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The Origins of Envy

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Our egalitarian feelings were forged in the Stone Age. But the cave man ethos is not always appropriate in the context of the modern world.

Man will become better when you show him what he is like. — Anton Chekhov.

They’re the 99 percent. They have a set of demands as clear as the streets they occupy. They’ll hold a vigil for Steve Jobs, throw pies at Bill Gates, and may just vote reflexively for someone who has come to represent much of what they claim to loathe. But what underlies their demands? What really motivates the Occupiers? Is it injustice? Perhaps. Maybe it’s an idea of injustice wrapped around something they just can’t put their fingers on. Something deeper.

Consider this scene:

The guy is wearing Hugo Boss. His Mercedes S-class is parked in front of a restaurant you can’t afford. Remember that pair of boxer-briefs you just bought at Target? He’s the guy on the package. And on his way to open the car door for the best-looking woman you’ve ever seen, Johnny Moneybags ignores the outstretched hand of a homeless guy. Between Johnny and Ms. Candypants, a lot of people will find something to dislike.

For many of us, the emotional response to this scene is not a decision. It’s a reflex. The bile duct secretes. If Johnny were to run his Mercedes into a hydrant, launch the airbag, and spill latte all over his soft leather interior, we’d feel better somehow. In the fairer sex, Johnny may inspire other emotions. Still, female readers may want to see Ms. Candypants and her Coach handbag covered in Johnny’s latte. This emotion can be so strong for some that they would rather see the couple be ugly and broke than trade places with them.

It’s not hard to find examples of this very human emotion creeping into other aspects of life. It can leech into our conscious thoughts, even masquerade as morality.

The evolutionary question is always: Does your strategy allow you to pass along your genetic material in a certain milieu? (As opposed to: Does my strategy make me a good person?)

Economist David Henderson recalls a time in his childhood when he shared his father's deep resentment of people who had more than his family: “And given that about half the families in Canada had an income higher than ours, I had a lot of resentment. I adopted, subconsciously at least, my father's view that those with much more than us had come by it dishonestly. I had no evidence, of course. Sure, I had a few stories about wealthy people who had taken advantage of others, but I had no basis for my grudge against the millions of people I resented. Because I couldn't have some of the material possessions other kids had, I felt left out, and that was enough.”

Henderson is not alone. He recounts meeting Will Herberg at a conference in 1969. Herberg had been a prominent American communist in the 1930s and ’40s, but later became a strong anticommunist. Henderson asked Herberg how he came to be a Marxist in the first place.

“Immediately, his eyes lit up,” Henderson recalls. “He told us of his intense resentment of the fact that he was smart and had nothing, while they were dumb and had a lot. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is how I became a Marxist. I hated the rich.’”

The liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias channels his inner egalitarian when he admits he thinks “the world would be a better place if Americans were less polite about the obscenity of super-wealth in terms of individual morality. Rich people who don’t want to have their funds taxed away ought to be shamed into showing they’re able to use individual ethical action to help ameliorate serious local and global problems.” Yglesias will be neither the first nor the last to wrap this inborn indignation in a moral-political mantle. And Charles Dickens made quite a good living spinning tales of villainy out of the cognitive dissonance created by the contrasts of the Industrial Revolution. Even some super-wealthy people like Warren Buffett say “tax me more.” Guilt is the other side of the egalitarian coin, as we’ll see.

The ‘Envy Gene’

Those who’ve never felt such emotions of envy may belong to a rare breed that simply lacks the gene. The inimitable H. L. Mencken insists:

My distaste for democracy as a political theory is, like every other human prejudice, due to an inner lack—to a defect that is a good deal less in the theory than in myself. In this case it is very probably my incapacity for envy. That emotion, or weakness, or whatever you choose to call it, is quite absent from my make-up; where it ought to be there is a vacuum. In the face of another man’s good fortune I am as inert as a curb broker before Johann Sebastian Bach.

Mencken is at least cooler than most of us. And although he was a heathen, many Christians would consider Mencken a saint in this department. Envy, after all, is a deadly sin to many. Aquinas said, "Envy according to the aspect of its object is contrary to charity, whence the soul derives its spiritual life... Charity rejoices in our neighbor's good, while envy grieves over it." That should have given ole Mencken a couple of cosmic points, at least.

