politix of Envy

Politixs of Envy

The Capuchin monkey experiment  showing an individual content with cucumber until an associate receives grape, shows that a sense of justice is deeply embedded in social animals. Or at least that resentment at getting less than another crosses the species barrier. But that plays out in human affairs in ways that go beyond mere envy.



In the late 1980s there was considerable interest in modelling social structures. the source of altruism in social animals was a matter of debate. Geneticists had reduced it to a matter of genetic similarity. Bees and Ants were the ultimate cooperative species because they were all ‘sisters’.
By this measure you will help a sibling 8x as much as a second cousin. (YMMV)the game model for trading interactions, became the test model for altruism. Programs and books, were written to construct moral choice theory.
The Golden Rule, or tit-for-tat became established as the basis (with minor modifications) for an evolutionary stable strategy that resulted in social status group benefit. It all played into the ongoing(?) dispute about whether genetic selection operates only on the individual level, or if there is any role for group selection in evolutionary theory.

The implications of this in the human social science was not lost on those economists working on how markets were shaped by individual choices. It would seem rational to maximise individual gain, even at the expense of group loss, as the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ effect had shown. But the theoretical modelling of group dynamics, and observations of cooperative and altruistic behaviour among humans and then apes showed there was an inbuilt resentment at inequality in social groups. For the pragmatic reason that it is a more successful long-term strategy than individual maximisation. Mutual cooperation is more effective than competitive individualism.

However the resentment felt towards inequality is a politically inconvenient truth for any political or economic group that wants to perpetuate, or increase, inequality.

For those trying to defend current levels on inequality, or return to the Gilded age of pre-1900 levels of distribution, the inevitable resentment needs to be re-framed as a negative, not beneficial, motivation.

In the UK, and in Europe this drive for ‘fairness’ is called the Politics of Envy. Most often used as an accusation against left-wing liberal or progressive parties who highlight the inequality of wealth. It is often pointed out that if the wealth of the one percent was equitably redistributed then the group benefit would be small. this misses the point that it is not the current inequality that poses the problem but the ongoing perpetuation of it as a systemic feature of an economy, not a fault.
The politics of envy in this context is the resentment of inequality by those with less against those with more. It is “punching up” by those less well off towards those with more wealth and income.

However I think it is possible to discern a variant of this in the US political arena where is a politics of envy that punches down rather than up. It is not exclusive, or confined to the US of course.
A politics of envy that targets those with less than the observer not those with more. It can be most clearly seen perhaps in the opposition to Obamacare the expansion of Medicaid and other progressive health policy choices. It is perhaps cloaked or covert in official opinion, but will often be expressed explicitly in the comment threads that follow in the Alt-right or Republican or libertarian politically inclined media. There, there are open statements against those who are worse off than the commentator receiving some benefit even if this has no effect on the benefits received by the commentator. It may even be that both benefit but resentment is expressed against the benefit gained by those worse off as if any gain they make is at the expense of those who all are better off.
This may make it appear that a zero sum model of economic benefit is applied. However even when the well-off benefit more than the poor, there is still a level of resentment at any improvement by group action. Any erosion of differentials is resented but even if the benefit is greater for the wealthy again for the poor is still depreciated.
” Why should I pay for the education, health care, sanitation, fire protection, law enforcement, transport infrastructure, etc of anyone else?”
is the most frequently expressed version of this inverted politics of envy.

The Capuchin monkey video shows rather well the reaction to injustice’

The same research reports that sometimes with chimps who are members of a social group, the chimp getting the grape will refuse to participate until its companion gets the same reward.

But the inverted politics of envy would have the ape that gets the grape objecting to the other monkey getting anything better than cucumber.
The expression of this in US political discourse might be part of a general anti-government attitude that also comes from a libertarian perspective. But it also contains that strange inverted resentment of any gain by others from a group, cooperative process, even if it has no detrimental effect on their personal status. In fact there is a deliberate willingness to suffer harm if it avoids any gain from communal action.  But the benefits of being the leader of cutting edge research and space science is apparently worth less than a cup of coffee.


“Whether for planetary exploration or nuclear physics, American taxpayers needn’t always bear the cost. A history of exciting discoveries suggests that private foundations and foreign governments will gladly foot the bill for telescopes and colliders. American prestige is important, but Americans should not be bilked endlessly so that a few more native researchers receive a few more citations.”


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