Piketty Notes and Quotes 2: The Envy Objection

So this isn’t so much a note on anything in Piketty per se, but rather some thoughts in answer to one of the objections that inevitably comes up as soon as the subject of inequality is raised (in particular, this arises out of a recent exchange on Facebook).  You are no doubt familiar with the line of objection: “Why does it matter so long as everyone is benefiting?  If the poor guy sees his income double, and the rich guy sees it go up tenfold, then the only possible reason for complaining must be envy.”

Of course, there are a zillion things that could readily be said in response to this objection.  For one thing, inasmuch as it’s being used as an ad hominem against whoever is bringing up income inequality (which is shockingly often), it’s a bit bizarre: after all, if person A is complaining about person B having more than himself, well, there might be envy going on.  But if person C is complaining about person B having more than person A (but not about person B having more than himself), then whatever’s going on, it sure doesn’t seem to be envy.  For another thing, there’s actually all kinds of other possible reasons, pertaining to the bad consequences that many see flowing from inequality, which will in the end make life more difficult for the poor guy, despite his immediate material improvement.  These can all be explored in due course.  But for now, I want to get to the heart of the objection, by asking, “Suppose the concern is inequality per se—in abstraction from various injustices that may have led to it, and various social ills expected to follow from it.  Is there an immediate and inherent problem, and if so, is it distinguishable from sinful envy?”  I.e., let’s assume that if you doubled the poor guy’s income while increasing the rich guy’s tenfold, the poor guy would, not long after he got over his initial glee, start feeling quite unhappy, perhaps even more unhappy than before.  This, I think, is a plausible assumption.  Is there any way to characterize his unhappiness besides “envy”? Read More