Members of the group are a lot less likely to slack off if they can keep an eye on each other.

In an important way, though, envy is beyond good and evil. It is a link in the nexus of egalitarian feelings that originate in our DNA. Evolutionary fires forged these feelings over millions of years. For most of those years, after all, our forebears were grubbing around in the bushes trying to survive on a never-ending camping trip without marshmallows or coolers. So our brains evolved to survive not in climate-controlled shopping centers, but within kinship groups in unforgiving wilds. You needed your clan and your clan needed you.

Thus, the feelings that go along with that tribal interdependency—including envy—are “hardwired.” And we’ve not had enough time in civilization to rewire them. “Natural selection, the process that designed our brain,” write Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, “takes a long time to design a circuit of any complexity. The time it takes to build circuits that are suited to a given environment is so slow it is hard to even imagine—it’s like a stone being sculpted by wind-blown sand. Even relatively simple changes can take tens of thousands of years.”


Max Krasnow, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, explains that egalitarian emotions made good sense for our forebears. I contacted him at his office in Southern California to get a better idea about the origins of our envy.

“Under a loose meaning of the term ‘hardwired,’ all emotions are hardwired by evolution,” Krasnow explains from his office in Santa Barbara. “We have the particular constellation of emotions we have because of our evolutionary history. Dung beetles go gaga for feces, but we generally have the opposite reaction.” Krasnow goes on to explain that evolution is the only way for any emotion to exist at all. But that’s not to say our emotions are not malleable. “We apply them in all kinds of strange ways,” says Krasnow. “For example, we direct parental emotions toward our pets, which are highly unlikely to be their usual adaptive targets.”

Krasnow defines an emotion as “the coordinated response of diverse psychological and physiological systems to a class of stimuli.” This is a fancy way of saying that your mind and brain react to things in the world around you. But neither your mind nor brain has any way of learning the right responses from scratch—for example, when responding to inequality of resources in various contexts. As Krasnow and his mentors Cosmides and Tooby explain, there’s no way for our onboard cognitive systems to learn the associations necessary to produce an emotional response in the “right” circumstances. We have to deal with a kernel of emotion pre-built into the system. For example, snake-like shapes in our visual field trigger a neural response that goes straight to our limbic system. This response bypasses object recognition processes and activates the sympathetic nervous system so as to mobilize the body. That is: you start, jump, and dash before you have a chance to reflect. Most of our emotional propensities come from similar innate kernels. “A kernel may be elaborated upon or modified throughout one’s life,” Krasnow adds.

The range of egalitarian emotions we’re focused on here relate to a class of stimuli we might call who has what and how much. Let’s travel a little further into our human past and see what we can find out.

The Stone Age Trinity

There are three primary egalitarian emotions—envy, guilt, and indignation. I call these the “Stone Age Trinity.” These three are connected as facets of the same socio-biological function. To get a better sense of this connection, let’s break them1 down as follows:

•    If in comparing myself to you I find you have more, I may feel envy.

•    If in comparing myself to you I find you have less, I may feel guilt.

•    If in comparing someone to you I find you have more, I may feel indignation.

For Paleolithic Man, this was not just some errant feeling. It provided the basis for survival logic in a mostly zero-sum world. That logic worked for a time and place in which survival depended on sharing and close cooperation. Og’s story will help us unpack this idea.

Evolution, far from being a source of moral content, doesn’t really give us moral imperatives at all.

Og lives in a small group of hunter-gatherers on the steppe. He is a hunter. His sister Igg is a gatherer and her two girls go with grandmother to fetch water. Og ventures out frequently with two other men in his tribe, Zog and Drog, to track food. It’s usually guinea fowl, but they find wild boar on occasion. Og, Zog, and Drog are pretty equally matched as hunters. Though Og is a little better at throwing spears, Zog and Drog are faster runners. Together, they are a formidable team out on the hunt. Depending on what sort of animals they’re tracking, it sometimes makes sense to work closely as a team. Other times, it makes more sense for each to go out and hunt alone so as to cover more territory.

