On Adam Smith and Envy

sympathy bernard mandeville moral sentiments othello shakespeare iago fable of the bees

Richard Gunderman for AdamSmithWorks

August 10, 2022

"The same envy without which economies cannot fully activate also leads to the corruption and misery of individuals." 

Gunderman points to Smith (in addition to the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus) as a guide to balance. 
                What do we make of envy? On the one hand, it presses down hard on the accelerator pedal of demand and thereby boosts economic activity. It means keeping up with the Joneses – my car is more than adequate to meet my needs, but now my neighbors have a newer, flashier, more powerful, or simply more expensive car than mine, implanting in me an almost irresistible passion to drive one that at least rivals and ideally exceeds theirs. And this impulse applies not merely to consumer goods but to a host of other aspects of our lives, such as our lines of work and annual incomes, the performance of our investment portfolios, and where we vacation and send our kids to college. When someone else has something that we perceive as better than ours, many are moved by envy to strive to get more for ourselves, and this supercharged demand keeps the economy roaring.

                Bernard Mandeville famously implies as much in his famous Fable of the Bees (1714), which tells of a prosperous beehive that is undone when its members’ wish for an elevated level of virtue among the populace is granted. Once envy stops driving the desire for personal gain and the hive’s citizens no longer compete to outdo one another in luxuries, demand plummets. Members who have spent their working lives satisfying the hopped-up desires of their neighbors are suddenly out of work, or at least suffer a dramatic diminution of their income. This drives down their purchasing, further reducing demand throughout the community. In short order, the hive collapses, richer than ever in virtue but hollowed out in terms of material luxuries. Mandeville ends his poem with the famous line, “Base virtue cannot make nations live in splendor.”

                Mandeville traces out this line of thought even more explicitly in his Free thoughts on Religion, the Church, and National Happiness (1720), writing
The worldly interest of the whole society often interferes with the eternal welfare of every particular member of it. We see daily men roused from sloth and idleness, and spurred on to emulation and useful labor, by no better principle than envy; and it is generally taken for granted, that covetousness and pride are the chief promoters of trade and industry; but can it on the other hand be denied, that these vices, against which the Gospel so justly cautions us, contain the seeds of almost all the inequities and disorders that are committed?

In other words, the same envy without which economies cannot fully activate also leads to the corruption and misery of individuals. Some are driven to theft and robbery, but even those who play by the rules see in the achievements of others little more than threats.

                If to love someone means, among other things, to rejoice sincerely in their happiness and good fortune, then envy is love’s sworn enemy. If seeing my neighbor receive a handsome promotion, make a killing in the stock market, or tool about town in his new luxury automobile fills me with only affection and joy, then it is unlikely to induce me to work harder to get more for myself. What the prosperity of my community relies on instead is an absence of love, or at least a mere pretense of love. Instead of enhancing my sense of well-being, seeing my neighbor prosper undermines it, stoking the fires of my discontent until I can hardly bear it and impelling me to strive to find some means to prevail. Of course, only a few can truly come out on top, consigning the rest to a state of perpetual discontent, growing ever more viridescent with envy as we behold the lifestyles of the rich and famous. 

                Perhaps the greatest portrait of envy in world literature is to be found in one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, Othello, and particularly in the portrait of one of his greatest villains, Iago. Othello’s standard bearer and trusted advisor, Iago, believes he has been unfairly passed over for promotion and resolves to bring about the destruction of both his rival and his commander. In fact, he begins to blaze a trail of deception and destruction that engulfs nearly everyone in the play, leaving hardly anyone standing. Above all, he kindles jealousy in Othello, convincing him that his innocent wife Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. In a jealous rage, Othello murders his wife and then, when he realizes what he has done, commits suicide. 

                Iago wreaks destruction on everyone he pretends to be helping. He engineers a breach between Othello and his good lieutenant Cassio, which leads the latter to ask Desdemona to intercede on his behalf with her husband, which convinces Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair, which makes her pleas on Cassio’s behalf a loathsome confirmation to Othello. Those who seek truth and goodness only add to the deception and malignity. Muses Iago,
When devils do the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now: for whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So I will turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
                Othello provides lessons in the distinction between jealousy and envy and the full destructive power of both. Othello resents the possibility that someone could take what he has. He is jealous. Iago, by contrast, resents what others have, including Cassio’s promotion and loyalty and Othello’s good governance and happy marriage. He is envious. He wants what they have, but in the event that he cannot have it, he would prefer to see them and their goodness destroyed. This is envy at its absolute worst, a person so convinced that he is the most important thing in the world that he would rather see all destroyed than live with his wounded pride. Even when Iago’s diabolical machinations have been exposed and he is being hauled off to prison, he refuses to repent. To the end, he remains steadfastly the center of his own universe.

