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Envy Kills – Article by Jeffrey A. Tucker

Envy Kills – Article by Jeffrey A. Tucker

The New Renaissance Hat
Jeffrey A. Tucker
June 25, 2017

The gunman who attempted to slay Republican Congressmen at a baseball practice had a Facebook feed. Before it was deleted, everyone could read his vitriolic attacks on the rich, his denunciations of capitalism and corporate culture, his calls for high taxes and wealth redistribution, and, of course, his push for Bernie Sanders to be the ruler of us all. We all know the litany of gripes that drove him.

And yet, when the folks at National Public Radio were reflecting on his motives, the hosts declined to speculate. They feigned to be completely mystified how a happy, charming, good soul such as this could have turned to violence. Had the tables been turned – say an alt-right agitator had shot up a civil-rights protest – there would have been no question about the motivation.

One reason for the failure to connect the dots here concerns the loss of awareness of the destructive effects of envy. When was the last time you heard a sermon against it or observed a media figure casually recognizing its evils? Condemnation of envy as a motivating force for the destruction of life and property has nearly entirely vanished from the culture. This is probably because so much of modern public policy is based on it and depends on encouraging it. What was once one of the seven “deadly sins” is now a baked-in part of our public ethos.

What Is Envy? 

Let’s return to the classic understanding of what envy is. It is part of the general vice of looking negatively upon the success of others. It is different from mere covetousness. To be covetous means to desire something that is not yours to have. It is also different from jealousy, which means to look upon the success of others and wish it were yours too. Jealousy can lead to emulation and that can be good. It is not the same as zeal, which is to feel inspiration from the good fortune of another to adapt your own life to also experience good fortune. (This commentary is taken straight from St. Thomas Aquinas.)

Envy is distinct from all these. It observes the excellence of others and desires it to stop. It sees the fortune of another and aspires to punish it. Envy is actively destructive of another’s successes as an end in itself. It is not even the case that the realization of envy brings happiness to the person who wants to harm others. It merely achieves the goal of satisfying the anger you feel when looking upon the happiness of others. It tears down. It harms. It hurts. It crushes, smashes, and kills. It begins with resentment against others’ achievements and ends in the infliction of personal harm.

To review, you notice a nice house. To say, “that very house should be mine,” is to be covetous. To say, “I want to buy a house like that,” stems from jealousy which leads to emulation. To say, “I aspire to a life in which I can afford a house like that,” is zeal. Envy is to say: “I want to burn down that house.”

Envy is a ubiquitous problem but it is not felt by everyone. Let’s say you have a person with a naturally aspirational personality. He or she looks at life as a trajectory of opportunities for success; it is a matter of will, intelligence, and creativity, and he or she believes in all those things. There is no room for envy in this person’s heart. The success of another serves as inspiration and drive to perform, not tear down.

But let’s say another person has no such outlook. He or she imagines himself to be intellectually limited, unskilled, uncreative, bound by a restricted personality or a lack of will. In this case, life seems like a series of routines not to be disrupted, and begins to resent others who pass him or her by in the struggle to achieve. This person is ripe for feelings of envy, that is, the desire to harm others who perform better than their peers.

Every successful person has to deal with the problem of encountering the envy of others. You might begin your career thinking that your excellence will be rewarded. You find that it sometimes or often is. At the same time, it incites envy as well, and you have to deal with knives in the back, hidden attempts to undermine you, plots and conspiracies to stop you from advancing. It is a sad fact but a reality every successful person has to deal with.

Medieval mythology described envy as the “green-eyed monster” because it looks at any sign of wealth with an aspiration to bring an end to it. The legend of the “evil eye” goes back to antiquity and denotes the profound fear all people have felt concerning envy. In Judaism, the rabbis taught to favor the “good eye” which calls for us to rejoice in the fortune of others, while the evil eye is the opposite impulse.

The world’s most famous anti-envy charm comes from Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. It is the Nazar, a glass eye in blue, black, and white. The idea of this charm is that it looks back at the evil eye and neutralizes its influence in your life. So far as anyone knows, it originated in the 15th and 16th century, which is not a surprise given the rising wealth of the Ottoman Empire. The merchants felt envy, and, as wealth grew, so did everyone else. This culture learned that popular hatred of wealth was something to fear, because it truly threatened the basis of people’s livelihoods. Even today, you see the Nazar in the cars, homes, boats, and keychains of average people. Even the Istanbul airport features a huge Nazar above the baggage claim.

