All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 1972

On Appeasing Envy

Any attempt to equalize wealth or income by forced redistribution must only tend to destroy wealth and income. Historically the best the would be equalizers have ever succeeded in doing is to equalize downward. This has even been caustically described as their intention. “Your levellers,” said Samuel Johnson in the mid-eighteenth century, “wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear leveling up to themselves.” And in our own day we find even an eminent liberal like the late Mr. Justice Holmes writing: “I have no respect for the passion for equality, which seems to me merely idealizing envy.”1

Henry Hazlitt is well known to FREEMAN readers as author, columnist, editor, lecturer, and practitioner of freedom. This article will appear as a chapter in a forthcoming book, The Conquest of Poverty, to be published by Arlington House.

At least a handful of writers have begun to recognize explicitly the all-pervasive role played by envy or the fear of envy in life and in contemporary political thought. In 1966, Helmut Schoeck, professor of sociology at the University of Mainz, devoted a penetrating book to the subject.²

There can be little doubt that many egalitarians are motivated at least partly by envy, while still others are motivated, not so much by any envy of their own, as by the fear of it in others, and the wish to appease or satisfy it.

But the latter effort is bound to be futile. Almost no one is completely satisfied with his status in relation to his fellows. In the envious the thirst for social advancement is insatiable. As soon as they have risen one rung in the social or economic ladder, their eyes are fixed upon the next. They envy those who are higher up, no matter by how little. In fact, they are more likely to envy their immediate friends or neighbors, who are just a little bit better off, than celebrities or millionaires who are incomparably better off. The position of the latter seems unattainable, but of the neighbor who has just a minimal advantage they are tempted to think: “I might almost be in his place.”

The Urge to Deprive Others

Moreover, the envious are more likely to be mollified by seeing others deprived of some advantage than by gaining it for themselves. It is not what they lack that chiefly troubles them, but what others have. The envious are not satisfied with equality; they secretly yearn for superiority and revenge. In the French revolution of 1848, a woman coal-heaver is reported to have remarked to a richly dressed lady: “Yes, madam, everything’s going to be equal now; I shall go in silks and you’ll carry coal.”

Envy is implacable. Concessions merely whet its appetite for more concessions. As Schoeck writes: “Man’s envy is at its most intense where all are almost equal; his calls for redistribution are loudest when there is virtually nothing to redistribute.”³

(We should, of course, always distinguish that merely negative envy which begrudges others their advantage from the positive ambition that leads men to active emulation, competition, and creative effort of their own.)

But the accusation of envy, or even of the fear of others’ envy, as the dominant motive for any redistribution proposal, is a serious one to make and a difficult if not impossible one to prove. Moreover, the motives for making a proposal, even if ascertainable, are irrelevant to its inherent merits.

We can, nonetheless, apply certain objective tests. Sometimes the motive of appeasing other people’s envy is openly avowed. Socialists will often talk as if some form of superbly equalized destitution were preferable to “maldistributed” plenty. A national income that is rapidly growing in absolute terms for practically everyone will be deplored because it is making the rich richer. An implied and sometimes avowed principle of the British Labor Party leaders after World War II was that “Nobody should have what everybody can’t have.”

Equality, Yes; Abundance, No!

But the main objective test of a social proposal is not merely whether it emphasizes equality more than abundance, but whether it goes further and attempts to promote equality at the expense of abundance. Is the proposed measure intended primarily to help the poor, or to penalize the rich? And would it in fact punish the rich at the cost of also hurting everyone else?

This is the actual effect, as we saw earlier,4 of steeply progressive income taxes and confiscatory inheritance taxes. These are not only counterproductive fiscally (bringing in less revenue from the higher brackets than lower rates would have brought), but they discourage or confiscate the capital accumulation and investment that would have increased national productivity and real wages. Most of the confiscated funds are then dissipated by the government in current consumption expenditures. The long-run effect of such tax rates, of course, is to leave the working poor worse off than they would otherwise have been.

There are economists who will admit all this, but will answer that it is nonetheless politically necessary to impose such near confiscatory taxes, or to enact similar redistributive measures, in order to placate the dissatisfied and the envious — in order, even, to prevent actual revolution.

Appeasement Provokes Envy

This argument is the reverse of the truth. The effect of trying to appease envy is to provoke more of it.

The most popular theory of the French Revolution is that it came about because the economic condition of the masses was becoming worse and worse, while the king and the aristocracy remained completely blind to it. But Tocqueville, one of the most penetrating social observers and historians of his or any time, put forward an exactly opposite explanation. Let me state it first as summarized by an eminent French commentator in 1899:

Here is the theory invented by Tocqueville….

