Equality and Envy - Deadly Sins?

Of the seven deadly sins, envy is the only one that is never any fun for the person experiencing it. Maybe that is why it is so easily camouflaged as the virtue of seeking equality. You can predict a lot of a person’s political behavior if you know where he stands on the liberty versus justice continuum, but within the equality component is a second distinction of envy versus justice, which may reveal even more insights into personality.

This also gives some insight into attitudes toward the free market. (To be clear, by free market I mean the mixed economies of the like the U.S. I don't want to set up straw men or unrealistic utopias.) The amount of economic freedom a country has is closely correlated with its growth rates. Take a look at the index of economic freedom (http://cf.heritage.org/index/pastScores.cfm.) The poorest have the most government control. The U.S. has relatively good scores on economic freedom, but not the best. Singapore and Honk Kong do better, but there are also some country sized developed states like Ireland that have more economic freedom than the U.S. Nevertheless, the U.S. is by far the freest among the really big countries. (Please see note below). The big Eurosclerosis economies like Germany and France have less and relative growth rates have reflected that.. So far, so good.

The free market gives us more of almost everything we want, except equality. Free market economic growth rewards people for their talent, hard work and sometime just for their luck. The college premium (how much more a college grad makes), for example, is significantly higher in the U.S. than in Germany or France and it has been growing since 1972. Entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Michael Dell or Jeff Bezos have changed the way we do business and in the process enriched themselves and their firms, increasing inequality. Some of it is just mathematical. Imagine two guys each earning 30K a year. One invents a new software and make 10 million. In new invention allows the other guy to double his income. Everybody is better off, but inequality has jumped exponentially. If nobody invents anything, we maintain a magnificent and pristine equality. In primitive villages and trailer parks, all the huts are about the same size.

Equality is a social good. Governments and society have some responsibility to foster equality in order to keep society healthy, create reasonably equal opportunity or at least stave off unrest. But how much? Too much equality will choke off economic growth and its not really fair. There must be reward for risk taking and skills, otherwise nobody will take risks or develop talents that aren’t fun. When the quest for equality slips into envy, it becomes a problem. Thomas Aquinas identified the deadly sins as things that could corrupt a person's character. They can also corrupt a society’s soul. How much equality is too much.

Notes

The seven deadly sins are pride, envy, anger, lust, gluttony, sloth and greed.

I don’t want to write about economics, but I have to put in a note about growth and why I am only comparing developed economies. Comparisons of developed and less developed countries are not very useful. In the early stages of development, rapid growth rates are easier to attain, as it is possible to put in place new technologies and use previously redundant labor. In addition, you may be starting for a lower base. As a matter of comparison, the amount of the U.S. GROWTH in 2003 was greater than the total economy of Brazil.

Rapid growth also creates greater inequality in developing countries, but the economic freedom aspect might be weaker.

Posted by Jack at December 3, 2004 2:40 PM