Envy

To me, the word rich means not having to sweat the small stuff, for large values of small stuff. I think this is one of those inadvertent lessons. My mother taught me that those nasty rich people got to treat the material world as something disposable. She meant it as condemnation, but I perceived it as envy (which there probably was at least some of), and I decided that I wanted to be one of those enviable villains, perhaps around the time that I noted that it might be kind of fun to be an "absent-minded professor," who does some sort of abstract work so well that others volunteer to take care of his real-world problems. The latter is one goal I never felt free to pursue wholeheartedly, perhaps because it was supposed to be a trait its possessor was unaware of. [I was heavily indoctrinated by my mother against "fooling myself." She once Freudianly said, "Fool yourself, but don't fool me," then quickly reversed it.]

I hear the enviable rich bastards' approach described as "treating the material world like shit," but that's an overstatement. I want to treat it like food; after I'm done with a part of it, then I want to put it behind me, pull the handle, and banish it from my sensorium. (Philip Slater says that the bad guys have a flush-toilet approach: They want to get rid of things and not have to care about what happens to them afterwards. Me, I'm worse: In my ideal world I wouldn't even have to pull the handle, just toss the stuff into the oubliette. But I'm willing to negotiate.)

Of course the envy of the rich pigs was not called envy. I define envy somewhat the way H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism: the fear that someone, somewhere, is happy. Jealousy is "I want to have that instead of you having it (or along with you having it)." Envy is "I don't want you to have it." Since envy is an unpopular sin, or at least one that people don't like to admit to, the people who suffer from it generally try to talk as much as possible about the harmful effects of whatever it is that others are enjoying. (Or, as Martin Amis put it, "Envy never comes to the ball dressed as Envy. It comes dressed as something else: Asceticism, High Standards, Common Sense.") Since enviers, like paranoids, are never entirely mistaken, they can usually come up with something that has at least surface plausibility.

Consider the most traditional form of puritanism: sexual envy. Sexual puritans will not get very far (except among their own kind) saying how awful it is that people are making each other (and themselves) feel good, so they warn of the dangers of disease and unwanted pregnancy. Suggest that since condoms greatly reduce these dangers, we should teach the young about condom use, and they will insist that even mentioning condoms will make students go out and have sex. (Yeah, right. And if you mention helmets, everyone will go out and play football.)

[Secrecy is a greatly overrated tactic, whether it's believing that the Russians wouldn't have had the atom bomb if they hadn't "stolen our secrets" in a process very much like stealing an object or believing that teenagers can be protected from sexual thoughts by protecting them from sexual words and pictures.]

Sexual puritanism is by no means the only kind. There has always been a strong element of envy in Leftist politics. Leftists talk, quite reasonably, about how bad it is to be poor: not enough to eat, inadequate housing, deficient medical care, etc. For many, this is the basis for their politics. But for some, it is a conscious or unconscious bait-and-switch: They talk about poverty, but what they really hate is wealth. They talk in zero-sum terms, as if there were a fixed amount of wealth, and the only question is how to distribute it. This, however, is an oversimplification. Technology has its dangers and drawbacks, but technological advances have increased the total amount of wealth in the world. It's probably overoptimistic to believe that there'll ever be "enough to go around" (the rich will continue to steal, and the poor will continue to breed), but it may be possible to relieve the sufferings of poverty without making everyone equal. True political puritans hope not. They will tell you that inequality is itself oppressive, by which they may mean that everyone feels the same envy they do, and that it is society's duty to relieve these feelings by eliminating their supposed cause.

The Great Punster in the Sky has given us the similarity of the words envy and environmentalism (with the further historical detail that the traditional color of envy is green). If the political puritan doesn't want anyone to be better off than anyone else, the ecopuritan doesn't want anyone to be better off than anything else. Homo sapiens is just another animal in the environment, and it is evil for us to think that just because we are "sapiens," we are worth any more. (Perhaps we should give these people some credit for not saying that the animals, trees, and rocks will feel inferior if we don't consider them the equal of humans.) Again, there is something to be said for their position. There are limits. For one thing, humanity is, at least for the present, stuck on a single planet, so we have to take care of it.

One of the things I liked most about libertarianism was that it may be least envious of world views. I suppose there's a certain amount of feeling that the dread statists are getting too many rewards from the State, but that's a minor element. Libertarians may say, "I've got mine; I don't care if you get yours," but they also say, "I've got mine; I don't mind if you get yours." [2001]