successful without promising equal outcomes.
With Bernie Sanders popping off about Wall Street greed, and Donald Trump a sign of capitalist excess, complaints about greed will continue to dominate headlines. Politicians continue to use the clarion call for greed because it’s effective. We are prone to see others who have nicer things than we do and say, “Hey, wait a minute.”
But envy is a serious dilemma along with greed. The human condition remains unchanged. As long as there are people who possess more things, there will be those who want to punish them. But this is an anathema for free markets to flourish in this country, and besides, you can’t legislate human sin out of existence.
Voters need to demand fairness and reject crony capitalism, earmarks, and perks. Our economy suffers when the powerful can buy special favors, such as increasing regulations in order to decrease market competition and new innovation.
A free economy flourishes under a virtuous and generous populace. But it will never thrive under conditions where those with capital are punished for creating wealth, jobs, and investing.
Voters too should not just see the dissatisfaction and social chaos that greed causes, but rightfully reject envy as not only an attack on the notions of self-government and property, but as a serious disorder, like greed, that is equally harmful to the nation.