Monday, March 28, 2005

The Politics of Envy

Times of India, March 27, 2005

Since I am constantly tripping over my frailties it is a relief to stumble over someone else’s for a change. Last week I read about a woman in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi who had always dreamed of owning a car. After years of working hard and saving money, she finally got a white Maruti. But instead of being happy, she was plunged in sorrow because her best friend got a Zen the same week. It is not easy keeping up with the Khannas in this post-reform age!

Khushwant Singh once wrote that no people are more envious than Indians. He was wrong, of course. Behavioural economists have found that relative wealth matters more than absolute wealth everywhere. A study among Harvard University students shows that they would prefer to earn $50,000 a year (when their peers are earning $25,000) rather than earn $100,000 (when their peers are earning $200,000). CEO compensation in America has been pushed to astronomical levels because each company board wants its CEO to earn more than his competitor. Envy is universal problem, and hence, the proverb: if envy were a fever the whole world would be ill.

Competitiveness seems to be built into our genes, and envy is its nasty face. Even jealousy, envy’s cousin, is excusable because it has the mitigating quality of the potential loss of a loved one. Othello’s jealousy is forgivable because he is afraid of losing Desdemona. But envy is general and arises from the inability to tolerate the good fortune of others. Such as Duryodhana’s uncontrolled envy of the Pandavas, which is the driving emotion of the Mahabharata. If I can’t make it, let me spoil it for the others.

The Left has always had more problems with envy. Marx thought that he would conquer inequality by giving everyone equal income. Yet, the old Soviet Union was reeking with envy because tiny differences, such as a new tablecloth, got exaggerated in the neighbours’ eyes. Lord Richard Layard in a recent book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, characterizes income inequality as a psychic wound uniquely worthy of state intervention. He suggests that while those who work excessive hours may improve their own income, they also cause others to feel dissatisfied. The rat race forces people to spend less time with their families and community activities, and reduces the overall contentment of the community. Hence, he recommends the classic (and pathetic!) answer of the Left—tax those who work too hard. This will, he feels, tame the rat race, reduce envy, and improve overall human happiness.

Although I believe that every Indian is equal inside the polling booth, I am quite happy if a few become filthy rich, increase society’s wealth, and help raise our economy’s investible surplus. The rise of inequality after 1971 may be a problem in the West, but in India we should single-mindedly focus on investment and growth, which are the best remedies for lifting the poor. The Indian Left’s obsession with inequality verges on silliness, I think, just as the Left’s obsession with state intervention makes me value my liberty all the more. Although I value liberty over equality, I do believe that everyone ought to get an equal chance. That answer lies in primary education, and India’s tragedy is that the worst minister in every state cabinet becomes the education minister.

The cause of envy is excessive self-regard. This is why Krishna teaches Arjuna nishkama karma or the art of diminishing the ego. If one could somehow learn this art of self-forgetting, without hurting one’s healthy ambition, it would certainly make for a better world.

5 comments:

Medical Blog said...

Such as Duryodhana’s uncontrolled envy of the Pandavas, which is the driving emotion of the Mahabharata. If I can’t make it, let me spoil it for the others.

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