All Commentary
Friday, January 1, 1971

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1971/1

The more orthodox way of at­tempting to refute a socialist, or any kind of collectivist, is to ap­peal to his latent sense of rational­ity. Since every individual is dif­ferent, equality—as distinct from legal equity—cannot be legislated. The attempt to do so suppresses the innovative spirit in a society, and everyone is the poorer for it. If you can get a socialist to admit this, you have him where you want him. He will be compelled to sup­port some adaptation of the com­petitive principle in order to square his thinking with a sense of reality.

Unfortunately, the world is full of people who are not in the least concerned with creating a socialist order for idealistic reasons, how­ever misguided the reasons may be. These people aren’t looking for a progressive society of any type. What they want to do is to pull front-runners down, to penalize excellence, to make everybody the same, for reasons that are ground­ed in emotion. They are the envi­ous ones who cannot stand to see anybody move out of the ruck. They are impervious to the logic that must ultimately tell any sens­ible person that it is the division of labor that supports our huge modern populations, the envious and the unenvious alike. This is the mentality dissected by Helmut Schoeck (Envy, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, $7.50).

Curiously enough, the term “en­vy” is hardly mentioned by any of our big-name contemporary sociol­ogists or political philosophers. There are plenty of economists who are prepared to refute social­ism by recourse to the rational appeal. One even finds them behind the Iron Curtain—or one did be­fore the Czechoslovak crisis re­sulted in the suppression of the Ota Siks who were trying to re­validate market principles in the sluggish Eastern societies. But there seems to have been a con­spiracy of silence about the sub­ject of envy.

In combing over the literature on social change, Professor Hel­mut Schoeck, who taught at Em­ory University in Atlanta before returning to Europe to take a chair of sociology at the Univer­sity of Mainz, discovered that only one modern writer, a French­man named Eugene Raiga, had ever devoted a single book to the role of envy in stirring social and political disturbances. Against this meager showing there have been hundreds of writers from R. H. Tawney to Michael Harrington who have rung the changes on the alleged sin of acquisitiveness. In­deed, it has been considered far more wicked to provoke envy than it has been to break the command­ment that says, “Thou shalt not covet.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used to twit his friend, Harold Laski, about the “passion for equality,” which seemed to him a dissembling way of “ideal­izing envy.” Significantly, Laski, though he was the most rhetori­cally gifted of the British Labor Party’s publicists, avoided answer­ing Holmes’s pointed remarks. If he had tried to do so he would have inevitably called attention to the ugliest side of the socialist movement.

Aside from Eugene Raiga and a few novels such as L. P. Hartley’s Facial Justice one has to go back to the nineteenth century to find any extensive commentary on envy as perhaps the chief destructive element in society. The philoso­phers, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierke­gaard, Nietzsche, all had some­thing to say on what they consid­ered one of the more important, if reprehensible, human drives. Adam Smith spoke of the need for laws to keep property from being in­vaded and destroyed by the envi­ous. Herman Melville, in Billy Budd, dramatized the envious man as the embodiment of evil, and Eu­gene Sue’s Frederick Bastien: Envy dealt with the subject almost clinically in fiction that foreshad­owed modern psychoanalysis. And the ancients and the relatively an­cient, from Aristotle to Chaucer and Francis Bacon, were not afraid to speak against the envi­ous man.

Professor Schoeck thinks that modern social and political theor­ists have repressed the concept of envy out of sheer embarrassment. The whole surge of our modern society has been toward “socializ­ing” the economy, and if one were to admit that the movement has been in response to resentful and evil men, it would create a most unpleasant and painful state of affairs. The iniquitous secret of socialism is that it leads, in its more extreme manifestations, to a world without sociability or so­ciableness. With Leftist theoreti­cians taking over so many of the media and so many of our univer­sity chairs, it is hardly likely that we will get much dispassionate treatment of the subject of envy. What we do get is a literature of circumlocutions. The writers speak of “conflict,” which is a matter of overt behavior. Envy is a silent, secretive process that can be hid­den behind protestations of ideal­istic concern for equality. Since it is silent (nobody likes to admit it), our writers don’t have to pull it out of the closet. But Professor Schoeck surmises that the failure to identify envy for what it is has had much to do with the maso­chism of our younger generation, many of whom feel guilty because their parents have money, or be­cause the nations of the West are more prosperous than those of the “third world.” The positive and energizing values of capitalist so­ciety are lost sight of simply be­cause we no longer tolerate any discussion of envy and covetous­ness as being among the more sterile human attributes.

Professor Schoeck is willing to concede the high-mindedness of some socialist theorists. But he has recourse to anthropology to prove that envy remains a constant in society, no matter what the prin­ciple of organization. In primitive collectivisms the envious man con­centrates on little things. The Siri­ono Indians of Bolivia denounce the hoarding of food. But although they conform outwardly to collec­tivist norms, the individual Siri­ono hunter will hide his catch out­side the camp. After nightfall he will return, possibly with his wife, to the hiding place for a lonely feast. It is part of the myth of a “golden age” to suppose that pre­historic communities were joyful utopias where everyone shared and nobody envied anybody else.

