The science and politics of the ‘politics of envy’

The release of Labour’s tax policies – which include a new top tax rate (39cents for income over $150,000), a Capital Gains Tax (at 15%), no GST on fresh fruit and vegetables and a tax free $5,000 threshold – have brought some interesting reactions.

The most interesting have involved the repeated claim that the CGT and top tax rate are ‘envy taxes‘ – and here – or that Labour’s plans dabble in the ‘politics of envy‘ or contrast “aspiration versus envy“.

Don Brash has chimed in claiming Labour is pressing the “envy button” and it “is politics and economics as if envy mattered“. Meanwhile, according to John Key

“It [a capital gains tax] was an envy-based tax and New Zealand’s tax system should be more ‘aspirational.'”

The right wing ducks, it seems, are all in a row when it comes to the meme of the politics of envy in relation to Labour’s tax package.

Sadly – for those on the right – research suggests that it is right wing politics that is most intimately entwined with the set of motives and emotions most commonly known as ‘envy’. Yes, it’s all very ironic.

The following makes two points: (1) envy arises when a society is hard for people and it pits them, competitively, against each other; (2) Envy is nurtured by the materialism that characterises our modern, consumer capitalist world.

Both of these points reflect badly on the thrust of current right wing, neo-liberal exhortations to ‘aspire’ and the paradoxical exhortations not to be envious. Both points make it plain that it is the right, rather than the left, that is actively engaged in the “politics of envy”.

Envy has a long history. It has an even longer prehistory.

A standard evolutionary psychological account of the adaptive function of envy is given by Susan Hill and David  Buss (2006). This book chapter version of their work explains how envy is likely to have evolved because it alerted individuals to competitors’ advantages in the pursuit of scarce or evolutionarily significant resources like mates and food. Envy is linked to what they term ‘positional bias’ in relation to just these kinds of resources (but not to others). As Hill and Buss (2006) explain:

“satisfaction for goods in some domains is not judged according to the absolute amount one has of that resource, but rather on how much one has compared to others – a positional bias”

Hill and Buss (2006, p. 132)

From the book chapter –

“the behavioral strategies motivated by envy should vary depending on what behavioral strategy or set of strategies are optimal given personal and environmental constraints.”


Envy takes different trajectories and assumes different intensities due to differences in social structure (Lindholm, chap. 13, this volume). Economists have noted that workers in the United States typically respond to a coworker’s income or status advantage by working harder themselves. Workers in peasant societies – where resources are scarce and there is an absence of multiple acceptable pathways to success – tend to respond to envy by trying to undercut or destroy their rivals advantage.”

(Hill and Buss, pp. 66-67, emphasis added)

Think about that last point in the context of this rhetoric about the ‘politics of envy’. What conditions are likely to generate envious responses? If we are to believe Hill and Buss, conditions in which “resources are scarce and there is an absence of multiple acceptable pathways to success“. Conditions in which many people have a parallel experience to being a ‘peasant’.

If there has been an outbreak of envy that is expressing itself in the political arena in New Zealand, then look to the lack of “acceptable pathways to success” in our society. Conversely, if you want to reduce envy, ensure resources are less scarce and that there are “multiple acceptable pathways to success“.

An even greater irony in all of this is that those on the right fail to understand the very system they praise, a system thoroughly dependent upon and driven by envy and its political encouragement under notions such as ‘aspiration’, ’emulation’, ‘achievement’ and ‘success’. Words don’t get much more right wing than that and yet they also don’t get much more closely connected to the motive of envy.

In her book ‘Keeping up with the Joneses: envy in American Consumer Society, Susan Jipson Matt makes the argument – well known and accepted in the social sciences – that modern consumer capitalist society has been built upon the transformation of the reputation of ‘envy’ from being a socially disruptive and harmful orientation to the indispensable driver of the modern economy. The book’s blurb notes how

“attitudes about envy changed as department stores, mail-order catalogs, magazines, movies, and advertising became more prevalent, and the mass production of imitation luxury goods offered middle- and working-class individuals the opportunity to emulate upper-class life. Between 1890 and 1910 moralists sought to tame envy and emulation in order to uphold a moral economy and preserve social order. They criticized the liberal-capitalist preoccupation with personal striving and advancement and praised the virtue of contentment. They admonished the bourgeoisie to be satisfied with their circumstances and cease yearning for their neighbors’ possessions. After 1910 more secular commentators gained ground, repudiating the doctrine of contentment and rejecting the notion that there were divinely ordained limits on what each class should possess. They encouraged everyone to pursue the objects of desire. Envy was no longer a sin, but a valuable economic stimulant.”

(emphasis added)

To put it bluntly, when National MP Chester Burrows talks about ‘aspiration versus envy‘ he may as well be talking about ‘apples versus apples’. Aspiration has, as its primary driving motive, the emotion of envy. The ‘aspirational’ amongst us might like to think that it doesn’t, but that’s just a convenient self-deception. As many spiritual traditions suggest, aspiration (i.e., discontent) is hardly a virtue.