In the short term, Og could benefit from killing and hoarding some food. Likewise, Igg could pluck and eat her way to a gatherer’s feast of berries. Luckily, both have inherited the Stone Age Trinity. Over time, each is better off if both share what they hunted or gathered. Nuts, berries, and grubs provide certain kinds of nutrients, such as vitamins and carbohydrates. Meat provides iron, fat, and protein. (And nothing hoarded has a very good shelf life.) When both parties share, each gets a more balanced diet. If any individual member were to hoard, the relationship in the tribe would begin to break down—cutting off the benefit stream of cooperation. Tomorrow’s hunting partners might be undernourished. Mothers may have difficulty providing fat for growing babies. Persistent malnutrition and lack of social cohesion in the harsh environment of the steppe meant certain death. By evolutionary logic, individuals disposed to share and cooperate lived to pass along their “selfless” genes. In other words, because Og feels guilt, envy, and indignation, he has increased the odds that he will pass his genes along to the next generation.

A critical mass of individuals lacking the Stone Age Trinity within a group meant that group did not live through the winter. With group members dividing labor and sharing the proceeds, survival was possible. But this “logic” was not developed through deliberation. It is a dynamic of emotions originating in genes that were selected due to environmental pressures.

Krasnow sums up the whys rather tidily:

In an environment where resource acquisition involved a great deal of luck, and where individuals had to buffer this uncertainty by sharing when they were lucky, that would mean that, at least in some circumstances, those in need would feel entitled to the production of others, and others would feel guilty for not giving it to them. From the evolutionary standpoint, individuals who had such emotional adaptations would maintain a more steady flow of resources (and thus survive to reproduce) than would those who didn’t.

In The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley argues that aspects of Og’s story can be seen in tribal societies today: “Private property or communal ownership by a small group is a logical response to a potential tragedy of the commons, but it is not an instinctive one. Instead, there is a human instinct, clearly expressed in hunter-gatherers, but present also in modern society, that protests any sort of hoarding. Hoarding is taboo; sharing is mandatory.”

In most situations there were diminishing returns for hoarding resources. For example, the benefit of going from no fruit to one fruit was bigger than the benefit of going from 100 fruits to 101 fruits. So those more in need would value any hoarded resources more highly than the hoarder. If you (the needy person) could inflict harm through violence, in some circumstances, it would pay for you to try to take the resource from the hoarder (especially if the alternative was starvation). Strangely, it often made sense for the hoarder to tolerate it. After all, the cost of violence is usually greater than the benefit of keeping the extra fruit. In the academic literature, this is referred to as “tolerated theft” and describes a lot of food transfers among diverse animal species, including our forebears. (Could this help explain some of the attitudes towards higher taxation by wealthy elites?)

Finally, we suggest Og survived in a place where there were more opportunities to benefit when he worked with others. There was also a limit to the number of high-benefit opportunities Og could capitalize on by himself. So, individuals like Og might also have competed for access to the best cooperation partners. For those in the know, this is referred to as competitive altruism.

As a commune grows, free-rider problems infect the labor pool.

“Individuals broadcast their quality as a cooperative partner by means of good acts meant to signal good intentions,” Krasnow explains. “Many egalitarian motives could be a product of this signaling competition, as well: He thinks he’s a good person because he cares about the poor. Well, guess what? I care about the poor and the rainforests too!” Reporter John Cloud describes the phenomenon in Time:

Evolutionary psychologists have a cynical term for cooperative, procommunity behaviors like buying a Prius or shopping at Whole Foods or carrying a public-radio tote bag: competitive altruism. Cynical, but accurate. As several studies (like this one) have shown, altruistic people achieve higher status, and are much more likely to behave altruistically in situations where their actions are public than when they will go unnoticed. Competitive altruism explains why soldiers jump onto grenades during war (their clans will reap the rewards) and why vain CEOs build hospital wings (they enjoy the social renown that they could never acquire from closing another big deal). In many hunter-gatherer societies, including some Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest, prominent families have staged elaborate ceremonies in which they compete to give away possessions.

This reminds me of Warren Buffett’s rather public displays of philanthropy (not to mention sanctimony about higher taxes).

