An old Russian joke tells about a poor peasant whose better-off neighbor has just gotten a cow. In his anguish, the peasant cries out to God for relief from his distress. When God replies and asks him what he wants him to do, the peasant replies, “Kill the cow.”
The joke illustrates an important point about human nature: the line between envy and clamoring for justice can be very thin.
The subject came to mind when I read a recent column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times about the issue of income inequality and the redistribution of wealth. Douthat noted that taxing Peter more will not solve Paul’s problems. The most likely outcome of “soaking-the-rich,” he wrote, would be to “buy a little more time for our failing public institutions,” like public schools. A “public sector that has consistently done less with more” would simply have more to do less with. Listen to that. He’s right.
Despite this, many people insist on soaking the well-off because, like the Russian peasant, what they want is to see their better-off neighbors knocked down a peg. That’s how envy works.
Thomas Aquinas defined envy as “sorrow for another’s good.” It is the opposite of pity. And it is one of the defining sins of our times.
One of the most consistent findings of behavioral economics is that we gauge our own economic well-being by comparing ourselves with our neighbors. Studies have found that, given a choice between making 25 percent more than their neighbors or making 25 percent less, people will choose the former even when the latter amount is more money.
Not only is envy irrational, it’s socially and personally corrosive. In his wonderful book, The Seven Deadly Sins, the late Henry Fairlie called envy the “nastiest, the most grim, the meanest” of the seven deadly sins. Sneering, sly, vicious. According to Fairlie, “the face of envy is never lovely. It is never even faintly pleasant.”
It could hardly be otherwise. Loving your neighbor, or even working alongside him, is next to impossible when you regard his gains as a personal loss.
The most obvious scriptural injunction against envy is the Tenth Commandment. But Jesus also spoke on the subject. The parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard ends with a confrontation between the owner and those whom he hired first. After reminding them that he paid them what he had promised them, the owner adds, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
This is translated from the Greek, which refers to the “evil eye,” the curse used by the envious to inflict harm on the fortunate.
Ultimately, the kind of envy on display and all the talk today about income redistribution will do nothing to help those in need or create a more just society, it just creates a bigger government. You can’t promote a virtue like justice by encouraging people to indulge in a vice such as envy. Think of the Russian peasants; during the Russian Revolution many of them expressed their envy by looting the better-off. This didn’t help; after the Revolution, many of them wound up worse off than they were before.
Okay, our system is need of reform. And I intend to discuss Christian responses to our problems in future columns.
But for now, let’s be clear: Leave the cow alone.