The Politics of Envy

At some point in the 20th century, we normalized envy as a political idea. Down with the rich! His success must be punished! The 1% must be pillaged! Redistribute the wealth! All these ideas trace to an ancient idea that was widely seen not as a virtue or a good motivation but rather a socially destructive sin.

Indeed there is a burgeoning academic literature that seeks to rehabilitate envy as a motivator (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It leads people to oppose unfairness and inequality, and hence builds the kinds of political institutions that many progressives favor. To be sure, there are good reasons to be upset and yell at the immorality of unjustly acquired wealth, but keep in mind that the problem here is not the wealth as such but the means of acquisition.

Real envy makes no distinction: it is unhinged loathing that ends in destruction. It seems like an implausible thing to do, take a sin and convert it to a political virtue. But there is a hidden truth here that people are unable to face: modern political institutions are in fact built on an ancient vice, institutionalized and unleashed.

Envy can seem relatively benign when it is embodied in political institutions. This is why Bernie Sanders can imagine himself as a preacher not of violence but of peace. “I am sickened by this despicable act,” he said of the gunman on the baseball field. “Let me be as clear as I can be. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society….”

But what about whipping up masses of people who shout for the violence of the central government to loot and pillage people merely because they are wealthy? Some forms of violence are apparently acceptable.

If you teach with every speech and every article to sow hatred and encourage people to blame others’ successes for their own plight, you are playing with fire. Sometimes the seemingly benign veneer is torn off and this ends in bloodshed.

Both sides of the great ideological splits of our time are rooted in vices. While we are quick to recognize the evil of race and religious hatred, we do not like to think about the insidious effects unleashed by hatred of wealth and success. Maybe it is time for the Nazar to make its way from the Ottoman region to our own. We need some protection from the evil eye that modern politics is working daily to unleash.

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also Chief Liberty Officer and founder of, Distinguished Honorary Member of Mises Brazil, research fellow at the Acton Institute, policy adviser of the Heartland Institute, founder of the CryptoCurrency Conference, member of the editorial board of the Molinari Review, an advisor to the blockchain application builder Factom, and author of five books. He has written 150 introductions to books and many thousands of articles appearing in the scholarly and popular press.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. Read the original article.

“Human Nature” is Tautological (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

“Human Nature” is Tautological (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published March 10, 2009
as Part of Issue CLXXXIX of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 23, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CLXXXIX of The Rational Argumentator on March 10, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 23, 2014

What is meant by the term “human nature”? In one sense, it is supremely uninformative. The “nature” of any existent can be defined simply as “that which that existent is.” To say that “X is human nature,” is simply to say “X is what humans are and/or do.” This is fine by itself, provided that it is not used as an explanation for any particular human characteristic or activity. X may be human nature, but X does not occur because of human nature. To say that human nature is the cause of any phenomenon is to say that such a phenomenon causes itself. To say that “some people steal because of human nature” is to say that “some people steal because they steal” or that “some people steal because that is the way humans are.” This is not particularly enlightening as to why some people actually steal.

The striking fact about uses of “human nature” in discourse is that the term is virtually never invoked to account for all the wonderful things people do. Few, if any, people say that humans build great buildings, create art, invent machines, and save lives because “that’s just human nature.” But when it comes to some humans killing, stealing, lying, raping, and committing a host of other abuses, “human nature” virtually never leaves the discussion. This leads me to suspect that a lot of presuppositions are smuggled in under the umbrella label of “human nature” which are not implicit in the term. Namely, most people whose discussions are peppered by the term frequently presuppose that all human beings somehow have even the worst vices “in their nature.”

If “human nature” is “the way human beings are,” then it is clearly contrary to empirical evidence to suppose that killing, stealing, lying, and other vices are inherent in human nature. We can find numerous examples of good, upstanding people who have never killed or stolen – and even a few whom we cannot imagine lying. Surely, “the way they are” is such that they do not kill, steal, or lie. This is as much a part of their human nature as killing, stealing, and lying are a part of the natures of genocidal dictators in North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. There is no reason to suppose that anyone is capable of any vice just because some people have been observed engaging in some vices.