Inequality, Irrationality, and the Ultimatum Game

It’s one thing for evolutionary psychologists to theorize about the origins of the Stone Age Trinity. And even if we agree we inherited this cluster of emotions from our ancestors, who is to say these emotions are appropriate or inappropriate in the context of modern society? To get some idea, I asked an experimental economist.

Chapman University’s Bart Wilson studied under Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith, who is considered a founding father of this relatively new subdiscipline, which combines economics with observation in controlled settings. Wilson gets to use his students as guinea pigs for many of his experiments. These usually involve computer simulations and cash prizes. But with some experiments, Wilson doesn’t even need a computer.

“What we find from running experiments on fairness in the laboratory is that our notion of it varies pretty substantially depending on the circumstances,” Wilson explains. “People are very sensitive to the social context in which they’re making their decisions.”

One classic experiment is the Ultimatum Game, variations of which Wilson runs on college kids using beer money. This simple experiment involves only two participants, the Proposer and the Responder, who are chosen at random. The “game” mechanics are simple. The Proposer gets a certain amount of money, say $10. He or she can offer the Responder as much of it as she likes. If the Responder accepts the offer, then the Proposer has benefitted by whatever’s left over. If the Responder rejects the offer, both get zero. Either way, the game is over. If we’re being “rational” in economic terms, anything is better than zero. A robot programmed to accept any benefit will choose even $1 over zero dollars. Not people. The amounts vary, but most Responders will usually not accept an offer of less than $3 out of a Proposer’s $10. Somehow it offends their sense of fairness.

The idea of rewarding good performance in the clan group does have its own logic. It would mean communal living with performance bonuses. And that means inequality.

In a variation of the Ultimatum game called the Dictator game, the Proposer can’t lose all the money. If the Responder rejects the amount offered, the Proposer keeps it all. If the Responder takes what’s offered, the Proposer keeps the rest. Predictably, the Proposer makes smaller offers because he has no fear of losing the money. Still, Proposers often worry about getting a reputation for being stingy. So the offers are usually more generous than they need to be, perhaps in case the tables are ever turned. And in the “double blind” version—in which all the Proposers are anonymous—people are exceptionally stingy.

But things got really interesting when Bart Wilson put a meritocratic spin on these classic Ultimatum Games.

“If you just bring people in and randomly assign them to be the Proposers and the Responders, the modal offer is about half the pot—$5.00. But if you first bring in people and give them a quiz—and the people who score best on the quiz get to be the Proposers—the offers are much lower and they’re accepted. The rejection rates don’t go up. All of a sudden what’s “fair” now is different. The modal offer is shifted down. ‘Fairness’ is still involved, but it’s not about equity anymore.”

It’s about fair play.

In this situation, Responders were far likelier to accept lower offers than in the first version because of some concept of desert. Knowledge that a Proposer came to be such due to his or her performance usually muted the Responder’s sense of being entitled to an equal portion. Wilson found the Responders seem to respect the outcome a lot more than in cases where the money is not associated with the participants’ relative performance. I cannot say whether this more meritocratic response is mostly inborn or learned. But the idea of rewarding good performance in the clan group does have its own logic. It would mean communal living with performance bonuses. And that means inequality.

“Fairness means a lot more than equity,” finds Bart Wilson, “It’s also about the rules of the game.”

Invisible Bands

Sharing among members of communal groups is known in the academic literature as “reciprocal altruism.” Interestingly, the very idea of reciprocal altruism has some built in Adam-Smith-like aspects. More to the point: altruism is one thing. Reciprocity is quite another. You might be willing to make a sacrifice now, but only if others in the group are willing to make them later. That is why we might prefer the term “delayed trade” or “slow trade.” The system only works if most of the folks are willing to return favors and contribute their part.

Although in these systems the benefit to oneself may be on a giver’s terms, the arrangement works pretty well in a small group of specializers. Fleet-footed stalkers, hawk-eyed gatherers, agile spearmen, gifted diviners—all bring their abilities to the whole cooperation project. You might say that it is not from the benevolence of the hunter, the gatherer, or the diviner, that we expect our dinners, but from their regard to their long-term interest. Adam Smith would have been proud.

I realize this may not sit well with those who have apotheosized the Stone Age Trinity. But as Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate, “the real alternative to romantic collectivism is not “right-wing libertarianism” but a recognition that social generosity comes from a complex suite of thoughts and emotions rooted in the logic of reciprocity.”

