30 November 2005

Socialism has nothing to do with envy.

A key criticism of the Left, used by those on the Right, is that socialism is just the 'politics of envy'.

This is based on the following assumptions;

1. That wealth inequalities in society are justified because the wealthy have 'earned their wealth'.

This is clearly not the case. Inheritance, networking favours and monopolistic factors are in play that distort both the accumulated wealth and earnings of individuals.

2. That hard work ALWAYS justifies higher earnings.

This once again is clearly not the case. Some burglars are extremely hard working but clearly do not deserve their earnings. Equally some legal businesses are just parasitic on society. For example accident insurance, loan companies, salesmen, advertising. An increase in the number of lawyers reduces the overall GDP of the country.

3. Wealth inequalities in themself are not detrimental to the poor.

Au contraire, the evidence suggests it is the inequality itself that leads to worse health, worse education and lower quality of life, not just the absolute level of poverty.

Socialism seeks to redress this inherent unfairness for the benefit of all not just the poor.


  1. If accident insurance is parasitic on society, why does the govenment make us buy it?

    If loan companies are parasitic, why is microcredit taking off in the third world?

  2. Some borrowing can be beneficial so can some insurance, i.e some business loans, mortgages but some clearly isn't in anyone's interest. Same as junk food is detrimental, poor labelling of food, tobacco sales etc.

    The point I was making was that not everything that creates a profit or has people working hard within it, is beneficial to society.

  3. the evidence suggests it is the inequality itself

    I think that weakens the case. In itself inequality might undermine social cohesion, community spirit, etc., but surely, in general, it's lack of opportunities, or injustice, or lack of high-quality provision that hit the people at the bottom. So it's either (a) the symptoms of inequality that cause the problems, or (b) injustices in society, of which inequality is another symptom.

    Basically it's correlation v. causality.

    So I don't see that reducing wealth inequality in itself improves health. No, that requires particular redistributive measures, increases in health expenditure, reductions in smoking, etc.

  4. I thought about this a while back - in fact some of the worst examples of bitter envy I've come across have been from right wingers and/or racists, who, instead of recognising when they are onto a good thing, spend all their time going on about how everyone else is getting such a great deal at their expense.

  5. urko: I think you are right, You only have to glance at the Daily Mail or Telegraph to see the most vicious examples of misplaced envy. All these priveleged rich people envying the lives of the poor living on a pittance of benefit, it's so pathetic.

    B4L: reducing inequality might be the best way of addressing the underlying causes (if that is indeed the case).

  6. Hello again Neil,

    You have chosen one of the weakest arguments against socialism as the target of your attack, but my main problem with your post is that you provide no evidence or argument for the asserting the connection between the three points you criticise and the argument about envy.

    You may be right about why those three points are mistaken, but without more, that's irrelevant. As it happens, you're not right in rebutting at least the third point, as you've misrepresented the research, but as I've said, that doesn't matter.

    Personally, I think the notion that envy provides the emotional fuel for socialism is wrong, bad, and dangerous. I think the emotional fuel for socialism lies more in three things: an elevation of equality above other values, a distrust (or lack of confidence) in markets and other outcomes of autonomous action by large numbers of uncoordinated actors, and an attraction to rational planning and ordering of human affairs. The last of these three vices is shared by liberalism, which is strange, as it is very closely related to the second, which liberals would tend to reject.

  7. Eben Upton2/12/05 9:28 pm

    As it happens, this ties in with a question which I have been quite keen to ask you. Do you see it as more important to increase the quality of life of the worst off, or to decrease the difference between the quality of life of the best off and that of the worst off? I know that you are arguing here that they are not antagonistic goals, but which do you feel is the primary one?

  8. eben: The primary objective is to increase the quality of life of the worst off. I believe this can only be done by reducing the gap between rich and poor.

    That is not to say that there can't still be a significant gap, just that it needs to be much less than at present. In this country the poorest 50% of the population own 3% of the wealth. Across the world inequality is even worse than this. Do you see where I am coming from?

    Martin: "you provide no evidence or argument for asserting the connection between the three points you criticise and the argument about envy."

    To make a case for the 'politics of envy', the right have to believe that the present distribution of wealth is fair. To believe this they have to assume the three criteria I critique.

    "As it happens, you're not right in rebutting at least the third point, as you've misrepresented the research"

    This is from one of the links I provide, how have I misinterpreted it?

    "It isn't the absolute level of poverty that matters so much as the size of the gap between rich and poor. In other words, "...what matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed. The more equally wealth is distributed the better the health of that society," according to an editorial in the BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL April 20th. Two recent studies of the U.S. indicate that this is so, and they are not the first to make the case."