Sunday, October 25, 2009

Malicious Envy

An interesting essay by the psychiatrist Dr. Peter R. Breggin M.D. on the role of malicious envy in modern political movements.

To list to an audio presentation of this essay:

Malicious Envy

by Peter R. Breggin, M.D.

February 10, 2009

This is Dr. Peter R. Breggin. I am a psychiatrist and I want to help you to “Live Like an American!”

Today’s subject: Malicious envy: How it ruins lives and creates a Failure Society.

With the federal government so eager to redistribute whatever wealth is left in the nation, it’s a good time to look at one of the underlying motives or driving emotions.

Few passions are more demonic than envy. This corrosive emotion can ruin lives and ruin great nations. At a time when we are in danger of a new economic leveling in America—a more fervent redistribution of wealth—it’s worth examining an underlying motivation in the form of envy.

Jealousy is milder and more benign than envy. Jealousy makes us want something for ourselves that’s similar to what our neighbors have. We want a house or a career like theirs. Jealousy can motivate positive activities, like working harder to earn more money. Envy has a nastier quality than jealousy. Envy says, “I resent what my neighbor has. I’d like to burn down his house and wish evil on his career.” Envy says, “If I can’t have what you have, then you can’t have it either.” In the worst case scenario, the envious person murders the object of his envy, even when it ruins his own life as well.

In recognition of the harm that it causes, the Tenth Commandment instructs us not to “covet” anything that belongs to our neighbor. Anything! We are not supposed to envy anyone or anything.

Malicious envy profoundly affects politics. Just as it drives us to harm others even when it harms ourselves, malicious envy also motivates people to level society—to take down the “haves” even if it harms the “have-nots” in the process. It motivated Communism, unleashing one of the worst epidemics of death and violence in human history. It drives socialism and the extreme leftwing in this country as well. Malicious envy says, “I’d rather take everyone down a notch than to allow the rich and powerful to get away with it.”

Why would anyone continue to praise Cuba—a nation reduced to a totalitarian institution where the citizens have less freedom than state mental hospital inmates? At least the wealthy capitalists have been erased. Why does Marxism continue to inspire intellectual Americans? Because so many of them resent those who become wealthy and powerful in our competitive economic system.

Malicious envy drives hatred of the free market. The free market has produced more material progress, more individual wealth, more improved physical health, and more religious and political freedom in a scant few centuries than the previous hundred thousand years of human history altogether. So why do so many Americans resent the free market? Because some people get very obviously wealthy and powerful—and that can cause others to feel less adequate, and hence envious.

Envy seems to have grown in modern times under the free market system. Disparities in wealth used to be much greater in previous ages when the world was divided between the aristocracy and everyone else. Disparities in wealth were and continue to be much greater under modern communist regimes. A well-fed elite ran the USSR while millions of Soviet citizens starved to death, something we see on a lesser scale in North Korea today. So why is envy being fanned by capitalism?

Although the free market benefits the greatest number of people, it tends to stir up malicious envy in some. Before there was a free market, you knew you were not to blame for your unfair “station” in life. In a free market democracy, people are led to wonder why they are not as rich and famous as some other folks. Some people become maliciously envious rather than face their own need to work harder and to aim higher for themselves.

A misunderstanding of economics and productivity also contributes to malicious envy. When people believe that there’s a “pie” of limited size, they feel justified in resenting those who get bigger slices. It’s true that envious socialism destroys whatever pie there is; but the free market and individual initiative goes on making one pie after another, and even pies we never thought possible.

Of course, birth into one or another family, community, social class or race still plays an unfair role in society—albeit much smaller than in former times and in other places in the world. But most hardworking people will do as well or better in a free market than anywhere else. Rather than attacking the free market, reformers need to work toward the further fulfillment of the American dream. America stands for a level playing field rather than a leveled playing field.

Malicious envy is not inevitable and it can be overcome. People who work hard and compete rarely feel envious. In sports, hardworking athletes use each other’s success as motivation. The Tonya Harding’s are rare—people so envious they would rather destroy their competitor than compete against her.

When we feel jealousy or envy in ourselves, we should take these negative emotions as signals that we’re failing to fully pursue what we want out of life. We may have been misdirected or discouraged. We need to renew our determination, while feeling grateful to live in a time and place where people have the freedom to seek happiness for themselves and their loved ones. People who are actively pursuing what they want don’t wallow in envy; they are too busy working at what they want to accomplish.

Most Americans do not aim at becoming rich, powerful and famous. They seek happiness through living responsibly, enjoying their work, supporting and loving their families, participating in their community, enjoying recreational activities, and sharing with their friends. Most Americans also gain spiritual satisfaction from religion and spirituality—not as the opiate of the masses—but as a rich source for living a more responsible and love-filled life, and for relating to their family and community.

That brings us to our closing with my weekly refrain, The Primary Principles:

Protect freedom
Take responsibility at all times
Express gratitude for all your gifts and opportunities
Become a source of love

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