The facts that some people do commit vices that others do not commit and that no vice is universal to human beings indicates to us that no vice is inherent to human nature – the way humans are. Rather, every vice is incidental to human nature. That is, the natures of some humans happen to be vicious, just as the natures of some cats happen to be white (not that there is anything wrong with white cats). But vice is no more an inseparable part of humanity than whiteness is an inseparable part of cathood. It may well be that some people will always be irreparably vicious, no matter what external stimuli short of death are applied to them. This is why it may be reasonable to advocate killing genocidal sadists and other comparable entities. But this is no commentary on all the other humans of this world.

Moreover, it is essential to recognize that prevailing trends with regard to behavior change over time. 300 years ago, if two Western, upper-class males had a dispute, it would often culminate in a duel to the death. Today, the disputants would be more likely to sit down and quasi-civilly discuss their differences. The statistical prevalence of each kind of behavior has changed dramatically. Moreover, the change has been an unambiguous improvement. “What humans are” does not need to be static and set in stone. Rather, as incentives, institutions, and motivations change, so does behavior – and the sum of our behaviors constitutes our “natures.”

The view of “human nature” that I have presented thus far is fully in accord with the principle of individualism. This principle asserts that each human being is fundamentally different and should be judged on his or her own qualities, and not on the qualities of other human beings who happen to share some direct or indirect association. Moreover, individualism holds that each human being can control his or her own behaviors to a substantial extent. Each person is free to choose virtue but is just as free to choose vice, and each person must be prepared to be judged by the rest of us on the basis of his or her choices. The question remains, of course, what would motivate people to choose virtue as opposed to vice?

Granting that people always have free will to act virtuously or viciously, what would lead people to want to pursue either course of action? Earlier, I described some incentives for moral behavior that motivate people to pursue virtuous and beneficial courses of action with regard to themselves and others. On the other hand, what motivates vice? The kinds of vice that do damage to others – killing, stealing, infliction of injury, and deception – all seem to stem from some sense of personal inadequacy. Either one does not have enough things and wishes to take away the things owned by others, or one feels slighted, deprived, or persecuted in some manner by others and wishes to correct this perceived victimization by destroying its perceived source. Harm that people do to themselves seems to stem either from a conviction that their lives are not quite worth living or from a simple failure to consider all of the long-term harmful consequences of their decisions.

Exploring the common human motivations for committing immoral acts might lead us to an understanding of how to alter these motivations and direct the “natural” desires of more people toward virtue. For instance, if a person is motivated to steal by a lack of food, then if this person had food, he might not resort to stealing (provided, of course, that he recognizes the change in conditions and does not continue to resort to stealing due to the inertia of habit). On the other hand, the new-found presence of food might get the person to focus on some other attribute he believes to be lacking in his life – say, a car – and steal that. How might it be possible to get such a person to refrain from stealing? Clearly, all people perceive some kinds of inadequacies in their lives. The ways that people’s incentives are structured will lead them to consider whether moral or immoral means are the best ways to compensate for such inadequacies.

The proper incentive structure to give to each person is such that the costs of any vicious act will be greater than its perceived benefits. I note that these costs can be both external – such as any kind of punishment – or internal – such as a feeling of self-loathing and disappointment for having committed an immoral act. Well-developed internal aversions to vicious conduct reduce the need for external incentives to encourage virtue. A wide variety of institutions, technologies, and patterns of interaction shape both people’s external and internal incentives. Yet what is most important to remember is that we are not fated to be locked into any particular configuration of incentives, motivations, and outcomes. These continually fluctuate and sometimes experience radical directional shifts. In shaping these incentives, we ought to lose the defeatism of those who claim that “human nature” will forever sentence us to suffer evil instead of correcting it. Rather, we must act such that our individual, incremental effects are for the better rather than for the worse.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CLXXXIX.

Mises Explains the Drug War – Article by Laurence M. Vance

Mises Explains the Drug War – Article by Laurence M. Vance

The New Renaissance Hat
Laurence M. Vance
October 26, 2013

Air travelers were outraged when the FAA announced that there would be flight delays because air-traffic controllers had to take furloughs as a result of sequester budget cuts. But there is another federal agency whose budget cuts Americans should be cheering — the Drug Enforcement Administration.

