How I Fought Envy
By David Henderson
I totally agree with Bryan Caplan’s post on envy. Well done, Bryan. And I can say from personal experience that I fought it in myself. Some excerpts from my chapter, “Whose Income, Who’s Distributing?” in my The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey:
As I mentioned in Chapter 5, when I was a kid, we spent every summer vacation at our cottage in Minaki, Ontario, Canada. Almost everyone else who had a cottage there was better off than our family, whether measured by income or wealth. To get around the system of lakes and rivers, you needed a canoe or a motorboat. Every other family I knew there had a motorboat; we had to make our way around in a canoe that my father had bought in 1931. [DRH note: we still have it, by the way. I used it last week.] Also, everyone but us–at least it seemed that way–was a member of the yacht club, a fancy name for an organization that had a few small sailboats and a cocktail lounge. My father strongly resented this “conspicuous consumption” of “the rich” around him. His working definition of “the rich” was anyone whose income was at least 30 percent more than his, and included almost everyone else who owned a cottage at Minaki. My father often talked as if he thought “the rich” had somehow obtained their income dishonestly or, at least, dishonorably. It also bugged me that some of my friends had their own motorboat or at least occasional access to their parents’ boat. Some of my hardest times were when I would see my cousins out on the lake, water skiing, and not having invited us.
Yes, I shared my father’s deep resentment of people who had more than we had. And given that about half the families in Canada had an income higher than ours, I had a lot of resentment. I adopted, subconsciously at least, my father’s view that those with much more than us had come by it dishonestly. I had no evidence, of course. Sure, I had a few stories about wealthy people who had taken advantage of others, but I had no basis for my grudge against the millions of people I resented. Because I couldn’t have some of the material possessions other kids had, I felt left out, and that was enough.
Then, in my late teens, I started to learn economics. I started to understand that the vast majority of income in a relatively free society is earned. It’s true that a small number of wealthy people did get their money by fraud or dishonesty. More common, especially in societies with lots of government controls, were people who got wealthy by using political pull. But I started to see that the typical high-income person in a relatively free society gets his or her income the old-fashioned way–by earning it.
This resentment over the good fortunes of others is not unique to me. Often, when one person tells another that he or she won a prize or is going on a great vacation, the other person responds, “I hate you.” It’s generally said jokingly, but the fact that it is said at all speaks volumes.
My resentment didn’t vanish instantly. It took years and wore away bit by bit. I remember going for a walk one time in Brentwood, a wealthy section of Los Angeles. As I walked north through Brentwood and got into the hillier sections, the homes I saw were nicer and nicer. Even though this was a full four years after I had realized that the vast majority of “the rich” get their money relatively honestly, I felt the old resentment at these people who had what I could not imagine myself ever being able to afford. I looked down at my fists and saw that I had clenched them in anger.
Even at my most resentful, though, I didn’t see any basis for rejecting my belief in human freedom, which includes people’s right to keep what they earn or are given. That was one reason I felt so upset after my walk in Brentwood: I didn’t even have the consolation of being able to say, “I’ll get you” or “Your taxes should be raised and your wealth expropriated.” But imagine how easy it would be, if you had no strong belief in people’s freedom, for your resentment of the rich to lead you to conclude that the government should take what they have. In 1969, I heard Will Herberg, a prominent American Communist in the 1930s and 1940s who had later become a strong anticommunist, speak at a conference. My friend Clancy and I asked him how he had come to be a Marxist. Immediately, his eyes lit up. He talked passionately about growing up with very few possessions, but because he was smart, being hired as a teenager to teach the dumb kids of wealthy parents. He told us of his intense resentment of the fact that he was smart and had nothing, while they were dumb and had a lot. “That,” he said, “is how I became a Marxist. I hated the rich.” We were shocked. We had thought that virtually all intellectuals came to their views via their intellect, not via their resentments. Herberg must have read our faces, because he added that his route to Marxism was a very common one. “The number of people who became Marxists by reading Marx,” I still remember him saying, “can be counted on the fingers of one hand.”
My resentment toward “the rich” has declined over the years. That’s fortunate, because envy is very self-destructive. Three things have helped me become less resentful, and I recommend all three to you if you sometimes envy those who have more.
First, when I feel envious of those who are wealthier than I, I remind myself to take deep breaths, look around me, and think. When I start thinking, I realize how incredibly wealthy I am and how incredibly wealthy almost everyone in the industrialized world is. As I detailed in the previous chapter, the modern world, compared to the world of 200 years ago and even compared to the world of 30 years ago, is a world transformed.
In subsequent posts, I’ll cover steps two and three.