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Gerardo Castillo Ceballos, School of Education and Psychology of the University of Navarra

Egalitarian envy and the tyranny of equality

Thu, 08 Aug 2019 14:35:00 +0000 Published in El Confidencial Digital

Envy is a feeling of sadness or discomfort experienced by a person who does not have and would like to have for himself something that another person possesses. The RAE defines it as sadness or regret for the good of others.  

Cervantes, in his advice to Sancho, calls it "the root of infinite evils and the worm of virtues"; for Unamuno it is "the intimate Spanish gangrene"; Dante Alighieri, in his poem of Purgatorysays that "the punishment for the envious is to close their eyes and sew them shut with iron wires".

These testimonies denote that envy is unhealthy, without this exempting it from its evil. Christianity always considered it a capital sin (head or origin of others: hatred, defamation, slander, etc.).

The thinker Gonzalo de la Mora coined the term "Egalitarian Envy" (1987), which also served him as degree scroll for a book on essay. The basic idea of the book is that behind the totalitarian social and political movements that presume to be "progressive" is envy. I select a paragraph from the author: "The more a society falls prey to envious incitement, the more it will slow down. Egalitarian envy is the reactionary social feeling par excellence. And it is an ironic semantic falsification that the political currents that stimulate such a weakness of the human species call themselves "progressive".

Some current authors affirm that envy is a positive feeling, since aspiring to what the envied have would be a factor of social equality. Others, on the contrary, argue that envy is the basis and the common factor of some forms of collectivism, because in it one is equalized by the base, so there is no incentive for individual effort. Equality is thus reduced to egalitarianism, ignoring that what people really do is to strive to improve and not to be equal.

Pursuing equality of results requires lowering aspirations to the level of the least capable, while increasing opportunities makes it possible for each and every one to improve from agreement with their aptitude and merit. The latter entails generating a personalized Education in the family and at school. It requires developing in each child the capacity for self-control of cravings and desires, knowing how to distinguish needs from whims, and progressively increasing tolerance to frustration.

One of the fallacies of egalitarianism has been pointed out by Carlos A. Montaner, in a lecture: "The recognition that all people have the same rights does not imply that they obtain, or even desire, the same results. States that try to standardize results, even if they are full of good intentions, provoke a deep unhappiness in the citizens subject to these arbitrary impositions".

The aspiration to equal those who have some subject of success is not harmful when it stimulates a greater effort; on the other hand, it is harmful when the only thing that is aspired to is that nobody does better, with the hope of reducing them to their own level. The result is all mediocre.

A second fallacy of egalitarianism, according to Montaner, is the following: "it is not true that people instinctively tend to seek equality. If there really is a natural urge, it leads us to stand out, to try to succeed, to compete and surpass others. This phenomenon is at the root of development of societies, even if it leads to imbalances and inequalities. Trying to stifle it, as they tend to do in totalitarian societies, is a sure recipe for individual unhappiness and collective failure".

The philosopher Axel Kaiser, in his work "The Tyranny of Equality", (2015) argues that what "matters to the egalitarian is not that everyone has better health or Education, but that everyone has the same. That is why they must eliminate the market, because if they tolerate it, the egalitarian standard they seek is not met (...) Reliance on the arbitrary use of political and legislative power to impose a supposedly egalitarian collective will on society as a whole violates citizens' rights and freedoms".

Can envy be cured? Envy is usually diminished by accepting that what others possess (what I lack) will not make me happy; it is preferable to value more what I do possess. Also financial aid pity the envious, because he suffers more than the envied. The envious can be comforted by a wise sentence of Jackson Brown: "Envy is the homage that mediocrity pays to talent". Against envy (one's own and others') charity.