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Two Modes of Market Envy

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Updated July 13, 2013: on reflection I changed what I originally called “productive” envy to “competitive” envy for Aquinas’s fourth sense.  I think this better captures the interpersonal sense of true envy.

At the Acton University a couple of weeks ago I was in a presentation by Victor Claar on a paper on envy in the market, coauthored with Jordan Ballor.  The paper is accessible on SSRN at the link below.

Envy in the Market Economy: Sin, Fairness, and Spontaneous (Dis)Order

The authors drew from Aquinas’s analysis of envy as “sadness at another’s good” into four distinct types of envy (Summa Theologica, II.ii.q36.art2,) focusing primarily on the fourth mode of envy.  In brief summary, the four types of envy follow.

  • “First, when a man grieves for another’s good, through fear that it may cause harm either to himself, or to some other goods.”
  • “Secondly, we may grieve over another’s good, not because he has it, but because the good which he has, we have not….”
  • “Thirdly, one may grieve over another’s good, because he who happens to have that good is unworthy of it.”
  • “Fourthly, we grieve over a man’s good, in so far as his good surpasses ours; this is envy properly speaking….”

As the authors recognize, “envy is a perennial feature of human existence and an ongoing problem for ordered and flourishing social life”.  Their argument is that attempts to mitigate envy through public policies designed to reduce inequality in market outcomes introduce their own complexities and unintended adverse consequences.  Their proposal is rather to focus on remedies to the “economic, spiritual, and cultural causes” of envy (Abstract.)

The first post-presentation question was whether or not envy was something of a necessary condition of capitalism; that question and the ensuing discussion recalled Ecclesiastes 4:4 to mind.

“And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

Reflecting on their presentation, it seems to me that there is space to articulate different forms of envy in the market, following in particular the second and fourth forms.  I might term these “emulative” and “competitive” envy, following roughly consumption and production economic modes.  My sense is that envy in an emulative sense – Aquinas’s second form – may underlie much of consumption while envy in the true or competitive sense – Aquinas’s fourth form – may underlie much of production.  These categories are neither exclusive nor necessary categories; I see them rather more useful for describing and summarizing than totalizing.

The root of the Hebrew word for envy in Ecc. 4:4, קִנְאַת, seems to indicate facial coloration due to high internal emotion (per Brown, Driver, and Briggs.)  Translation seems to vary by context, interpreting what emotion might cause the facial coloration – jealousy, envy, anger, and so forth.  While the term could well apply broadly to both productive and emulative occasions for envy, the words “toil and achievement” stand out; these seem to fit most in the highly competitive environments of production and creativity, with organizations and individuals striving to outdo each other.

Yet, there are many instances in which productive motivation is not driven strictly by the sort of competitive envy of another that Aquinas’s fourth sense and Ecc. 4:4 have in mind.  There may be a genuine desire to create from one’s own intrinsic motivations, or toward a truly public good, such as the cure for a pernicious disease.  More typically, motivations may be mixed.  Anecdotally I understand that some (much? most?) scientific research is done partly for the love of what one does; there may also be an intense drive to beat others to some discovery, as money, fame, or both may be at stake.  Since positional goods are scarce – e.g., a chair at a university, a Nobel prize – one may teach or research for the love of it, but at the same time one is trying to align oneself as the best candidate for the position, which entails interpersonal comparison. Obviously much more could be said here about the modes and complexity of what I am calling “productive” envy as a motivation.

In contrast to competitive envy, there seems a emulative sense in consumption of desiring something another has: “I want one too!”  The focus here is more on the goods the other possesses as desirable, without the personal antipathy of envy in Aquinas’s fourth sense.  This emulative envy seems closest to Aquinas’s second sense.  A reading of Aquinas’s reference to Aristotle’s Rhetoric (§11) includes the possibility of this emulative desire including physical goods and character and moral goods.

Our vast social and media spaces open the possibility of a more impersonal form of emulation in consumption in which one desires to possess something that others have: desiring the convenience of an innovative product, or emulating a lifestyle, cultural trend, or public persona, and so forth in myriad forms.  This emulative sense better fits Adam Smith’s description of the son of the poor man who works hard to emulate the wealthy in the deception that it will bring happiness.  While the poor son must labor and produce, the goal is more toward emulating another’s consumption; an extended quote seems worthwhile to illustrate this mode of envy.

The poor man’s son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a-foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency. He feels himself naturally indolent, and willing to serve himself with his own hands as little as possible; and judges, that a numerous retinue of servants would save him from a great deal of trouble. He thinks if he had attained all these, he would sit still contentedly, and be quiet, enjoying himself in the thought of the happiness and tranquillity of his situation. He is enchanted with the distant idea of this felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. (TMS IV.I.8.)

Summarizing, these two modes envy are certainly not exclusive to production and consumption respectively, but I think it a useful articulation to better understand market behaviors.  Both forms of envy involve self-deception about the significance of possessions or achievement.  While achievement and possessions need not be evil or vacuous, to the extent they are in the pursuit of identity or fulfillment they are chasing after the wind.

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