The lighter a yoke, the more it seems insupportable; what exasperates is not the crushing burden but the impediment; what inspires to revolt is not oppression but humiliation. The French of 1789 were incensed against the nobles because they were almost the equals of the nobles; it is the slight difference that can be appreciated, and what can be appreciated that counts. The eighteenth century middle class was rich, in a position to fill almost any employment, almost as powerful as the nobility. It was exasperated by this “almost” and stimulated by the proximity of its goal; impatience is always provoked by the final strides.5

I have quoted this passage because I do not find the theory stated in quite this condensed form by Tocqueville himself. Yet this is essentially the theme of his L’Ancien Regime et la Revolution, and he presented impressive factual documentation to support it.

As the prosperity which I have just described began to extend in France, the community nevertheless became more unsettled and uneasy; public discontent grew fierce; hatred against all established institutions increased. The nation was visibly advancing toward a revolution….

It might be said that the French found their position the more intolerable precisely where it had become better. Surprising as this fact is, history is full of such contradictions.

It is not always by going from bad to worse that a country falls into revolution. It happens most frequently that a people, which had supported the most crushing laws without complaint, and apparently as if they were unfelt, throws them off with violence as soon as the burden begins to be diminished. The state of things destroyed by a revolution is almost always somewhat better than that which immediately preceded it; and experience has shown that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually that when it enters upon the work of reform. Nothing short of great political genius can save a sovereign who undertakes to relieve his subjects after a long period of oppression. The evils which were endured with patience so long as they were inevitable seem intolerable as soon as a hope can be entertained of escaping from them. The abuses which are removed seem to lay bare those which remain, and to render the sense of them more acute; the evil has decreased, it is true, but the perception of the evil is more keen….

No one any longer contended in 1780 that France was in a state of decline; there seemed, on the contrary, to be just then no bounds to her progress. Then it was that the theory of the continual and indefinite perfectibility of man took its origin. Twenty years before nothing was to be hoped of the future: then nothing was to be feared. The imagination, grasping at this near and unheard of felicity, caused men to overlook the advantages they already possessed, and hurried them forward to something new.°

Aggravated by Sympathy

The expressions of sympathy that came from the privileged class itself only aggravated the situation:

The very men who had most to fear from the fury of the people declaimed loudly in their presence on the cruel injustice under which the people had always suffered. They pointed out to each other the monstrous vices of those institutions which had weighed most heavily upon the lower orders: they employed all their powers of rhetoric in depicting the miseries of the common people and their ill-paid labor; and thus they infuriated while they endeavored to relieve them.?

Tocqueville went on to quote at length from the mutual recriminations of the king, the nobles, and the parliament in blaming each other for the wrongs of the people. To read them now is to get the uncanny feeling that they are plagiarizing the rhetoric of the limousine liberals of our own day. All this does not mean that we should refrain from taking any measure truly calculated to relieve hardship and reduce poverty. What it does mean is that we should never take governmental measures merely for the purpose of trying to assuage the envious or appease the agitators, or to buy off a revolution. Such measures, betraying weakness and a guilty conscience, only lead to more far-reaching and even ruinous demands. A government that pays social blackmail will precipitate the very consequences that it fears.



1 The Correspondence of Mr. Justice Holmes and Harold J. Laski (ed. M. De Wolfe Howe, 2 vol. Cambridge, Mass., 1953). From Holmes to Laski, May 12, 1927, p. 942.

2 Helmut Schoeck, Envy (English translation, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969).

3 Ibid., p. 303.

4 “Should we Divide the Wealth?” in THE FREEMAN, February, 1972, p. 100,

5 Emile Faguet, Politicians and Moralists of the Nineteenth Century (Boston: Little, Brown; 1928), p. 93.

6 Alexis de Tocqueville, On the State of Society in France before the Revolution of 1789. (London: John Murray, 1856) pp. 321324. Also available as The Old Regime and the French Revolution in a Doubleday paperback.

 7 Ibid., pp. 329330.



The “Law of Sympathy”

But aid and sympathy must operate in the field of private and personal relationships under the regulation of reason and conscience. If men trust to the State to supply “reason and conscience,” they so deaden themselves that the “law of sympathy” ceases to operate anywhere. Men who shrug off their personal obligations become hard and unfeeling, and it is small wonder then that they are entirely willing to go along with hard and unfeeling politics. It is when he decides to “let the State do it” that the humanitarian ends up by condoning the use of the guillotine for the “betterment” of man.

FROM JOHN CHAMBERLAIN’S REVIEW OF SUMNER’S What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, September 1955 issue of Ideas on Liberty.

  • Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. See his complete bibliography. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.