Every time envy comes up in conversation, I grin smugly.
For envy is one of the two deadly sins to which I’m immune, greed being the other. Having thus got on my high moral horse, I then quickly dismount it, remembering that I’ll still have to answer for the remaining five.
Mercifully, however, it’s envy and not, say, lust or gluttony, that’s my subject today, so I can talk about it without risking an accusation of hypocrisy.
“Envy is more irreconcilable than hatred,” wrote François de la Rochefoucauld, and he was right in that aphorism, as he was in so many others.
Yet, going a step further, one could suggest that hatred is so often motivated by envy as to be practically indistinguishable from it.
Taking another step, one might realise that envy typically starts as self-hatred, which is then expressed as loathing others. Yet leaving the domain of homespun psychology, one can still say that envy is, well, unenviable even on an individual level.
However, when it becomes collective and pandemic, envy may destroy not just the person obsessed with it, but the whole society – especially if the state actively promotes it by deed if not necessarily by word.
One could say that the more envious the society, the sicker it is, the further removed from the civilisation in which sin wasn’t just a figure of speech.
Thus, if a recent survey is to be believed, British society is healthier than German, French or American.
German economic historian Rainer Zitelmann commissioned a poll of 4,000 people in those four countries to establish their ‘social envy index’. The British turned out to be much less resentful of the rich than the other three nations under investigation.
Only one in five Britons agreed with the statement “the super-rich, who always want more power, are to blame for many of the world’s problems”, compared with a quarter of Americans, a third of Frenchmen and half of Germans.
I have no first-hand knowledge of German society, but I know the other three countries personally and intimately. However, my personal and intimate knowledge of the US goes back 30-odd years, and the country must have changed drastically since I lived there.
Then I would have said that most Americans were remarkably free of envy and its product, class hatred. When a typical American saw someone else’s palatial house, rather than wishing to burn it down he tried to figure out what he had to do to earn one just like it.
Since class envy and socialism enjoy a symbiotic relationship, socialism has clearly made more inroads into America, which is what my American friends have been saying anyway. Next time I’ll listen to them more closely.
By contrast, because my knowledge of Britain and France is current, I can rely on the evidence before my eyes. And my observation tallies with Dr Zitelmann’s finding that “France and Britain were at opposite ends of the spectrum.”
The difference was even starker when people were asked if they were in favour of “drastically” cutting the income of well-paid executives and distributing the money among their workers, even if the latter only received a tiny extra sum a month.
In Britain 29 per cent said yes. In France the figure was 54 per cent, almost twice as high.
Talking to the French, I’m not surprised. Few words carry more pejorative connotations in France than patron (boss). This isn’t just a little verbal quirk – it’s barricades, tear gas, burnt cars, smashed shop windows, cobbles used as projectiles.
It’s even mutilation: last weekend one of the gilets jaunes protesters got his hand blown off when he picked up a tear gas bomb thrown by the police and it went off before he could throw it back.
Envy is the root of social disharmony, and it largely drives the protests crippling France. “You can’t govern a country that makes 300 kinds of cheese,” said de Gaulle, which is a good but hardly indisputable quip.
What’s indisputable is that you can’t govern a country stricken by a pandemic of envy and resulting class hatred. You certainly can’t run a successful economy that way.
However, socialists, which is to say purveyors of social envy, don’t care about how successful the economy is. They don’t love the poor as much as they hate the rich, and the on-going social unrest in France illustrates this point perfectly.
The gilets jaunes are demanding lower fuel taxes, and there I’m in sympathy: along with other sensible persons, I dislike taxation even with representation.
However, they are also demanding that the wealth tax, instituted by Mitterrand and abandoned by Macron, be reintroduced.
This demand proves my point, for the wealth tax makes the poor poorer, not just the rich. For, as experience of any country in the world shows, when wealth is taxed it flees – taking jobs and opportunities with it.
The purpose of wealth taxes isn’t economic but political, which in this case means punitive. By introducing it, a government panders to, and promotes, the urge not to help the poor but to punish the rich.
It’s refreshing to observe such blatant disregard for rational thought in a nation that prides itself on having inaugurated that great misnomer, the Age of Reason.
However, schadenfreude, that smirking emotion the British tend to feel about any misfortune of the French, would be misplaced. France may exhibit more virulent symptoms of a prevalent malaise, but the malaise is universal and spreading fast.
Reason is excommunicated from the political forum everywhere. More and more people rely on their viscera, not their brains, to form political views (and vote on them), and viscera is where envy resides, sharing quarters with hatred.
I’d be curious to know how many respondents would agree with this statement: “The rich should be dispossessed even if you became poorer as a result.”
Quite a few, would be my guess. Probably more in France than in Britain though, which is a small consolation, but a consolation none the less.