When John Key says our tax system needs to be more ‘aspirational’ – than having an ‘envy tax’ – what he is really saying is that we need to encourage people, via the tax system, to be even more envious than what is required simply to support an ‘envy tax’. Each one of us, that is, needs fully to embody the emotion of envy and be proud of it. Only by manifesting envy in our economic actions will New Zealand’s economy and standard of living be maintained, let alone expanded.

What this means is that the unspoken and largely unrecognised irony is that the calls for lower taxes are more likely to appeal to the envious than are calls for higher taxes. That is, lower taxes appeal to those who are thoroughly imbued with envy to the point that they wish to acquire and retain every last dollar in order to have the lives that they see around them in their media-saturated world.

The irony, as it concerns the Labour tax package, is that a 39% top tax rate and a CGT are probably a very good way of diminishing – rather than increasing or pandering to – envy. By removing the ‘scarcity’ and providing, through social services, “multiple acceptable pathways to success”, the tax changes proposed by Labour could “plunge a dagger through the heart” of envy (if it exists to any discernible extent, of course).

‘Aspirational’ taxation systems have their echo in a continuing ‘concern’ in the business world in New Zealand. As many business leaders have noted, New Zealand business people seem remarkably unambitious. According to our more aspirational business leaders, that is, New Zealand business people need to have more drive than the three ‘bs’ (Bach, BMW and Boat), which means they need to raise their sights and be even more envious of others than they currently are. They need to resist the temptation to be content and strive – via envy – to be bigger, richer and ‘better’.

Of course, some might argue that my point here amounts to a ‘bait and switch’ argument. After all, it could be claimed that the envy I’m referring to here is actually ‘good’ envy. It’s about striving to be better than one’s current state and doing so without denying others the fruits of their success. The ‘politics of envy’, refers to ‘bad envy’ – trying to prevent others acquiring what we desire, or even destroying what they have already gained (e.g., through taxation). Bad envy, that is, is the motive of the peasants described above.

And it’s certainly true that researchers also sometimes distinguish between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ envy in just this way. Envy that leads to ’emulation’ is seen as positive and does not entail negative emotional states.

But, even in this case, envy is ‘bad’. This is because ’emulation’ is just an aspect of materialism, and materialistic values are now well-established as the enemies of well-being. The evidence is very clear on this. Aspiring to acquire material possessions, wealth and benefits is the high road to low well-being. It is also the road recommended and commended by your typical right-winger. It is certainly the road recommended by John Key, New Zealand’s ‘aspirational’ Prime Minister.

Envy – whether or not it is of the so-called ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ variety – is not good for us yet it results from the very values nurtured by a competitive economic system. Right-wing economics and politics try to present it as a virtue when it is acquisitive and a vice when it is destructive – but, in both cases, it is a dead-end and destructive.

And we know it.

Being envied triggers both positive and negative feelings in those being envied. We like others to envy us but, deep down, we know the toxic brew we inspire in others when they envy us. We fear the consequences of the envy our economic system needs for its life-blood while, at the same time, we guiltily enjoy its foretaste.

The right aspire to inspire envy – and then they accuse those they believe they have inspired to be envious of the ‘politics of envy’. It’s tawdry, adolescent and petty – but it’s true.

Strangely, if the better off actually feared the rise of envy – rather than sanctimoniously castigating the envious – society might be a much better place. When the masses get envious, better to appease, rather than rail against, the envious.

Irony of ironies.

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3 Responses to The science and politics of the ‘politics of envy’

  1. Douglas says:

    Aspirational: having or characterized by aspirations to achieve social prestige and material success (OED), but To Aspire: direct one’s hopes or ambitions towards achieving something.

    Achievement is good, we all agree. “Aspirational” is what used to be frowned upon as “ambition” – aiming for social status, but the right have commandeered the positive word “aspire” to replace the undesirable “ambition”.

    John Key reworded:

    “It was an inequality-based tax, and New Zealand’s tax system should be more ambitious for social status”

    • Puddleglum says:

      Thanks for the comment Douglas.

      Yes, the change in the moral reputation of the notion of ‘ambition’ over time is very revealing. If you want a really good read on this whole topic try Sharon Beder’s book “Selling the Work Ethic”, especially the chapters in ‘Part I’ (which have titles like ‘The Virtue of Work and Wealth”, “Work, Status and Success”, “Justifying Wealth” and “Legitimising Inequality”). There’s also Stuart Ewen’s classic account of the origins of the culture of modern consumerism, “All Consuming Images”.

      This ‘politics of envy’ stuff is just a variation on a well-established theme.

      Thanks again!

  2. Pingback: Green with envy | The Political Scientist

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