Wealthy people are under greater pressure in the era of the "one per cent" to justify what they have. But to what extent is hostility towards the ultra-rich driven by envy rather than a genuine sense of injustice? The author of this article takes a look.
Being wealthy is less popular than it used to be. The term “one per cent” refers to the segment of ultra-high net worth figures said to own a disproportionate slice of all wealth. This publication has already commented on “wealth justification” to explain how the industry should position itself. After the financial crackup of 2008, massive central bank expansion of the money supply to prevent a global depression also fuelled asset prices, enriching those who had already bought equities and other assets, such as real estate, with borrowed money. It tended to hurt those reliant on fixed savings and has accentuated the inequality of wealth.
The industry cannot afford to ignore these wider trends nor the ensuing political backlash. However illogical or destructive confiscatory taxes are – and they are – the perils of the redistributive agenda will take time for people to absorb. Some of the hostility to great wealth may stem from dislike of perceived injustice, even if not all of those who are very wealthy deserve the brickbats. But there are other reasons why people dislike those with lots of wealth, and they may stem from far less honourable sources. It makes people uncomfortable to confront what can be prejudices and emotions such as envy of another person’s success or good fortune. In an age when emotions too often overwhelm rational thinking, perhaps it is time that the envy-driven dislike of wealth was put under a spotlight. German academic Dr Rainer Zitelmann, who has written several studies on the subject, argues that it is time that people talked honestly about envy, and its role in driving dislike of the rich.
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Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride are the seven deadly sins. And Warren Buffett described envy as the dumbest and most futile of them all: “As an investor, you get something out of all the deadly sins - except for envy. Being envious of someone else is pretty stupid. Wishing them badly, or wishing you did as well as they did - all it does is ruin your day. Doesn’t hurt them at all, and there’s zero upside to it. If you’re going to pick a sin, go with something like lust or gluttony. That way at least you’ll have something to remember the weekend for.” However, the desire to be as financially successful as someone else is not the product of envy, but admiration. There is no such thing as benign envy. Truly envious people do not want to close the gap to their more successful peers through effort and determination. They want more successful people to be worse off, for example by taking away some of their wealth.
The masked sin
It is clear from everyday experience that envy is one of the most widespread emotions. Despite this, most people claim that envy is something experienced by other people, not them. More than any other emotion, people deny that they are envious of successful people - and psychologists can explain why.
In his book, Egalitarian Envy, Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora noted that envy is a widely denied emotion: “One may admit to pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony and laziness, and one may even boast of them. There is only one capital sin no one admits to: envy. This is the dark, hidden, eternally masked sin. One tries to hide it from others with multiple disguises; its symbol ought to be a mask.”
Almost no one admits to envy
In 2005, 2009 and 2013, researchers interviewed 18,000 Australian adults. Using a scale from 1 (Does not describe me at all) to 7 (Describes me very well), the survey’s participants were asked how envious they were. Almost 54 per cent of respondents awarded themselves the lowest scores for envy, namely a 1 or a 2. And just over 72 per cent rated themselves with a score between 1 and 3. In contrast, just over 3.6 per cent scored themselves with a 6 or a 7, thereby admitting to being envious.
Such surveys are by no means proof that almost no one is envious. In fact, they are an expression of a phenomenon that social researchers refer to as “social desirability bias”. When it comes to taboo topics, people are unwilling to provide honest answers, even in anonymous surveys. In such cases, pollsters need to use indirect questions to unearth people’s true opinions and feelings. There is a field in psychology called scientific “envy research” and researchers agree that envy is by no means a rare phenomenon. It is widely accepted that envy has existed in all cultures and at all times - and that envy directed at successful people is extremely common. So why are people prepared to admit other negative emotions (e.g. anger), but not envy?
One reason for this is that when someone publicly admits to being motivated by envy, any actions they take to remove the cause of their envy would be deemed socially illegitimate. When envy becomes recognisable as such, or is openly communicated, then the envious person automatically disqualifies the intention of satisfying it or eliminating it. People who feel social envy never speak of envy; instead they describe themselves as demanding “social justice”. However, when they refer to “social justice,” what they actually mean is “equality,” which they believe can only be achieved by taking from the rich.
Envy and feelings of inferiority
The anthropologist George W Foster asked why it is that people are able to admit to feelings of guilt, shame, pride, greed and even anger, without loss of self-esteem, but that it is almost impossible to admit to feelings of envy. Foster offered the following explanation: Anyone who admits to themselves and others that they are envious is also admitting that they feel inferior. It is for precisely this reason that it is so difficult to acknowledge and accept one’s own envy. “In recognising envy in himself, a person is acknowledging inferiority with respect to another; he measures himself against someone else, and finds himself wanting. It is, I think, this implied admission of inferiority, rather than the admission of envy, that is so difficult for us to accept.”
In citing the American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, Foster raises an issue which is of key significance in exploring the envy directed at rich people. Envy begins when one person recognises that another person has something that they would also like to have. This necessarily leads to the question, why don’t I have it? Why have they succeeded in achieving what I could not? This is a key insight: It helps us to understand why people are so vehement in denying their own feelings of envy. It also explains why most people do not want to admit that they are envious: “Envy is not pleasant because any formulation of it - any implicit process connected with it - necessarily starts with the point that you need something, some material thing that, unhappily, someone else has. This easily leads to the question of why don’t you have it? And that is itself enough in some cases to provoke insecurity, for apparently the other fellow is better at assembling those material props of security than you are, which makes you even more inferior.”
“Successful people are just lucky”
As demonstrated above, it is clearly not easy to deal with envy. In order to “resolve” their feelings of envy, the envious (or inferior) person needs to shift the blame for their failings to circumstances beyond their control. As Foster puts it: “Inferiority perceived as due to uncontrollable agents or conditions outside the individual, while unpleasant, may be at least bearable. Inferiority perceived as due to personal inadequacy, lack of competence, or poor judgment is much more difficult to accept, since it is so damaging to the self-image.” If the envious person can blame fate, luck or chance for the success of the person they envy, this places much less of a burden on their self-esteem. This is one reason why people who envy the rich frequently rationalise their feelings by attributing the success of rich people to factors such as luck, the use of morally deplorable methods, serendipity and unfair advantages.
When they are asked, even successful people tend to explain their own achievements as the result of “luck.” Nevertheless, such explanations should not be taken at face value. As the sociologist Helmut Schoeck explained, when people credit luck for their success, they are using a strategy designed to defend against envy: “An athlete, a student or a businessman who has just enjoyed a particularly sweet (and for others envy-arousing) success, shrugs his shoulders and says: ‘So what, I was just lucky’ … In doing so, and largely unconsciously, he is seeking to neutralise the envy that may be directed against him” by pointing to a “random, unpredictable and uncontrollable power, which is responsible for favourable or unfavourable” outcomes - or to a random combination of factors that have either favourable or unfavourable consequences for an individual.
About the author
Dr Rainer Zitelmann is an historian, sociologist and author, businessman and real estate investor. Dr Zitelmann has written more than 20 books and most recent book, The Power of Capitalism, was published in 2019. Another book, The Wealth Elite, explored views that wealthy people have about money, success, luck and their position in society. The books were reviewed here and here.