The State

Anthony de Jasay, courtesy of the author
Jasay, Anthony de
(1925- )
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Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
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3. Democratic Values



Few endowments are divisible and transferable and few can be levelled.


No effort to make society drabber will make it drab enough to relieve envy.


Hayek, invoking Mill, pleads that if we value a free society, it is imperative "that we do not countenance envy, not sanction its demands by camouflaging it as social justice, but treat it... as 'the most anti-social and evil of all passions.' ";*61 Camouflaging it as social justice might not help it anyway. Looked at through a tougher radicalism than Hayek's, the justice of a demand does not imply that someone or other ought to see to its being granted.*62 On the contrary, there may even be an argument that it positively ought not to be granted: social justice, like pandering to other forms of political hedonism, may be held to be anti-social, likely to lead to the corruption of civil society by the state and to a dangerous deformation of both.


It is equally possible and far more usual, however, to regard envy as one regards pain, as something which should be relieved and whose cause should be removed if possible, without trying to be too clever about distant and hypothetical corrupting consequences of the remedy. If relief from pain is in the here and now, while the damaging effects of drugs are uncertain contingencies at the far end of a somewhat speculative process, it is tempting to go ahead with the treatment. It is, I think, in this manner that envy, despite its altogether un-virtuous connotations, comes to be considered by many if not most people a legitimate reason for altering certain arrangements of society. I propose, though only for argument's sake, to admit the analogy between envy and pain, as well as the closing of the horizon to the distant risk of damage that these alterations may do to the structure of civil society and of its being overwhelmed by the state. If we do this, we will be meeting on its own ground the liberal view of envy as a possibly minor but very straightforward and rugged reason—the last one if utility, justice and love of symmetry all fail—for holding that equality is valuable. The problem we shall then address is by and large this: if relieving envy is a worthy objective, are we committed to reducing inequality (unless a stronger one overrides this objective)?


As usual, the answer is determined by the manner of constructing the question. In an important article dealing with symmetry of treatment, unequal work and the conflict between non-envy and efficiency, Hal R. Varian defines envy as someone's preference for someone else's bundle (of goods—in one version including also the effort and ability to earn the income which it takes to buy them), and equity a situation where nobody feels any such preference.*63 A sacrifice of efficiency enables the bundles to be equalized, i.e. it can abolish envy. (Needless to say, this is a logical implication, not a policy recommendation.) If effort is a negative good, it may be possible for efficiency to be consistent with equity, for people may not envy a bigger bundle if it takes a bigger effort to earn it. The significant point for our purpose is that all inequalities are reduced to the single inequality of bundles. By equalizing bundles, we can eliminate inequality, hence envy, though there may be a more or less strong conflicting objective overriding the worth of non-envy.


Less sophisticated approaches a fortiori tend to subsume inequalities under the proxy of a sole inequality, generally that of money. Money is perfectly divisible and transferable. But it is manifestly impossible to make asymmetrical bundles symmetrical (e.g. proportional to an agreed attribute of their owners, or simply equal to each other) if they contain indivisible and non-transferable personal endowments like poise, or presence, or the ability to pass school examinations, or sex appeal. Those whose bundles are poorly endowed in any particular respect presumably resent this just as bitterly as they would different endowments of money. Moreover, the literally countless inequalities which simply cannot be made to conform to some symmetry or equality are closely relevant to the relatively few inequalities (money, or job opportunities, or military service) which can.


In defence of inequalities, Nozick offers the ingenious argument that envy is really hurt amour propre, and if someone feels hurt in one respect (low scoring at basketball, money-making) he will find other inequalities (linguistic ability, handsomeness) where he will be the higher scorer.*64 If the state, to reduce envy, eliminates a dimension of inequality (e.g. all incomes are equalized), self-esteem will seek comparisons along the remaining dimensions: "The fewer the dimensions, the less the opportunity for an individual successfully to use as a basis for self-esteem a nonuniform weighting strategy that gives a greater weight to a dimension he scores highly in."*65


This would be an excellent argument against a truly Utopian sweep of egalitarian measures which eliminated or greatly constrained possible inequalities. But such a contingency is really quite artificial and need not worry the convinced non-egalitarian. Even Chairman Mao's young cultural revolutionaries with their reputation for forthright methods, could not make much of a dent in the range of inequalities "available" in Chinese society, drab as it may have been when they set out to make it drabber. The most successful egalitarian scorched-earth campaign could not reduce more than nominally the scope for getting one's self-esteem wounded by unflattering, and for getting it healed by flattering dimensions of inequality.


