Envy has its benefits


Jason Collins


August 17, 2011

Bryan Caplan writes:

If people envy people richer than themselves, I say we should fight envy, not inequality. A number of people have objected that “Envy is ‘hard-wired.’” They’re right - but it doesn’t matter.

“[H]ard-wired” does not mean fixed. All humans may feel these emotions to some extent. But there’s plenty of room to maneuver. You can become less envious than you are. Make an effort to monitor your thoughts and behavior. Count your blessings. Give credit where credit is due. Focus on improving yourself instead of comparing yourself to other people. Spend more time with less envious people.

We are “hard-wired” to feel envy as, historically, those who felt envy were more reproductively successful. Presumably it is a driver behind the success of some people -they aspire to the levels of status, wealth and power of those they envy – and as a result, they were better able to attract mates. In a post supportive of Caplan’s position, David Henderson characterises envyas “self-destructive”. In an evolutionary sense, envy could not have been self-destructive (on average) for it to become “hard‑wired” and so ubiquitous. I am not aware of any evidence that this has changed.

So what would the world look like if there was less or no envy? It may be a less dynamic, interesting and creative world than the one we live in. How many people have created an invention or business with envy of others a motivating factor? Envy has its benefits.

If Caplan’s encouragement to be less envious did work (although I consider convincing many people is a lost cause), it may be a temporary result. The less envious person might be happier. But they may also have less status, wealth and power and a reduced ability to attract a mate. To the extent there are less “envy free” people in next generation, envy will be back.

Having said the above, I do try to follow Caplan’s advice - but not always successfully.