Monday, June 14, 2010

Envy Comes Naturally

I'm about 1/4 of the way into a Tivo of John Stossel's recent program on Milton Friedman's classic Free To Choose book and documentary. 
Friedman's analysis of why some places thrive while others languish has always made perfect sense to me. 
I don't understand how anyone can read the book and disagree. 
People generally flock to the places where they have more Freedom To Choose. 
They tend to avoid the others. 

Most of my friends react negatively when someone at their workplace limits their freedom. 
This increases exponentially when the limitations impact home or family. 

So why do relatively sane people go into voting booths and vote for those who have vowed to curtail freedom?  I went to sleep last night intending to ask the question this morning. 

I didn't know I would find the answer waiting on me here via here

An old Russian joke tells the story of a peasant with one cow who hates his neighbor because he has two. A sorcerer offers to grant the envious farmer a single wish. "Kill one of my neighbor's cows!" he demands.

And then, commenting on some academic research and experiments.....

Why would people pay to hurt others without any benefit to themselves? Is it not the height of irrationality for a person to harm himself just so he can harm another more? Zizzo and Oswald believe the desire to burn other people's cash "appears to be strong evidence for the existence of some kind of envy or concern for fairness."

The poorest players chose to burn more of the winnings of the wealthiest, but big winners also burned other players, in their case indiscriminately. The researchers speculate that winners may have chosen to burn others as a way of maintaining their rank: They wanted to be first more than they wanted to maximize their cash holdings.

And finally....

Socialists often claim that capitalism is based on humanity's worst impulses, greed and selfishness, despite the fact that people who live in societies that participate in markets tend to be more generous and cooperative than those who don't. Oswald and Zizzo's research suggests that socialists who believe that their ideology appeals to humanity's better instincts have it backwards. Envy is behind the leveling spirit of socialism. A truly generous and rational soul would wish others well, especially if they have done no one any harm.

Only an open society in which people clearly see that they have an opportunity to rise seems capable of containing and channeling humanity's envy instinct. The task for champions of freedom is to encourage people to want more cows for everybody.

Not a perfect answer, but it should work nicely until the real thing comes along. 


Anonymous said...

I liked the part where the 13-year kid debated Benjamin Barber and won. His analogy of being forced to hand over his wallet at gunpoint was particularly ironic.

Anonymous said...

Envy is not necessarily a bad thing. It, like any other (fill in the blank - money, gun, emotion, etc) tool, can be used for good or bad. I choose to look at envy as good, in that I see something my neighbor has, I desire it for myself, so I work that little bit harder so that I can earn enough to have it for myself WITHOUT DEPRIVING MY NEIGHBOR OF HIS.
Build UP, not tear down.

B Woodman

The Whited Sepulchre said...

I loved every single minute of that episode. All of it. I want the 13-year-old to grow up to have a brilliant career shutting down government agencies.

Michael Coyne said...

for anyone who is interested.
The Free to Choose videos (both 1980 and 90s versions) are free to view online