Nor would rejection of the "wounded self-esteem" view of envy necessarily validate it as an argument for obliterating inequalities. For envy may be pain, dis-utility, resentment of an "undeserved" asymmetry, a sense of deprivation relative to the superior endowment of a "reference group," an external dis-economy of the riches of rich people, or whatever, without any of this telling us much about its causal dependence on inequality. There is no reason whatsoever for supposing that it is the Cartesian one of big-cause-big-effect, small-cause-small-effect (so that by reducing the extent of a given inequality or the number of inequalities or both, you could reduce envy, even if it were the case that by reducing the extent of every inequality to nil, you could eliminate it).


It is no more implausible to suppose other types of causation. An inequality may cause envy as a trigger causes a bang. A bigger trigger would not produce a bigger bang. If inequality is to envy as the size of the trigger is to the loudness of the bang, less inequality will not produce less envy—though absolute equality, if it were conceivable, would presumably produce absence of envy (not that one can ever tell, because the case cannot arise). This agnostic view, if adopted, makes the fight against inequalities in order to relieve envy look as misplaced as was the fight against windmills in order to affirm Don Quixote's chivalry.


The supposition of lesser-cause-lesser-effect which is the rational basis for expecting envy to be alleviated by levelling, gains credibility from the visible pleasure which always tended to greet acts of pulling down, successful attacks against privilege throughout history. It might, however, be a delusion to see "the implication of a difference" in what is actually "the consequence of a change."*66 If patient A lies in a crowded public ward and patient B in the luxurious penthouse suite of the same hospital, A (and most other public ward patients) may resent B's privilege; when B is deprived of his suite and is put in a private room, A may feel pleasure as a consequence of the change. On the other hand, if B was in the private room right from the outset, A's resentment against B's privilege, whatever its intensity, may well be no different than if B had been in a suite; the implication of the difference between suite and room could well be nil.


The essential point to grasp is that when chateaux burn and heads roll, when the rich are expropriated and the privileged get their come-uppance, the envious may feel elated that justice is being done, that their "relative deprivation" is being redressed. They may draw satisfaction from a single act (expropriation), or possibly a protracted process, though the manifestation of change is less dramatic than in the act (take the erosion of historic great fortunes through taxation). The reverse should also be true. If B wins the lottery, or marries his daughter to a desirable catch, A's feelings (if any) of envy would be provoked by the event, the stroke of luck, the undeserved windfall accruing to B, even if after the windfall B is still the poorer man of the two. On the other hand, a state of affairs (a given inequality) may (or may not) engender envy independently of the sensation engendered by the event, act or process which brought it about.


The burning of the chateau, the breaking up of great fortunes, or the taking of the rich man's money and its transfer to the poor man will quite likely engender satisfaction in the envious, but only while the drama of the move from one state of affairs to another lasts. Once the chateaux have all been burned, they cannot be burnt again. While the hovel-dweller may have been envious of the chatelain, he now has cause to feel envious of the Jacobin lawyer, his airs and the former Church property he managed to buy for funny money ("assignats"), and nothing permits us to suppose that his envy has become less intense as its trigger has changed. But if the inequality is a mere trigger and envy's source lies in enviousness, what is the point in fighting inequalities which will yield to levelling, when there are always many more which will not?


Regardless of the breadth of levelling measures, any conceivable real-life situation must still contain a sufficiency of inequalities which are impervious to levelling, compensating and which resist any other practical remedy too. Envy is provoked by a person comparing his situation with the situation of certain others and perceiving inequalities. If one perceived inequality is eliminated, and the person is a comparing sort, his antennae are soon bound to make a half-turn and perceive another inequality (in terms of which he is "relatively deprived"), out of the countless ones which might catch his eye, because such scanning is inherent in his need to see his situation in relation to that of others—or else he is immune to envy.


Demands for narrowing and, at the limit, removing certain inequalities, supported by the promise that envy will decrease as a result, do not seem to have a more compelling claim to being granted than demands which are supported by recourse to utility, justice, liberty, or demands which come uncluttered by any supporting moral argument. The promise of relief from envy is a redundant appeal to liberal credulity. The liberal does not need the promise. He is predisposed to approve such demands anyway. He has an "existential" need to adhere to his own ideology and to recognize in the redistributive policies of the state the production of incontrovertible social value.

Notes for this chapter

F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 1960, p. 93.
Commutative justice has an agreed procedure, issuing in judgements of courts of law, for deciding which "demands of justice" should be granted. The demands of social justice, however, are not adjudicated in this way. Nobody's judgement in social justice entails a moral obligation for somebody else to have it executed.
Hal R. Varian, "Equity, Envy and Efficiency," Journal of Economic Theory, 9, September 1974. For a development of this approach by a widening of the criterion of non-envy cf. E. A. Pazner and D. Schmeidler, "Egalitarian Equivalent Allocations: A New Concept of Economic Equity," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 92, November 1978.
Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, pp. 239-46.
Ibid., p. 245.
These were Alfred Marshall's highly suggestive terms for distinguishing between what our current jargon calls "comparative statics" and "dynamics."

End of Notes

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