Before turning to other matters, we should point out a complication. The Stone Age Trinity doesn’t show up in every caveman with the same intensity. It shows up by degrees from one caveman to the next. So in whatever population we’re talking about, we are likely to find a mixture of dispositions, just as we find a mixture of abilities, aptitudes, looks, and other characteristics. And such a mixture creates its own dynamic.

“One exception to the rule that selection reduces variability arises when the best strategy depends on what other organisms are doing,” notes Pinker. “The child’s game of scissors-rock-paper is one analogy, and another may be found in the decision of which route to take to work.” In evolution, “frequency-dependent selection can produce temporary or permanent mixtures of strategies.” Over time, whether the strategy is unitary or a mixed set, a period of stability eventually follows. It’s no wonder then that we find a mixture of dispositions today, which could go very far indeed towards explaining differences in political orientation, party affiliations, and other moralistic tribes.

So evolution, far from being a source of moral content, doesn’t really give us moral imperatives at all. It gives us different people with different dispositions. So it’s not that people who express the Stone Age Trinity are enlightened and those who think hoarding is okay are benighted (or vice versa). It is rather that some strategy—or set of strategies—worked in some environments of the past. Otherwise evolution is as indifferent to morality and politics as a deck of cards is to poker players. The evolutionary question is always: Does your strategy allow you to pass along your genetic material in a certain milieu? (As opposed to: Does my strategy make me a good person?)

Hutterites, Shirking, and Scale

The system only works if most of the folks are willing to return favors and contribute their part.

Let’s suppose that, based on the application of some slow-trade strategy, your small group is successful. What if, over time, the strategy starts to make your group a victim of its own success? What if, as your numbers grow, cooperation falters and your group strains available resources?

In his landmark book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell picks up on the question of scale by looking at a religious people who still live largely according to a slow trade ethos:

The Hutterites (who came out of the same tradition as the Amish and the Mennonites) have a strict policy that every time a colony approaches 150, they split it in two and start a new one. “Keeping things under 150 just seems to be the best and most efficient way to manage a group of people,” Bill Gross, one of the leaders of a Hutterite colony outside Spokane told me. “When things get larger than that, people become strangers to one another.” The Hutterites, obviously, didn’t get this idea from contemporary evolutionary psychology. They’ve been following the 150 rule for centuries. … At 150, the Hutterites believe something happens—something indefinable but very real—that somehow changes the nature of community overnight.

Some observers have compared the splitting of Hutterite colonies to cell mitosis.2

Nearly 30 years before Gladwell shared his insights on Hutterites, two colleagues were looking at the political economy of Hutterite communes in Montana.

Richard Stroup and John Baden—an economist and a political scientist, respectively—found the group to be an exemplar of small group dynamics. Writing in the Spring 1972 edition of the journal Public Choice, Stroup and Baden conclude that: “In a relatively small colony, the proportional contribution of each member is greater. Likewise, surveillance of him by each of the others is more complete and an informal accounting of contribution is feasible. In a colony, there are no elaborate systems of formal controls over a person’s contribution. Thus, in general, the incentive and surveillance structures of a small or medium-size colony are more effective than those of a large colony and shirking is lessened.” A less sophisticated way of putting all this is: members of the group are a lot less likely to slack off if they can keep an eye on each other.

Hutterite colonies offer clues about the dynamics Paleolithic peoples had to face. Clans and other communal groups reach a critical mass not only because it’s difficult to account for each member’s contribution beyond a certain size, but because slow trade becomes more and more impersonal—“strangers” as Gladwell puts it. So even if we’re evolved to cooperate in small groups, information flows and feedback loops get disrupted in larger ones.

Stroup and Baden’s work reveals something pretty important: communism works—but only if the commune is small. As a commune grows, free-rider problems infect the labor pool. The commune becomes a “paradise for parasites.”3 These inefficiencies cause breakdown in the colony. Among peoples for whom failure means famine, ensuring the colony doesn’t get too big literally becomes a rule to live by. After all, slow-trade yields pretty slim margins of benefit. As the group grows, these margins get slimmer. The group has to change or die.

