Red, White, and…Green?

Physician's Money Digest, October31 2003, Volume 10, Issue 20

On a radio talk show, flogging a littlebook I've just written on the subjectof envy, I was informed by thehost that he'd heard that Americans are theleast envious people in the world. Glibenough though I usually am, I hadn't everheard or read anything of the kind, and sofound myself stymied for an answer. But it'sa good question: Are Americans less enviousthan the people of other nations?

Geopolitically, a good case can be madefor saying that we are the least enviouspeople in the world, if only because, at thishistorical moment, we are the most enviable.And, it's worth adding, also the mostenvied. Our combination of luck and industriousnesshas given us a wonderfully advantagedposition: We've never had to fight anall-out war on our shores, our naturalresources are immensely rich, and our politicshave been stable since the Civil War.


Not much doubt, I think, that much anti-Americanism is anchored in envy. "The emotionalleitmotifs of anti-Americanism,"Timothy Garton Ash has written, "areresentment mingled with envy." Writing in, the Indian writer RamachandraGuha noted that, "Historically, anti-Americanism in India was shaped by the distastefor America's greatest gift—the makingof money." Things used to work theother way around. When I was a student inthe '50s, anyone interested in culturelooked to Europe, where not only all thegreat architectural monuments, museums,and art works, but the most impressiveartists, composers, and writers seemed toreside. This is no longer the case; and in culture,the United States is clearly where theaction is. Despite occasional dips, our prosperityhas been unparalleled, and foreignhigh-rollers on the make sense that to betaken seriously they have to have a hand inthe American economy.

How nice it would be to think that ourprivileged place in the contemporary worldhas drained us of our own envy! Alas, envymay be too close to human nature for thisto be so. At the heart of envy is comparison,and who can help comparing his conditionin life with the next fellow's. In the 1920s,Mencken remarked that contentment inAmerica was earning $10 a week more thanyour brother-in-law. In our own day, theeconomist Robert H. Frank reports that mostAmericans would rather have an annualsalary of $85,000 a year if their countrymenwere earning no more than $75,000 than asalary of $100,000 if everyone else wereearning $125,000.

The reigning sin of socialism is said to beenvy. Under socialism no one is supposed tohave the least advantage over anyone else,hence the envy that kicks in once somebodydoes, or is even thought to, have the smallestadvantage. The Soviet Union may have beenthe most envy-ridden society in the history ofthe world. May it rest not at all in peace.

Greed is said to be capitalism's reigningsin. But well-placed envy stirs greed, andunder capitalism we have some impressivemachinery for arousing both, not least theadvertising business, whose job it is toturn up the screws of yearning until theyarouse envy.

Envy has to do with the collection ofinjustices at the personal level—and themore personal the more powerful. Whydoes he or she have (the beautiful lover,the wealth, the power, the talent, the goodlife) and not I? Envy always comes down toa simple yet usually unsatisfactorilyanswered question: Why not me?

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Envy, let us agree, is the one deadly sinthat is no fun at all. Yet we don't havemuch hope of eliminating it. Tocquevillethought that, "Democratic institutionsmost successfully develop sentiments ofenvy in the human heart." By this he meantthat the opportunities implicit in theseinstitutions open the door to ambition,which also open the door to envy. Whetherambition incites envy or envy ambition isyet another unanswerable question. Theparadox, the rub, the fly backstroking inthe rich soup of democratic capitalism, maybe that, like it or not, envy, perhaps evenmore than money or love, often seems tomake the world go around.

Reprinted with permission of the Wall StreetJournal © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Allrights reserved.

Mr. Epstein is the author, most recently, of Envy,just out from Oxford University Press.