I am writing this post in Finland where I am working for a month. Last week the Finns marked their annual unofficial “National Envy Day” when the Finnish Revenue Service publicized the income taxes and income of every tax-paying citizen. That in itself is a shocking violation of people’s right to privacy (although everyone here seems to think it’s normal), but the government goes even further in the violation of the rights of the citizens—in the manner of all the Nordic welfare states—through highly progressive income taxation. This is a way to alleviate envy towards those who are better off (and to ensure revenue for the government). While progressive taxes reduce income differences and might alleviate envy, they (like taxes in general) violate people’s property rights and thus reduce their ability to make decisions for themselves and to pursue the values they choose. Progressive taxation also lowers the incentive to produce and discourages capital formation in the country, leading to less production, fewer jobs, and lower standard of living for everyone.
But the theme of this post is not the immorality of government’s violation of individual rights but envy itself, and why it is bad for us. Envy is a simultaneous resentment towards others and desire for something that others possess and one does not. Envy is based on using others as the standard of value. If someone else has a big house and a fancy car, you must have them, too; not because they are important values to you, such as space and comfort for your large family, or enjoyment of a high-performance car, but for keeping score, for impressing others, and for feeling equal (or superior) to others. From the rational egoist perspective envy is an utterly irrational and unproductive feeling, and indulging in it undermines the purpose of morality and violates some fundamental moral virtues. In other words, envy is immoral.
The purpose of morality is to guide us in living a good life: to achieve our values and happiness, without violating the rights of others. The primary virtue of egoism, rationality, guides us to adhere to the facts of reality (through observation and logic)—as opposed to evasion or wishful thinking—because that is the only way we can achieve values. For example, in order to maintain our health, we must adhere to the fact that nutritious food and exercise are necessary; getting a job and performing it well require knowledge and skills; knowledge and skills can only be obtained by studying and learning; a company can only succeed if its cash flow is positive (which in itself requires adhering to many facts). Envying others as opposed to focusing on reality hampers our ability to achieve values. Envying someone for his job does not make you qualified for it. Envying your competitor’s cash flow does not increase yours.
Another basic egoist virtue that guides us away from envy and condemns it as immoral is independence. If rationality guides us to adhere to facts in our thinking and action, independence, according to Leonard Peikoff, guides us to orient primarily to reality, not to other people. For example, an independent person chooses a line of work because he finds it gratifying and because it provides him an income he needs to obtain the material values that help him live his self-defined good life. An independent person does not pursue a job because it gives him power over others (although undoubtedly some politicians and bureaucrats are motivated by this) or because it gives him prestige or status. This applies to the pursuit of all other values as well. An independent person does not focus on what others do or what they possess but on living a good life, by pursuing values, both material and spiritual, he has chosen for himself. Values achieved by others can inspire and motivate us to pursue the same or similar values, but envy is not the motive power of an independent person.
Alleviating envy is not the proper role of the government but a choice that each individual has to make himself. Adopting the egoist virtues of rationality and independence lead to the conclusion that envy is immoral: it hampers the achievement of one’s values. Independent pursuit of one’s values pays—envy does not.