Interestingly, a group very similar to the Hutterites chose a different path in the early 1600s. They did something rather taboo. They institutionalized hoarding:

All this whille no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expecte any. So they begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length, after much debate of things, the Govr (with ye advise of ye cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to themselves . . . . And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end, only for present use (but made no devission for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some familie. This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means ye Govr or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into ye feild, and tooke their little-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.

These are the words of William Bradford, Governor of the original Pilgrim colony in Massachusetts. As more pilgrims arrived and the colony grew, Bradford opted for a change in the rules (the institution of private property) over dividing the colony. When it comes to group dynamics, then, the Hutterite and Pilgrim experiences show that success (growth) can only be managed by changes to the internal rules of organization. In order to get from small colonies to large-scale civilization, you have to adopt new institutions.

Much of history is a story about changes in the rules. And these rule changes can sometimes insult our more clannish instincts. As with other Stone Age kernels like sex and violence, having civilization means we sometimes have to check our emotions. Attitudes about property, hoarding, and exchange come to mind. People will start to engage in more direct trade, and they’ll start to specialize more.4 Add currency and a system of prices to the mix and things really start to take off. In the language of complexity, we undergo a series of “phase transitions.” But contrary to the forces of the Stone Age Trinity, when those transitions happen, inequality is a foregone conclusion.

Cave Man Ethics Today

If any individual member were to hoard, the relationship in the tribe would begin to break down—cutting off the benefit stream of cooperation.

What can we conclude from this handful of insights about the Stone Age Trinity?

First, the rules, mores, and dispositions ideal for living in civilizations could be very different from the rules, mores, and dispositions for surviving in Paleolithic clans.

Second, if our ancestors spent 99 percent of their species history out on the African steppe or foraging near caves, they did not spend very much time in large-scale civilizations or even small city-states. That means our species has not had time to evolve all the dispositions that might have made us better suited to civilization.

And finally, acknowledging our Paleolithic brains may help us take a more detached view of the Stone Age Trinity. We can start to look at wealth disparities not so much through the lens of guilt, envy, or indignation, but through the lens of function, form, and fair play. When we do, ethical systems designed to redirect some of our baser instincts will emerge. We may even do well to listen to curmudgeons like H.L. Mencken, who claimed that “the fact that John D. Rockefeller had more money than I have is as uninteresting to me as the fact that he believed in total immersion and wore detachable cuffs.” Entertaining counterintuitive ideas such as those offered by bourgeois economists couldn’t hurt, either.

Let’s pause briefly to think about the phrase “better suited” in the second point above. Interestingly, “better suited” has no evolutionary content. That we are alive is enough for any evolutionary criterion, as the process is relentlessly binary. Either you live to pass on your genes or you die trying. Better suited means that in some world we might have evolved stronger dispositions towards life in crowded civilization, such as a stronger disposition to be peaceful, greater toleration for others who are not like us, appreciation of differences in ability, and any of the other Western “bourgeois virtues.”5 And yet, we are flexible and smart enough as a species to work on these.

When the Stone Age Trinity Is Out of Place

In both the Paleolithic context and in the modern context, inequality can indicate an overall benefit to a group. Sometimes, for example, it benefits everyone to reward high performers. Such is the paradox of prosperity. I won’t try to convince you here that accepting the paradox of prosperity should lead us to celebrate wealth disparity. My goal is merely to convince you that it is at least possible that our egalitarian feelings are not always appropriate in the context of the modern world. Because in doing so, I think we can go very far towards isolating the critical difference between concern for the poor and antipathy for the rich.

While nature can lead any one of us to become an individual moralizer about inequality, it does not reveal—in any universal sense—how much inequality should be tolerated in society at large. In other words, there is no great survey in the sky. In fact, nature reveals no moral-political truths at all. Nature just is. Sometimes it makes us “red in tooth and claw.” Other times it makes us better cooperators. Still other times it just gets in the way of progress.

Mother Nature’s lack of direction has led brilliant philosophers like John Rawls and Immanuel Kant to spin elegant theories that originate in something other than our DNA. Others, like Sam Harris and Jeremy Bentham, look for moral truth in human nature itself. And yet both of these approaches come up short. Why? Because we can no more escape our emotional “kernels” than we can ground morality in them.

