The genealogy of envy

The rulers of North Korea flail their domain like little demon kings, but for what? I’ve read that DVD players and vacations abroad remain exclusive privileges of the ruling class there. DVD players and vacations abroad!? That places them where, in the lofty company of the top 70% of Americans? Sure, Kim Jong-Il might have a couple of billion tucked away somewhere, but he’s squeezed the tube about as hard as one possibly can, driven half the population to the brink of starvation, so there can’t be much more to be had. Compare that to the commercial magnates of the outside world, some of whom have much greater wealth and almost limitlessly greater potential to gain more. So it’s not exactly a trade-off between personal gain and suffering for everyone else. It seems more like collective suffering, where even the rulers stand to lose from their oppression.

So from an economic sense it appears utterly perverse that the rulers themselves shouldn’t choose to release the vice a bit. Surely they could take the path that China has and contrive to hold on to their DVD’s and overseas holidays at the very least, and improve the lives of so many others. And as China proves, going that route there is not even a very big chance that they would all wind up hanged as war criminals. So why not change? Perhaps there’s something repulsively appealing to them about being so much better off than all those around them, which would not be possible in the comparatively greater equality of an open society even if they were richer.

Such an impulse not just to be well-off but specifically to be better off than one’s fellow man might not make sense economically, but it does evolutionarily. Almost every impulse accompanying an evolutionary function can be hoodwinked in a sense, satisfied without fulfilling that function: sex with contraceptives intentionally blocking conception, the offspring-nurturing impulse distracted by animals or adopted children (though these might not be wholly evolutionarily non-productive). Evolution is in its deepest grasping heart comparative (or I suppose “positional” is the currently fashionable term), actuated on being better off than everyone else in one particular sense. Why is it unreasonable to suppose that the mania for being #1 might lead to a situation, like in North Korea, where mercilessly guarding one’s own preeminence causes everyone to suffer materially? Or maybe it’s even evolutionarily adaptive, since the very specific sense in which evolution favors primacy lies in having the most offspring (actually it’s more about creating the maximum number of copies of DNA, but that distinction is not terribly important here), and even if the rulers of North Korea are not nearly as rich as the wealthiest non-North Koreans, in a society where the only possible path to a half-decent existence for oneself and one’s family and children runs through them their reproductive opportunities, to put it very crudely, are probably quite plentiful.

And yet so many thinkers continue to either ignore envy and the desire for preeminence as a fundamental human trait or pander to it. Strange that the free-marketers who generally pride themselves on their realism in acknowledging the self-interest and greed of humanity should so often dismiss the evidence of its enviousness, or at least the implications this has on, for example, their tolerance of income inequality. And as for those who believe envy worthy of being propitiated for its own sake… Envy cannot possibly be sated on a society-wide scale. It’s self-contradictory. And in a way, those that think it can be by, for example, imposing economic inequality are just as dismissive of the basic reality of envy as the others. Because how logical is it to think that the desire to be better off than others can be satisfied precisely by denying anyone the ability to be better off than anyone else?

2 Responses to “The genealogy of envy”

  1. Dave Says:

    This situation is ironic for a society like North Korea based on egalitarianism as socialism is. The usual explanation for privation is it is temporary while utopia is achieved or reactive due to external or internal enemies. In an entirely centralized economy scarcity and hence privilege are inevitable. A capitalistic economy eventually brings about wealth but not equality. The thought that inequality is maintained on purpose is interesting and probably does help the feeling of well being of the ruling class. It has the down side of creating a sense of guilt, so this has to be addressed by some ideology which varies from society to society and changes with time. What about Europe, where everyone has a lot of government care for their personal needs? How does your theory apply?

  2. Curt Says:

    Well, insofar as the desire for dominance is a basic element of human psychology, one should to see evidence of it in any society. But in reality the European welfare state is not really that different from the American variety, and certainly incalculably more similar to it than to North Korea. Europeans in general are perhaps arguably a bit more desirous of economic equality and opposed to conspicuous wealth than Americans, and perhaps as a result have a slightly more trusting, dependent attitude toward government, but the situation doesn’t really challenge the basic assumptions underlying modern liberal economic thinking the way a society like North Korea seems to (although I’m by no means presenting myself as an expert on North Korea). In essence in Western societies government serves in part to redistribute wealth to increase economic equality, whereas in North Korea it seems to do the exact opposite.

Leave a Reply

If your comment doesn't appear right away, it was probably eaten by our spam-killing bot. If your comment was not, in fact, spam (and if you're actually reading this, it probably wasn't), please send me an email and I'll try to extricate your comment from our electronic spam purgatory.