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Beyond Envy: The Conservative Response to Inequality

“Thou shalt not covet…”

You’re probably familiar with this commandment. The basic idea is that we are not to greedily wish for the good things of another. A different word for covetousness is envy—a term that is front and center in the conservative response to inequality. And while it should be a part of the response, it is insufficient and damaging on its own.

I agree entirely that we must not begrudge the honestly earned wealth of someone else. On a personal level, this is a sin that makes us constantly hungry for more, despite the fact that we are never satiated. It signals a destructive obsession to material consumption that can destroy our lives. As Arthur Brooks writes, “envy pushes down life satisfaction and depresses well-being. Envy is positively correlated with depression and neuroticism, and the hostility it breeds may actually make us sick.” And don’t necessarily take a conservative think tank president’s word for it. In the words of rapper Asher Roth, “Happiness isn’t about getting what you want all the time. It’s about loving what you have.”

[pq]Conservatives must confront the injustices in our economy with the same enthusiasm that they decry covetousness.[/pq]

On a societal level, it has the potential to tear us apart. In the same New York Times article, Brooks argues that “fomenting bitterness over income differences may be powerful politics, but it injures our nation.”

And yet, if this is all conservatives have to say about inequality, we are in deep trouble.

There is almost universal concern about fairness, which is at the heart of the uproar over inequality. A Pew Research Center analysis of polling data found that “for the public, it’s not about class warfare, but fairness.” In a June 2014 Rasmussen Reports survey on economic fairness, 67 percent of those polled said the U.S. economy is unfair to the middle class. It’s not fair that some people enjoy lavish wealth, while others are living paycheck to paycheck, right?

Well, it depends. The key is to differentiate between unfounded envy and legitimate desires for fairness.

With an assist from Hillary Clinton (you heard me correctly), AEI scholar Michael Strain did an excellent job of this in a recent article for the Washington Post. He writes:

…[S]hould most of our attention be on the one percent? Hillary Clinton seems to think not. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Clinton argued that “the crux of the concern in our country” has “never been” the fact that some people earn very high incomes. “We’ve always had people who did better than other people. That’s just accepted,” she said. “The question is,” she continued, “how do we get back to having an economy that works for everybody.”

It’s not about enviously gunning for the one percent, it’s about increasing opportunity for all and giving the 99 percent a fair shot. What does that look like? Strain offers some suggestions:

This means addressing falling employment rates and earnings of less-educated workers, particularly men; fixing our broken, failing schools; creating post-secondary options in addition to the four-year BA that address the needs of 21st century firms; healing broken communities, and returning to a culture that feels comfortable discussing duties and responsibilities; reinvigorating civil society and the local institutions that subtly encourage work and responsibility; and more.

Additionally, it means advocating for a truly free market system without cronyism. Businesses must earn their success, not have it ensured by those in power. There is a big difference between the subsection of the one percent who got there by hard work, genius, and creating value for the rest of us and the subsection that got there by connections and favors. This is a clarification that must be made.

In short, boiling the inequality issue down to envy alone, simply won’t do. Conservatives must begin confronting the (actual) injustices in our economy and society with the same enthusiasm that they decry covetousness.