The Politics of Envy

An interesting example from Jon Elster and John Roemer: Suppose that A is doing much better than B, in economic terms, and that B doesn’t even know of A‘s existence, much less A‘s level of welfare. Then, B learns about A, and learns that A is much better off. In one sense, B is no worse off than before; the knowledge costs B nothing. But in another sense B‘s welfare may decline, for B now feels envious, less successful, less self-satisfied, and so on. B would like to be as successful as A, and now becomes aware that that desire is unsatisfied, making B feel even worse. In that latter sense, then, the inequality between A and B increases when B becomes aware of it. The same thing happens when A becomes aware of it, for A may now feel superior, more successful, more self-satisfied, and so on.

This points to a recipe for increasing inequality: not economic inequality, for, in the above example, no money changes hands, but hedonic inequality—the happy get happier, and the sad get sadder. Of course, the argument applies just as well if we start with hedonic inequality rather than economic inequality to begin with. Knowledge of each other’s conditions increases inequality.

That, it seems to me, gives rise to a dilemma for politicians who practice the politics of envy, speaking of inequality, “Two Americas,” class divisions, etc. If the economic inequality to which they point isn’t matched by an inequality in levels of happiness—and its correlation to such inequality is probably weak—then why should we care about it? And if it is, doesn’t drawing attention to the inequality make it worse? Couldn’t they produce greater hedonic equality just by shutting up?

Why, moreover, does Hollywood consistently make TV shows and movies about people who are far more affluent than average, who live in much larger houses, etc.?  It hasn’t always been that way—think of The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, The Wonder Years, and other icons of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—but increasingly we seem to see mostly the top 1%.  Doesn’t that increase inequality in a similar way?

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Envy

  1. Those are some unsavory characteristics attributed to A and B. Given the letters assigned to these classes of people its easy to assume that A is the richest of the rich and B is a range of classes below. However A could be the broadest of middle classes with classes both above and below them. I don’t like thinking either is looking at each other with green eyes.

    In reality these classes don’t measure their happiness based on their position among the other letters, but rather what makes anyone happy – family, friends, less stress, etc …

    In a way the Simpsons took a shot at this equation. A highly educated nuclear technician was hired at the reactor, I think he was named Frank Grimes. Frank was stunned at Homer’s success, his good life, family and friends, despite Homer being, well, Homer. Rather than seeking his own happiness he sought to reveal Homer’s inadequacies and tried to take him down, instead eventually causing his own comic death. Homer falls asleep at Frank’s funeral causing giggles among those attending, mostly Homer’s friends.

    IMHO, the left seeks as many unhappy B’s and eggs on their discontent, urging them to take down the A’s. The right tells the B’s to pursue excellence as best they can, happiness is where you make it yourself, and you then make yourself into an A (whether you are or not!).

    I hope that was on topic.

  2. People do seem to derive pleasure the stories of very rich people. It seems to me that what’s going on is that people identify with the characters in such stories. So they don’t envy the characters; instead, they get to spend a little while imagining life as one of the envied.

    Perhaps the change you note (from The Honeymooners to e.g. the Sopranos) is due to a refinement in Hollywood’s ability to get audiences to identify with characters. In the old days, you had to make characters resemble the audience in important ways if you wanted the audience to feel portrayed. Nowadays, maybe, subtle tricks are employed to get audiences to see themselves on the screen even when what is on the screen looks little like their ordinary lives.

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