Acton’s Director of Research, Sam Gregg, ponders “Envy In A Time Of Inequality” in today’s American Spectator. Envy, he opines, is the worst human emotion. From the time that Cain killed Abel to today’s “near-obsession with inequality,” Gregg says envy is driving public policy…and that’s not good.
The situation isn’t helped by the sheer looseness of contemporary discussions of economic inequality. Inequality and poverty, for instance, aren’t the same things. That, however, doesn’t stop people from conflating them. Likewise, important distinctions between inequalities in income, wealth, education, and access to technology are regularly blurred. As recalled in a paper recently published by the Federal Reserve of St. Louis, wealth inequalities can have greater impact upon people’s comparative abilities to build up capital for the future than income inequality. Yet we spend most of our time anguishing about the latter.
He reminds the reader that just because situations and people are different, doesn’t mean they’re bad or unjust.
Many people are born with skills that are in higher demand and shorter supply than others. That’s not unfair. It’s simply a reflection of the human condition. In other cases, some people are willing to work harder, take on higher risk, and assume more responsibility. It’s therefore just for a company to choose to pay them more than those employees who want to shoulder less risk, work fewer hours, and accept less responsibility.
My suspicion, however, is that the envy-inequality nexus is driven by something deeper than the confusions that permeate inequality debates or populist efforts to build up constituencies of angry voters. It also has something to do with the internal dynamics of democratic political systems.
Not helping the situation, Gregg says, is the silence on the part of most religious leaders today regarding the sin of envy. And that he says, is terribly sad, because envy – left unchecked – will destroy us.