In praise of envy


Gordon Gekko had it all wrong. It’s not greed that’s good. It’s envy.

Think about it. Envy is what we mean when we talk about “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s not just petty social comparisons; it also pushes us to try harder, do better, match the accomplishments or wealth of someone else we admire. In our society, envy is at least in part a driver of economic aspiration and activity.

Way back in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville noted how democracy and capitalism combined to foster an inordinate amount of envy in American life. “I never met in America with any citizen so poor as not to cast a glance of hope and envy on the enjoyments of the rich,” he wrote. The American’s envy, he went on, kept him in constant “anticipation of those good things fate still obstinately withheld from him.”


Most characterizations of envy in America are pretty bleak. Think about Montgomery Clift in the 1951 movie classic, “A Place in the Sun.” In his attempt to break into the upper crust, the poor nephew of a rich industrialist contemplates murder. And, indeed, envy has its destructive side.

But in recent years, social psychologists have begun to make a distinction between malicious and benign envy. According to an upcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research, “maliciously envious people feel frustrated and try to level the difference with the superior others by pulling those others down.” Benignly envious people, on the other hand, “also feel frustrated, but they try to level the difference by moving themselves up.”

In real life, it’s pretty difficult to disentangle the two types of envy, to figure out where one ends and the other begins. Plenty of Horatio Alger stories are driven as much by resentment of one’s superiors as they are by pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-gumption. As 17th century British writer Thomas Fuller put it, “Nothing sharpens sight like envy.”

Most societies develop conventions to inhibit the destructive power of malicious envy. On playgrounds across this country, children are taught that “it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.” When I was in grammar school, we were obliged to send Valentine’s Day cards to every student so that nobody envied anyone else.

Religious traditions, in particular, teach of the dangers of coveting that which is not yours. The Ten Commandments specifically condemns it. Catholic tradition includes envy among the seven cardinal sins. In Dante’s “Purgatory,” the envious have their eyes sewn shut because they found pleasure in witnessing other’s downfalls.

But highly competitive societies such as ours also have mechanisms to create and leverage envy. In fact, democratic culture and institutions, even as they foster the belief in equality among citizens, strongly promote the feeling of envy. There are prizes for just about everything, and plenty of competitions that result in winners and losers. The advertising industry routinely seeks to elicit envy to sell status symbols. And then there’s what critics call class warfare in politics.

A few weeks ago, Sarah Palin caused a stir for a comment she made on the radio calling Barbara and George H.W. Bush “blue-bloods who want to pick and choose their winners instead of allowing competition.” Palin was striking back at Barbara Bush for dissing the former Alaska governor as just another pretty face on “The Larry King Show.” Palin probably doesn’t envy Mrs. Bush (why should she, she’s a rich and privileged woman herself now) but she shrewdly uses others’ envy of elites like the Bushes to stoke her fans. In politics, such maneuvers are called “class warfare,” and when convenient, both sides use it and/or decry its divisive nature.

Nobody in American politics is likely to admit outright to the benefits of class warfare, but despite its fractious nature, it has powered American achievements and, ironically, equality. Throughout U.S. history, aspiring elites have sought to dethrone established elites. Think Irish pols taking on the Brahmins in early 20th century Boston. Think aspiring Jews taking on WASP hegemony in New York. Think of workers seeking to better their conditions and signing union cards while images of contemptible “fat cats” dance in their heads.

In these hard times, when dreams of economic mobility wither, we need all the motivation and hope we can get. It’s not just about gaining money or material wealth, as the infamous Gordon Gekko quote suggests. It’s about trajectory and the feeling that one has the possibility of rising to another level. We can recognize when class warfare goes too far — Glenn Beck anyone? But Palin’s foray was classic Americana — down with the rich, up with the rest of us. And we may need such class warfare now more than ever.