According to the Office of Management and Budget’s report to Congress on the effects of sequestration, the DEA will lose $166 million from its $2.02 billion budget. Other agencies that are part of the expansive federal drug war apparatus are getting their drug-fighting budgets cut as well.

These cuts, no matter how small they may actually end up being, are certainly a good thing since over 1.5 million Americans are arrested on drug charges every year, with almost half of those arrests just for marijuana possession.

Although 18 states have legalized medical marijuana, seven states have decriminalized the possession of certain amounts of marijuana, and Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use, it is still the case that in the majority of the 50 states, possession of even a small amount of marijuana can still result in jail time, probation terms, or fines. The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act, with a high potential for abuse and with no acceptable medical use.

Since the federal government has not followed its own Constitution, which nowhere authorizes the federal government to ban drugs or other any substance, it is no surprise that it has not followed the judgment of Ludwig von Mises when it comes to the drug war.

The war on drugs is a failure. It has failed to prevent drug abuse. It has failed to keep drugs out of the hands of addicts. It has failed to keep drugs away from teenagers. It has failed to reduce the demand for drugs. It has failed to stop the violence associated with drug trafficking. It has failed to help drug addicts get treatment. It has failed to have an impact on the use or availability of most drugs in the United States.

None of this means that there is necessarily anything good about illicit drugs, but as Mises explains “It is an established fact that alcoholism, cocainism, and morphinism are deadly enemies of life, of health, and of the capacity for work and enjoyment; and a utilitarian must therefore consider them as vices.” But, as Mises contends, the fact that something is a vice is no reason for suppression by way of commercial prohibitions, “nor is it by any means evident that such intervention on the part of a government is really capable of suppressing them or that, even if this end could be attained, it might not therewith open up a Pandora’s box of other dangers, no less mischievous than alcoholism and morphinism.”

The other mischievous dangers of the drug war that have been let loose are legion. The war on drugs has clogged the judicial system, unnecessarily swelled prison populations, fostered violence, corrupted law enforcement, eroded civil liberties, destroyed financial privacy, encouraged illegal searches and seizures, ruined countless lives, wasted hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, hindered legitimate pain treatment, turned law-abiding people into criminals, and unreasonably inconvenienced retail shopping. The costs of drug prohibition far outweigh any possible benefits.

But that’s not all, for once the government assumes control over what one can and can’t put into his mouth, nose, or veins or regulates the circumstances under which one can lawfully introduce something into his body, there is no limit to its power and no stopping its reach. Again, as Mises makes clear “[o]pium and morphine are certainly dangerous, habit-forming drugs. But once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments.”

“As soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual’s mode of life,” Mises goes on, “we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest detail.”

Mises tells us exactly what the slippery slope of drug prohibition leads to. He asks why what is valid for morphine and cocaine should not be valid for nicotine and caffeine. Indeed: “Why should not the state generally prescribe which foods may be indulged in and which must be avoided because they are injurious?” But it gets worse, for “if one abolishes man’s freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away.”

“Why limit the government’s benevolent providence to the protection of the individual’s body only?” Mises asks. “Is not the harm a man can inflict on his mind and soul even more disastrous than any bodily evils? Why not prevent him from reading bad books and seeing bad plays, from looking at bad paintings and statues and from hearing bad music?”

When it comes to bad habits, vices, and immoral behavior of others, in contrast to the state, which does everything by “compulsion and the application of force,” Mises considered tolerance and persuasion to be the rules.

“A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper,” Mises explains. “He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.”

For Mises, there is one path to social reform, and “[h]e who wants to reform his countrymen must take recourse to persuasion. This alone is the democratic way of bringing about changes. If a man fails in his endeavors to convince other people of the soundness of his ideas,” Mises concludes, “he should blame his own disabilities. He should not ask for a law, that is, for compulsion and coercion by the police.”

In a free society, it couldn’t be any other way.

Laurence M. Vance is an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute and the author of Social Insecurity, The War on Drugs is a War on Freedom, and War, Christianity, and the State: Essays on the Follies of Christian Militarism. Send him mail. See Laurence M. Vance’s article archives.

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This article was published on and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.