Envy Isn’t Just a Left Wing Vice

Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and it involves wanting to deny other people things whether you have them or not. We generally think of it in terms of what the Australians call the Tall Poppy Syndrome; the more talented and outstanding people get cut down to “size” by the rest. And in many cultures excellence or superiority in any field is often blamed on witchcraft.

We tend to think of envy as a vice of the left. The left wishes to tax the wealthy heavily enough to control or liquidate fortunes, and it gets some of that energy from resentment of people who have money. Although as Michael Barone is supposed to have said, “The real meaning of `the rich’ in American politics is `not me.’” If he is right, much of the demand for soaking the rich in terms of taxes may not be based on envy but on fantasy – the fantasy that the rich have enough resources to carry the political and philanthropic burdens of the country without asking much of the rest of us!

But when I read some of the comments on this story about a ruling on affordable housing in Pleasanton in the Bay Area, it occurred to me that envy can be a factor on what is sometimes considered the ‘right’ as well. We can resent people who have things that we do have, or even not quite as much as we have (I don’t think the Section 8 housing will be as big or as commodious as the gentleman’s house) if they have not “paid their dues” or “worked hard” as we have, or at least think we have. Howard Husock has written about envy as an incentive for people to make the effort to relocate to a better community precisely because other people who don’t pay their dues can’t go there.

These people may have some legitimate concerns if a criminal class is being brought in. I find it, myself, morally questionable to try to profile people’s “moral character” by their income, in either direction. The idea that people who make less (or more) money than myself are morally inferior, or at least undesirable neighbors, I call Incomism. I use this term instead of Classism because I believe that social classes are more a cultural phenomenon than an economic one, though there is some correlation. There is class prejudice too. And while racism has not entirely vanished from the scene, I suspect that incomism and classism are probably at least as serious problems, if not more serious, in the present day American scene. That the government should allow enough housing (not compel people to build it, or control prices) is a justice issue. My way of dealing with the possible crime issues would be through strict “broken windows” policing, as Giuliani did in New York City in the ‘90s.

Related: “Alameda land-use ruling could reshape state” by John King at SFGate.com

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