Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Envy and Politics

For the Sunday morning class I'm teaching on envy, I've been reading Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, by Helmut Schoeck.  It is a sociological study of envy.  The chapter on "Politics and the Appeasement of Envy" contains the following introductory paragraph:

It would be a miracle if the democratic political process were ever to renounce the use of the envy-motive.  Its usefulness drives, if for no other reason, from the fact that all that is needed, in principle, is to promise the envious the destruction or the confiscation of assets enjoyed by the others; beyond that there is no need to promise anything more constructive.  The negativism of envy permits even the weakest of candidates to sound reasonably plausible, since anybody, once in office, can confiscate or destroy.  To enlarge the country's capital assets, to create employment etc. requires a more precise programme.  Candidates will naturally try to make some positive proposals, but it is often all too apparent that envy looms large in their calculations.  The more precarious the state of a nation's economy at election time, the stronger the temptations for politicians to make 'redistribution' their main plank, even when they know how little margin is left for redistributive measures an, worse still how likely they are to retard economic growth.  

One might assume this was written upon the close of the 2012 election, but it was written in 1966.

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