This emotion can be so strong for some that they would rather see the couple be ugly and broke than trade places with them.

So, maybe those unlikely bedfellows Mencken and Aquinas are on to something. Our inborn cave man ethos is not always appropriate in the context of the modern world. We sometimes have to put it in check, albeit with the clumsiness one might expect from hunter-gatherers living in suburbia.

Economist Bryan Caplan argues, for example, that “‘Hardwired’ 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.”

Steven Pinker says the “science of the moral sense also alerts us to ways in which our psychological makeup can get in the way of our arriving at the most defensible moral conclusions. The moral sense, we are learning, is as vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status, and conformity. It tends to reframe practical problems as moral crusades and thus see their solution in punitive aggression. It imposes taboos that make certain ideas indiscussible. And it has the nasty habit of always putting the self on the side of the angels.”

Any human emotion can become destructive by degree. Economist Young Back Choi thinks that envy is particularly destructive because it “is man's desire to eliminate others' relative gains even if he would become absolutely worse off in the process.” We see this in the original Ultimatum game. And we see it in the brutal consequences of Stalin and Mao. "Because a certain degree of selfless behavior is essential to the smooth performance of any human group,” writes Natalie Angier in The New York Times, “selflessness run amok can crop up in political contexts. It fosters the exhilarating sensation of righteous indignation, the belief in the purity of your team and your cause and the perfidiousness of all competing teams and causes."

Understood this way, envy, despite its evolutionary rationale, does not seem very sane. Perhaps we should hope that any given person is likely to be a little better off over time, even if some are a lot better off (even if this goes against the emotional grain). Alas, a positive-sum orientation is neither a feature of the egalitarian ethos, nor any politics of envy. And this is just one aspect of the trouble with the Stone Age Trinity as it gets institutionalized. “Envy is appeased only at equality, regardless of the absolute level of consumption,” adds Choi. “’Only those societies that have been able to develop sufficient means to mitigate the destructive forces of envy have been able to build civilizations and prosper. Anthropologists have documented that two of the most distinguishing features of poor societies are the relative free expression of envy and the universal fear of envy on the part of those who come to have above-average gains.”

Envy can creep into both our politics and our personal lives. So also can envy’s sister emotions, guilt and indignation. All three are facets of a brain that was sculpted by millennia in a mostly zero-sum environment. But now we can live in a positive-sum world.

Max Borders is a 2011-12 Robert Novak fellow. He is writing a book on the gap between rich and poor.

FURTHER READING: Arnold Kling writes “Prosperity, Depression, and Progress.” Jay Richards comments on “The Immateriality of Wealth.” Daniel Ben-Ami advocates for progress in “Let It Grow, Let It Grow, Let It Grow.” Alan D. Viard asks “Do Taxes Narrow the Wealth Gap?.” Michael Barone explains “Voters Want Growth, not Income Redistribution,” and AEI President Arthur C. Brooks contends “The Value of Free Enterprise has Nothing to do With Money or Wealth.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group


1. A more nuanced version of this to a scientist like Max Krasnow might be something like: “I feel envy when you have more than me AND my mechanisms perceive that I can cheaply take some of it from you. But I may not feel envy when you have more than I and my internal mechanisms suggest that there is nothing I can do about it.”

2. Eliot Sober and David Sloan Wilson have a tidy description of splitting process: “Like a honey bee colony, Hutterite brotherhoods split when they attain a large size, with one half remaining in the original site and the other half moving to a new site that has been preselected and prepared. In preparation for the split, the colony is divided into two groups that are equal with respect to number, age, skills and personal compatibility. The entire colony packs its belongings and one of the lists is drawn by lottery on the day of the split. The similarity to the genetic rules of meiosis could hardly be more complete.” So why do Hutterite colonies split?

3. The former member of a kibbutz is quoted here.

4. This is a grossly simplified version of institutional economics. For a much richer and more detailed treatment, see the work of Douglass North, e.g. Structure and Change in Economic History, New York, 1981. The emphasis on changing the institutional rules rooted in Coasean “transaction costs” is the thrust of my argument here, while North’s microeconomic lens for viewing history goes much deeper in its explanatory power.


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