Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Enough with the Envy and Spite Rhetoric

(See my last post, and its many links, for background.)

The terms “envy” and “spite,” it now occurs to me, not only frame the debate in an unpleasant light: they are also fundamentally inaccurate characterizations of the issue involved. Envy and spite are emotions directed at people: “I am envious of Peter”; “I am spiteful toward Paul”. These emotions imply hostility, which in fact has nothing to do with the argument that people derive utility from relative wealth. Thus Tyler Cowen Alex Tabarrok can complain that he doesn’t like being envied, but here he is talking about the actual emotion of envy (with all the attendant hostility), not about the property of certain utility functions that has been labeled as “envy.”

To say that I get utility from my relative wealth is not to say that I have any particular feeling about those against whom I compare myself. The word “envy” (and similarly the word “spite”) exaggerates the degree of other-regard that is present. The “others” in this case are not concrete people about whom I have feelings, but abstract reference points against which I compare myself. It’s not that the poor are envious of the rich; it’s that the poor feel bad about themselves when they compare themselves to the rich (or more likely to a social average in which the rich are only one element). Similarly, it’s not that the rich are spiteful toward the poor, it’s that they feel good about themselves when they compare themselves to the poor (or to the social average).

I doubt that Tyler Cowen Alex Tabarrok really gets significant disutility from being part of such an abstract reference point, but if he does, he seriously needs to chill. And his comparison of envy to homophobia is also “fruit of the poison tree,” since it derives from the original misuse of the word “envy.” The hatred that homophobes feel toward homosexuals is entirely other-regarding. Very much in contrast to relative wealth feelings, it has nothing (except at a deep psychological level) to do with what the homophobe feels about himself. Homosexuals have a legitimate complaint about being the objects of actual hate, rather than imagined envy.

In fact, when Brad DeLong brought the word “spite” into this discussion, he was conceding a point that he never should have conceded. The phrase “politics of envy” is used, by those who oppose redistribution, to frame the debate in emotional terms. The phrase may perhaps be a reasonably accurate characterization of the politics. To get people excited about redistribution – to get them to vote on that basis – you may have to make them emotional, literally “envious.” Rational arguments about their underlying preferences probably won’t do the trick. But Greg Mankiw let the term “envy” slip from the political argument into the economic one, where it becomes quite misleading. That, in my opinion, was a mistake that needs to be corrected before the discussion can proceed.

UPDATE: Oops, I referenced the wrong Marginal Revolution blogger (for this post).

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