The Outstater: ‘An Age of Envy’

December 10, 2012

(For the use of the membership only)

“The envious man thinks that if his neighbor breaks a leg, he will be able to walk better himself.” — Austrian folk saying

“Just saying . . .” This was an urban phrase for a few seasons. Its meaning evolved into an expression of willingness to think outside, around and through a problem, against the grain, to throw down a challenge, albeit flip, to the groupthink, the conventional wisdom.

We need more of this today. A student at Butler University reported last week that a syllabus asks students to keep within a carefully defined box “to write and speak in a way that does not assume Americanness, maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, middle-class status, etc., to be the norm” – an egalitarian mandate, in other words.

“The idea that people have different views from mine is not what makes me uncomfortable,” wrote the student, Ryan Lovelace, in the blog College Fix. “The idea that I must walk, talk and act as the liberal arts college pleases does make me uncomfortable. I’ll speak as I always have and conduct myself in the way I deem fit. I think paying $40,000 a year should give me that basic right.”

Free speech and tuition costs aside, we understand what the professor is trying to achieve — a classroom disinfected of racism, of discrimination. That, of course, would be a noble goal on any American campus, quite politically correct and in perfect tune with the Obama zeitgeist, but, to justify her syllabus, the professor apparently expects a Utopian outcome, i.e., the death of envy, an innate human emotion.

Thinking outside that box, there are serious people who argue that racism and discrimination, although wrong, are not an immediate threat to modern American society. Indeed, there are so many laws against them now that it has become difficult to know exactly what they are. Law libraries are filled with work parsing their nuances and attempting to distinguish their faintest strains (mere unrealized thoughts and motivations). Scholars struggle to separate the legalese of discrimination from natural, even healthy, human discernment.

That will become more difficult as demographic shifts upset historic majorities and minorities. In fact, Edward Erler, an expert on civil-rights law, notes that the law already has come full circle; it has become a boomerang. We are at a point, he says, in which an employer, to avoid violating the “disparate impact provision” of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, might feel legally obligated to engage in racial discrimination against certain groups.

Dr. Thomas Sowell leaps over such complexity. He has built a reputation on a straightforward and verifiable observation that, however defined or punished, racism and discrimination in a free society cost both the discriminated and the discriminator. As the Butler professor must realize, to discriminate on the basis of skin color, nationality or sexual predilection is to limit available human capital, i.e., skilled and dependable labor, brains, talent and, most critically, productivity. A free market punishes such prejudices.

A Fort Wayne businessman of Macedonian descent remembers that his family was not allowed membership in a German-predominate country club. “My father didn’t waste time with resentment,” he said recently. “He saw it as a challenge to be better than them.” His father used first the liberty he had won with his American citizenship, combined with his best judgment, the love of family and hard work, to become as productive as he could be. (A son, more successful than those who spurned his family, makes it a point to never step inside that now-open club.)

In similar thinking, IPR’s Dr. Eric Schansberg has written “Poor Policy: How Government Harms the Poor.” He suggests that discrimination, though damaging, in itself does not predict poverty.

“An overriding focus on discrimination is wrongheaded for two reasons,” Dr. Schansberg writes. “First, although it certainly exists, it is not a primary explanation for the plight of today’s poor. Second and more important from a practical standpoint, even if it were significant, it would be very difficult to stop.”

He quotes William Kelso in “Poverty and the Underclass: Changing Perceptions of the Poor in America”:

“Those ethnic groups who have relied more on their own initiative have enjoyed the most financial success. When they likewise have stable families, well-behaved and well-educated children, and a tradition of pursuing business opportunities, minority groups of all colors have compiled an impressive record of overcoming the hardships accompanying discrimination. Despite the progress we have made in dismantling the worst aspects of racial bias, there is no reason to believe that it may not flare up in the future. And the more self-reliant and financially independent an ethnic group can become, the more successful it will be in weathering the dangers of discrimination.”

In any case, waves of American immigrant parents, of all skin colors and with little more than the clothes on their backs, most of them unable to speak or write English, sent generations of children out the front door to become doctors, lawyers and engineers without benefit of extraordinary legal measures. (Dr. Sowell likes to point out that discrimination [racism] against the Chinese is fully legal in Malaysia, but the Chinese nonetheless dominate the country’s economic activity.)

The Butler professor might better serve her students, especially those whom she imagines are vulnerable to hurtful language or comparisons, by focusing on the avoidance of envy and resentment. If she could chain those twin monsters, she would do something worthy of her sinecure – that is, free her students from the false and debilitating sense that they deserve to be envious, that they have an excuse for lower achievement.

This is no small task. The sociologist Helmut Schoeck argues that “envy has proved ever-present, unappeasable, powerful when aroused and highly destructive,” to quote a reviewer of his influential book, “Envy: A Social Theory.”

At the group level, he identifies an envy that is not directed at those of another race or class considered more successful. Rather, it is directed at those in one’s own group who would become more successful themselves. At the national level, once institutionalized by a government or a society, he sees an envy that serves as an impetus toward totalitarianism. Read “Mein Kampf.”

Indeed, Dr. Schoeck believes that a society’s “civilizing power of achievement” depends on how well it controls envy. America has been failing that test since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. “This public self-justification of envy is something entirely new. In this sense, it is possible to speak of an age of envy,” he concludes.

A liberal-arts professor in Indiana in 2012, however, might know little of this. She might not accept that America is different in this regard, that until recently it denied the policies of envy that are common everywhere else on the globe. That is the essence of “American exceptionalism,” a profound claim that cannot be dismissed as a right-wing cliché. It is why people come here — a tourist draw, if you will.

At the risk of offending campus sensitivities even further, we introduce Christianity to the mix. The unique Christian teaching of envy as a sin to be forgiven rather than to be abided has had a lot to do with the speed in which our nation reached its unprecedented prosperity and the degree to which it can maintain it.

Certainly, discrimination and racism are serious, wrong and, unfortunately, enduring at some level. In the end, though, they are taxes on human aspiration. Envy is more serious. It is an utterly oppressive cap on those aspirations. As such, it contorts our government and our society in uncertain but always disastrous ways.

Indiana students are going into the world ignorant of this.

Just saying . .


— Craig Ladwig


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