Are the have-nots motivated by envy of the haves, or do they just want their fair share? Conversely, are the well-to-do jealously guarding their unjustified privileges from those that ain't got, or do they just want to keep their fair share? The answers to these questions depend, of course, on what you think is fair. A strict egalitarian will object to anything but a perfectly equal sharing of resources. There simply shouldn't be any haves or have-nots, according to egalitarianism. Everyone should get the same amount of the pie, period.
I don't think this is a very convincing position, and I don't think most people think it's a very convincing position. Human beings are different. They have widely varying degrees of intelligence and energy; are honest and hard-working to very different degrees; are bold or timid, trusting or suspicious, curious or credulous. For these and many other reasons, their productive and creative contributions to making the world a better place diverge substantially. It seems entirely appropriate and reasonable to me that their material rewards reflect the amount of good they do in the world. Instead of everyone getting the same share of the pie, each individual should get the share he or she deserves.
In a free market, you would get the material rewards for your contribution to society that other individuals in society were willing to pay, either directly or through the many complex interactions brought about by specialization. There are no perfectly free markets in the world, however. And while there are, I believe, many people on both sides of the divide between rich and poor who are actually concerned about justice, there are also many on both sides who just want to get (or keep) what they haven't earned.
What Is Fair?
What got me thinking about this issue most recently was a somewhat convoluted defence of the poor provided by Matt Bruenig in The Week, entitled “The intellectual bankruptcy of claiming the poor merely ‘envy' the rich.” Although much of the article just bemoans the bare fact of rising income inequality in the US in recent decades, Bruenig does make one important point. “[T]he deeper problem is that calling something envy is nothing but a flippant way to dismiss totally legitimate concerns about justice,” he writes. “In some sense, all complaints about unequal treatment could be categorized as envy if you really wanted to do so.” Blacks used to envy whites their freedom, for example. Women used to envy men the right to vote.
People who accuse the poor of being envious don't refer to the former demands of black slaves and disenfranchised women as examples of envy, Bruenig points out, because they think that those inequalities were actually unjust. But the problem, then, is that calling something “envy” just begs the question. “Referring to anger over distributive inequality as envy already implicitly assumes that such anger is wholly without merit and unjustified, but without actually making an argument to that effect. It takes the legitimately contested question of the justness of extreme inequality, assumes without any discussion that it is just, and then accuses those who think otherwise not only of being wrong but of actually being captured by vice and moral deficiencies.” While Bruenig himself makes no actual arguments, at least in this short piece, that current inequality is unjust, he is correct that any judgment one way or the other requires actual arguments.
So let's try to provide some, at least in principle. From my point of view, wanting to force others to pay for health insurance, education, or welfare benefits for the poor, especially those poor who are perfectly capable of working, is morally wrong. Those who want those good things for themselves without being willing to work for them—those who want to take values for themselves without offering equivalent values to others—are indeed morally deficient. In a free society, you could help them if you wanted to, but personally, I would reserve my help for more deserving people who needed a temporary assist, or for those who were truly unable to work.
Yet untangling who deserves what in our mixed economy, which relies on free markets only very imperfectly, is not as easy as this makes it sound. The lazy poor may be poor largely because of their own sloth, the dishonest poor because they screwed people over and ruined their reputations. But many are poorer than they should be because they were arrested for drug “crimes,” or because their fathers were killed in prohibition-related violence. Many are made worse off by the countless government regulations that make it harder for them to make a decent living, or just by the chunk of their earnings that are confiscated to pay for inefficient programs ostensibly designed to benefit the public good.
The Green-Eyed Monster Has Two Faces
And crucially, if we're going to rag on some of the poor for being envious, we must be fair and criticize those among the rich who are jealous of their undeserved bounty. Not that all wealth is undeserved. Unlike in the days of kings when the only real way to get rich was to conquer and pillage, the industrial revolution made it possible to amass wealth by being useful to your fellow humans and prudent with your earnings. Yet it remains true that some of the rich, to varying degrees, are rich because of things like monopoly power, corporate subsidies, protective tariffs, supply management, and other forms of welfare for the well-to-do.
Envy can get really ugly. From simply wanting to follow in the footsteps of the rich and earn a good life for yourself (commendable), it can devolve into wanting something others have that you haven't earned (exceptionable) and all the way down to wanting others to lose what they have even if it makes you worse off as well (despicable). There is surely some of this ugliness out there. But I suspect that a good amount of what is written off as envy is actually righteous indignation at real slights on the one hand and at the unearned privileges of some of the rich on the other. If we could strip away the regressive rules that disproportionately harm the poor and wrench away the jealously guarded perks and powers that undeservedly benefit the wealthy, we would have a much better idea of who deserved what, because people would more closely get what they deserved. I believe that we would also have less inequality than we have today—and that a lot of the so-called envy of the poor would fade away as a result.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.