Anarchism: politics of envy?

The idea that we hold the positions that we hold because we envy our betters is a pretty common argument against socialists (“the politics of envy” being a common expression). In fact, Marx used this argument against the concept of equal wage (strangely making him less radical than Proudhon in that respect), making this argument officially Older Than Dirt.

One problem is that it pretends to know what’s going on in another person’s psyche. It’s actually a great deal more difficult to understand other people’s psyches than we tend to think. We have a strong cognitive bias towards attributing internal causes to a person’s actions, even though this is often unwarranted (see fundamental attribution error). Yes, a person may hold to socialist ideas because he is envious, but it seems equally likely to be a rational reaction to external causes such as profound inequality, poverty, and general economic or social insecurity. In the absence of any evidence about the person, why should we prefer one explanation to the other?

Which brings us to the more personal question: am I envious?

My dad was a businessman who co-founded his own company and grew it to a multi-million dollar concern. This achievement represented the largest portion of his life’s work. I saw him work at it for as long as he was alive.

Have I ever envied my dad? No. I have never wanted to be like him. Sure, I admired his accomplishments, but I never envied his long working hours, stress, and the demands of constant sociability. He thrived in it, but I wouldn’t. That’s fine: everyone has a different personality. Some people with ambition but without whatever it is that makes people successful in business may envy him, but they probably aren’t Anarchists.

Fact is, my dad made a lifestyle choice and stuck with it. That’s commendable. But we shouldn’t be subsidizing those lifestyle choices, whether it be having children, being of any given religion, or starting a business.

To say that professional athletes, singers or CEOs do not deserve to make millions of dollars while others, who work equally as much, live below the poverty line is not an impulse based on envy: it is merely the expression of the relatively simple principles of association and equality. For some people, the lifestyle of the “rich and famous” may be something to emulate, but I think we can all agree that it has serious pitfalls.

As I pointed out before, I think there is clearly a cognitive bias at work. When we adopt a given ideology, we claim to do so for rational reasons; when someone else adopts a contrary ideology, we claim they do it for emotional or wildly irrational reasons. I don’t think I am an exception to this rule. Part of it probably comes from the fact that we can’t observe other people’s context of knowledge, and so we assume that they went through roughly the same path we had. Given that assumption, we then conclude that, if they disagree so much with us, it must be for emotional or irrational reasons. But this is generally an invalid assumption.

Therefore, I do not believe that most people are capitalists out of cupidity, or stupidity, or an irrational attachment to their jobs. Most people are capitalists by default, much like they are Christian by default and democratists by default. Some are capitalists for what they see as rational reasons. I know because I used to be one; at the time, my reasons made perfect sense given the ideological path that I had undertaken.

Now I see that these reasons are bunk, but only because of the further path I have taken since then. No thanks to my fellow libsocs, who flamed me mercilessly; I became a socialist despite them, not because of them; the truth simply spoke louder to me than they did. They, like everyone else, do not grasp the significance of the maxim: “never attribute to malice [internal causes] that which is adequately explained by stupidity [lack of knowledge brought about by external causes].” Unless someone is being willful in his pursuit of ignorance, we must always give them the benefit of the doubt.

7 thoughts on “Anarchism: politics of envy?

  1. mb2p February 21, 2010 at 05:23

    Yeah, one can’t win, arguing against that crap. If a poor person is an anarchist, it’s envy. If a person born rich is an anarchist, they’re a spoiled brat who doesn’t know how the world really works. If you withdraw from the capitalist economy, you’re a good-for-nothing bum. If you participate in it, you’re a hypocrite. If we want to spread our views in existing societies, we’re violating the Will of the People. If we go off and create anarchy elsewhere, we’re a creepy cult…etc. =P

  2. Davey February 21, 2010 at 07:51

    While I can go along with what you express in your post, there is one thing that seemed to jar.

    While I don’t disagree with your basic stance about not subsidizing people’s lifestyle choices, I find the inclusion of sexual orientation as a lifestyle choice somewhat odd. (I am still in agreement about subsidizing or giving preferential treatment to sexual orientations.)

    Perhaps it is just that I am used to hearing that language from right-wing Christians who frame homosexuality as a deviant lifestyle choice.
    My own experience of my sexual orientation is not of something chosen in any meaningful sense of the word.

    Is this informed by your philosophical outlook or was it unintended?

  3. speedfreakerr February 21, 2010 at 09:54

    I really enjoyed reading this:)
    Yes (with an earlier comment on your blog) I, myself, did this:
    “Part of it probably comes from the fact that we can’t observe other people’s context of knowledge, and so we assume that they went through roughly the same path we had.”
    … but I think that the above statement could be used to explain, in part, why I think having children is a positive and important life experience for some people. My daughter shows and teaches me things about the world in her (newer) ever-evolving interaction with it. Also, it is a different perspective that I would not so readily accept/adopt from anyone else (because, in my (selfish/narcissistic) experience); as a lot of other people are not so worried about wounding me, but there seems to be a more natural and genuine reciprocity between myself and my child.
    A theory that speaks even more to me, than the concepts attached to F.A.E., is that of Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance. For a long time, it was a whole lot easier to just shift my view and opinions to ‘fit in’ with the lifestyle choices I chained myself to. The leap to change that approach and follow belief before circumstance has delivered me into quite a lonely life path, but a much happier (and more honestly interactive) one.
    Anyways, in agreement:
    “…the lifestyle of the “rich and famous” may be something to emulate, but I think we can all agree that it has serious pitfalls.”
    I ‘don’t envy’ those who chose/choose exposure (‘vulnerability to the elements’?) but I certainly admire their guts:)

  4. speedfreakerr February 21, 2010 at 10:05

    whoops, sorry, typo – because I shouldn’t have had that ‘because’ in there:
    (xxbecause,xx in my (selfish/narcissistic) experience)

  5. Francois Tremblay February 21, 2010 at 14:37

    Wow Davey, how embarassing for me. I’ve deleted the error. No, I most definitely do not believe that sexual orientation is a lifestyle.

  6. Davey February 21, 2010 at 14:57

    Francois, I’m very glad that is the case. Like I said before, it really jarred with what was an otherwise very thoughtful post.

  7. rabc February 21, 2010 at 17:47

    “Therefore, I do not believe that most people are capitalists out of cupidity, or stupidity, or an irrational attachment to their jobs.”

    Yes but people who are not stupid and who have a real desire for Truth would expose their views to rational criticism and or contrary ways. If they just accept it as default, they are stupid.

    For me personally I know we can become confused, and reason and logic are not always the best way to work our way out of these, even if we are good at using these, but generally having the view that ‘I or we may be wrong’ is intellectually healthy.

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