The possibility of creating a collectivist society without envy founders on the necessity of giv­ing somebody the power to main­tain order. Naturally, power of any kind provokes envy among those who do not have it. It is no accident that the Russians haven’t been able to create an equal soci­ety; if they had, it would have re­sulted in a situation in which no­body would do the less congenial work. To get production out of the poor slobs in the “classless” soci­ety, the Soviet managers have had to establish a 40:1 differential be­tween maximum and minimum in­comes. In Western countries, where the urge to utopianism hasn’t yet killed the market econ­omy, the ratio is more like 10:1.

Even the Israeli kibbutz has proved disappointing to those who hoped that communal life could be a life without envies and resent­ments. To exist at all, the kib­butzim have had to make use of the products, the technology, and the achievements of individualistic societies. They have succeeded to some extent, but at the cost of producing a younger generation that is obsessed with the fear of showing signs of individual su­periority. The individual who ex­ercises a poetic gift feels guilty, and it is judged an offense to do intellectual work when physical labor is demanded.

Professor Schoeck, recognizing human nature for what it is, doesn’t expect to do away with en­vy anywhere. But the time has come, he says, for a “hardening towards exaggerated sensitivity to envy.” It makes no sense for us to behave “as though the envious man was the main criterion for eco­nomic and social policy.” We should treat the envious man for what he is, a person who wants to pull others down without bother­ing to expand his own capacity for excellence.

Youth, University and Democracy, by Gottfried Dietze (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970), 117 pp., $6.50.

Reviewed by George C. Roche III

It has become commonplace to criticize the modern university, its faculty, and students. The sig­nificance of Professor Dietze’s latest work is that he goes far be­yond such criticism.

Not that he approves of the present academic community:

Laziness, vanity, and arrogance, the seeking of and corruption through power, the elimination of excellence, the negation of the search for the truth, devious pursuits of material things, intellectual sacrifices, and the absence of freedom—all can be found in modern universities.

Sympathetic to youth and its problems, Dietze feels that the young people living in what he calls “the liberal-democratic era” have sufficient uncertainty and in­security to face without the fur­ther uncertainty and insecurity likely to result from contacts with the modern university. From that point on, however, he parts com­pany with protesting students, em­phasizing that today’s protesters tend to favor those courses of ac­tion most detrimental to genuine education.

In Professor Dietze’s analysis, both university failures and stu­dent failures are traceable to a single cause—the politicalization of the university, a direct result of mass democracy and the accept­ance of the welfare state:

The present breakdown of law and order, usually reflected in crimes against property rights, is in a large measure the natural consequence of so-called social legislation. Individual citizens cannot be expected to respect property rights if the government has consistently disregarded these rights and destroyed public trust and all sense of obligation.

Today’s students have grown up in this atmosphere. Rioters are the children the welfare state has re­leased.

When rioting students protest against the “Establishment,” they apparently do not realize that they themselves are a product of that Establishment:

… the student diagnosis of pres­ent societies is a quack diagnosis, for establishments are not sick be­cause they are insufficiently demo­cratic, socialist, egalitarian, etc., but for the very opposite reason—name­ly, because they have gone too far to the left. Student aims, therefore, are likely to increase the illness of so­ciety rather than to heal it, just as a doctor who makes a wrong diag­nosis and applies the wrong therapy is likely to worsen his patient’s con­dition. Rioting students are outcasts of the establishment only on the surface. On closer inspection, they are its products. Student rioters are outcasts of the establishment only insofar as the establishment has re­mained healthy. Insofar as it has become sick, they are representative of it. They are the poison produced by the infections of the body politic, out to destroy that body.

The author reminds us that this has all happened before, describ­ing the vulnerability of Weimar democracy:

Political factions fought it out in the Reichstag, in the streets, and in universities, which increasingly had become places for political debate and controversy. In the end, Hitler arose and… streamlined the uni­versities into his system.

Professor Dietze’s erudition in philosophy, history, law, and let­ters comes to bear on the subject of the university’s proper place in society. The ideal for the student, the scholar, and the university it­self comes alive as the reader be­gins to understand the meaning of a “community of scholars.”

Youth, University, and Democ­racy is filled with insights for stu­dent, teacher, and administrator. The book also makes clear to the rest of us that, for all the short­comings of today’s universities, we must be careful to distinguish between today’s politicalized cam­pus and the historic role of the university. Seen in that historic role, the university should be and can be a bulwark against the mob mentality:

… universities, developing along with constitutionalism, have pro­tected the freedom of the individual against authoritarian popes, kings, and popular demagogues, and [can] continue their libertarian mission in modern democracies. That mission implies maximal benefits for the community—including youth. For only free universities can serve truth, and only advancement toward the truth can satisfy the perennial quest of a traditionally confused, sad, and brave youth for clarity and bring about the kind of public good youthful idealism has always longed for.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.