On Envy, Equality and Noticeability

From Helmut Schoeck, Envy:

“Man’s envy is at its most intense where all are almost equal; his calls for redistribution are loudest when there is virtually nothing to redistribute.”

From de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution:

“It is a singular fact that this steadily increasing prosperity, far from tranquilizing the population, everywhere promoted a spirit of unrest…Thus it was precisely in those parts of France where there had been most improvement that popular discontent ran highest…generally speaking, the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways.” (the latter clause would need to be restated as “the most perilous moment for a bad government or a government that governs the envious is one when it seeks to mend its ways or pacify envy.

First, inequality is most noticeable when it is least. This has an intuitive truth to it that would need to be qualified in order to overcome the objections of those unwilling to focus on the truth. Certainly, if the inequality becomes so slight as to become unnoticeable the point is lost. But the point should be well taken. Men have lived under great oppression. But you find men no louder, no more violent, and no more demanding than when they think they have a chance which means already that their position has improved dramatically.

The egalitarian is so sure about the greed of the “wealthy”. The egalitarian is so unwilling to weigh the envy of the “less wealthy (poor)”. But why this imbalance in analysis? Why the notice of vice in the one and at least neutrality if not the virtues of humility and courage posited in the other?

A fair analysis would have to admit that both groups (the wealthy and poor) are a mixed bag of virtue and vice. Once admitted the policy question is made exceedingly more difficult. The blunt initiation of aggression by the state may at best cause trouble.

Setting aside the moral question of property rights and its necessity for freedom, production and what follows imagine, for but a moment, that it is difficult to verify the virtue or vice of another. The state overlooks the question. So, once it is done pocketing its share of the wealth confiscated by the wealthy it has taken from some virtuous wealthy and some vicious wealthy. It does one harm by taking from the virtuously wealthy. In addition the state has gives to the virtuous poor and the vicious poor.

Think about it. The state did no good noticeable (I, in quick calculation will say that the state broke even but that is giving it far too much credit) in its initiation of aggression (of course we have to set this aside which one can hardly do). But what it did do was take some portion of the goods for itself, for its own maintenance. So, once it is done at best breaking even ignoring its payment to self we reach at best evil once we note the loss that corresponds to the payment it takes for at best doing nothing good.

Were we to add the cost of the initiation of aggression, the loss of incentive to production and savings and investment, the increase in incentive to depend upon the state for care, the losses become greater.

Published by Purilib

Anonymously interested in grasping the good life.

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