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Book Review: The Politics of Envy

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The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology
by Doug Bandow (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1994); 338 pages; $19.95.

In his recent book, The Politics of Envy: Statism as Theology, Doug Bandow analyzes the destructive effect of envy in the contemporary world. “[W]e live in an age of envy,” he says.

The problem is not that people simply want more money for themselves but rather that they want to take it away from those who have more of it. “Greed is bad enough, eating away at a person’s soul. But envy is far worse because it destroys not only individuals, but also communities, poisoning relations as everyone attempts to use the state to live off everyone else.”

Mr. Bandow argues:

There’s another, indirect cost of playing up the politics of envy. Anyone seriously interested in the plight of the poor should be more concerned with expanding the nation’s economic pie than stealing additional funds from those who are economically successful.

But Mr. Bandow’s book is not merely a scathing commentary on the psychology and cultural effects of envy. Other studies have done this in wider sociological and philosophical settings, works such as Helmut Schoeck’s Envy (1966) or Gonzalo Fernandez de la Moro’s Egalitarian Envy (1984).

The real thrust of Mr. Bandow’s essays in this volume is to use the covering term “the politics of envy” as an entree for critically evaluating the political and economic consequences of statism at home and abroad. Thus, he incisively analyzes the new post-Cold War rationales for American intervention in Europe and the Third World and concludes that America’s own interests and those of most people around the world would be best served if U. S. soldiers and government dollars stayed at home. Besides the high cost in human lives from American global policemanship during the last half-century, he points out that often in the name of democracy and freedom, the United States has fostered the tyranny and repression that it verbally says it opposes around the world.

The same is true with respect to America’s participation in and bankrolling of international financial organizations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Supposedly designed to foster economic growth and prosperity, they have worked as organs of governmental power. Funded by governments, manned by bureaucrats and guided by interventionist-oriented economists, these organizations have ended up subsidizing socialist and welfare-statist policies in Asia, Africa, and South America. Mr. Bandow quotes one World Bank staff member who commented in the 1980s:

As a committed socialist . . . I was surprised and shocked by the emphasis which the Bank at the time gave to the public sector in general and to the government in particular. Here was an institution which had the reputation of being ultra free-enterprise and market-oriented, yet had more confidence in the rationality, morality and competence of governments than I ever had.

But what is really the most interesting and important part of Mr. Bandow’s book is the thoughtful analysis in the first fifty pages, in which he compares the Christian and libertarian views of politics, ethics, and freedom, with the purpose of finding common ground. Mr. Bandow is a Christian who is also a strong advocate of individual liberty. He wants to persuade Christians that individual freedom in social and ethical affairs need not contradict Christian morality; and he wants to persuade libertarians that Christianity need not be viewed as a threat to political and economic freedom.

In essence, he argues that Christian morality in private, personal matters and libertarian political ethics in political and public affairs are most likely to generate both the free and virtuous society. Moral choices concerning good and evil, between righteousness and sinfulness, are only possible in a social and political environment in which the state does not prevent people from making volitional decisions about how to live their lives and relate to other human beings. “Virtue cannot exist without freedom, without the right to make moral choices,” Mr. Bandow insists.

By virtue I mean the dictionary definition: moral excellence, goodness, righteousness. Coerced acts of conformity with some moral norm, however good, do not represent virtue; rather, the compliance with that moral norm must be voluntary.

When the state prohibits or prevents people from having to make personal choices concerning things such as drug use, prostitution, pornography, or homosexuality, it interferes with the natural environment in which men have the freedom and personal obligation of having to decide what path to follow in their lives. In other words, the state intrudes into matters that are properly affairs between them and God. “[G]overnment is not a particularly good teacher of virtue,” Mr. Bandow argues. “The state tends to be effective at simple, blunt tasks, like killing and jailing people. It has been far less successful at reshaping individual consciences.” For him, this means that the Christian perspective should be one that recognizes that people, exercising the free will that he believes God endows in every human being, may choose to follow an unrighteous and unvirtuous path. But the answer should not be for Christians to try to force others to be good, but to live good and virtuous lives themselves, and through their example and witness, bring others freely to the path of righteousness. Otherwise, they are usurping a role that belongs only to the God towards whom they claim love and obedience.

At the same time, libertarians should reflect that for a good and prosperous society in which each individual has the greatest opportunity to pursue his personal ends and desires, freedom by itself is not enough:

While a [classical] liberal . . . economic and political order is the best one available, it will operate even better if nestled in a virtuous social environment. For instance, a market system will function more effectively if people are honest and voluntarily fulfill their contracts. People who believe in working hard, exercising thrift, and observing temperance will be more productive. . . . Fewer social problems will emerge if families, churches, and communities organize to forestall them in the first place.

Mr. Bandow does not presume that Christian and libertarian outlooks or philosophies are either completely parallel or compatible. Indeed, he accepts that they are not because their purposes are not the same. For the Christian, the ultimate purpose is right living in the eyes of God. And freedom is the political and social means through which men may discover God and have the liberty to live virtuous lives according to their faith. For the libertarian, freedom is the highest political end, through which each man is then at liberty to live his life as he chooses, regardless of the faith or philosophy which may guide him in his personal affairs and peaceful social interactions.

But where they have common ground is in alliances to limit state power. “Even Christians who are not libertarians and libertarians who are not Christians have many opportunities to cooperate on protecting religious freedom, restricting state expansion, encouraging private education, keeping the government out of child care, opposing welfare systems that destroy families, and so on,” Mr. Bandow says. Even an issue like abortion, which divides both Christians and libertarians, is one on which some strategic common ground can be found. Surely, he suggests, both Christian antiabortionists and libertarian pro-abortionists would agree that the state should not tax some in the society to subsidize the abortions of others.

These ideas are then applied by Mr. Bandow to the issues of ecology, conservation, health care, and various forms of government regulation. And in all of these areas, not only does the state cause immense economic harm and social damage, it presumes to play God with our lives. Certainly this is not a role that either Christians or libertarians want the government to take on.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).