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.