                A solution to this conundrum, if there be one, is to be found in the writings of Adam Smith, and especially Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Like most of his contemporaries, Smith was keenly conscious of Mandeville and his argument that public prosperity subsists on private vice. Like Shakespeare, he knew that envy had long been numbered among the seven deadly sins. Yet Smith adds an appreciation for the fact that, though self-interest is a part of human nature and a necessary ingredient in the recipe for a robust economy, there is another equally essential force at work in human nature and human affairs. As he writes in the very first sentence, “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

                Pity or compassion, “the emotion which we feel for the misery of others,” Smith asserts, is an example of such fellow feeling, and he argues that such sentiments are not confined to the virtuous and humane but present throughout humanity. Even “the greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.” If we take Smith at his word, this might imply that a creature such as Iago, so intent on seeing all the good around him and those who embody it destroyed, could only be a character of fiction. But whether absolute evil can exist or not, Smith’s addition to Mandeville’s portrait of the human psyche – what we might call sympathy – places envy in a somewhat different light. Where Mandeville focuses exclusively on what men possess in the way of wealth, power, and fame, Smith takes seriously the issue of whether they deserve it.

                Suppose, for example, that Iago’s plan had come fully to fruition. What would such a state of affairs look like? Presumably, he would have maneuvered the people he envied into mutual self-destruction, leaving the way open for him, his dastardly machinations undetected, to assume their place. Among the ways this plan went awry, however, is Iago’s unmasking as the instigator of evil. Thanks to the honesty of his own wife, his malign intentions are revealed, and everyone left standing can see him for what he really is – not the rightful commander but a usurper, not a loyal friend but a betrayer, and not an admirable man of virtue but one who manifests what Smith calls the most “detestable” character, sowing dissension among friends and “turning their most tender love into mortal hatred.” Unlike Mandeville, Smith draws a sharp distinction between being praised and being truly praiseworthy. More persons are admired than are truly worthy of admiration.

                Smith was no idealist. He knew that no one, or nearly no one, is “defective in selfishness,” and that powers of benevolence are more limited than we sometimes care to admit. Put to the test, many will come up short, opting for wealth, fame, or power over the dictates of virtue. Yet Smith takes a more nuanced view than Mandeville about the implications of envy as the engine of economic success. To be sure, envy helps keep the economy moving, but this does not mean that envy is the only possible human motivation or that envy underlies everything. Taking compassion to be as natural a force in human nature as egoism means that for Smith, a society manifesting only absolute and unrestrained selfishness would be as unnatural as one marked purely by cooperation, mutual concern, and compassion. The question is not which sentiment exists to the exclusion of the other, but the balance between them.

                Everyone is justified in wanting to have enough – enough food to eat, adequate shelter from the elements, medical care in case of illness, and so on. Some degree of self-interest is not only tolerable but positively necessary to survival. A problem arises, however, when we stop attending to what is enough and begin asking ourselves whether we are better off than others. We want to be seen on equal or higher footing than other people, and seeing ourselves lower bedevils us with envy. Even the poor today enjoy luxuries that the richest person in the world could not have dreamed of just a century ago – wonders in transportation, communication, housing, medicine, and so on that were simply unavailable at any price. Instead of rejoicing in our good fortune, however, many of us are consumed with envy at the fact that others have more.

                We are left with a challenge. While esteeming the rich and powerful, we must not forget to esteem the wise and good, while remembering that these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. While in some respects admiring titans of industry and heads of state, we must ensure that figures such as Socrates and Jesus Christ remain to a large extent our guides. Envy and the desire for wealth can produce benefits both for those who harbor them and for society, but insofar as we seek to dim the lights of others so that ours should shine more brightly, to take from others what is not rightfully ours, or even to destroy others in order to put a stop to the psychological torture their success inflicts upon us, we stray from the path of goodness into evil. To repeat, to love others is in part to sincerely wish what is best for them and to genuinely rejoice in their good fortune and flourishing. Envy, by contrast, is always a form of hatred.

                The vanity at the heart of envy can never be satisfied. As long as someone else has what I want, I remain prone to envy. On the path of vanity, no one can ever have enough. By contrast, a person, family, or community that aspires to be good as much or more than it aspires to be rich stands a chance of being able to say that it has acquired enough wealth and can now, at least for a time, turn its attention to other equally or even more important matters more directly linked with goodness, such as education and fellowship. Insofar as the richest persons alive long for still more, they can never be happy. By contrast, persons who know they have enough can refocus their attention elsewhere. If they focus on matters such as health, family, peace, and friendship, they may experience not only a sense of sufficiency but a deep feeling of gratitude, replacing resentment with rejoicing.

                There is a saying of the Buddha: We can never have enough of what we don’t really need. If Smith offers us a way out of the labyrinth of envy, it is by recognizing the distinction between what we happen to want and what we really need, between what provides a temporary sense of satisfaction and what provides enduring fulfillment. Socrates was right. Given the choice, it is more choice worthy to be good than merely to appear so. In other words, what we are matters more than what we seem to be, and insofar as wealth, power, and fame are not essential to what we are, they are mere disguises. Sometimes the wicked prosper as the virtuous suffer. Yet in our lucid moments, most of us recognize that it is wrong to envy the wicked, no matter how high the pile they have amassed. To allow envy to dominate is to mistake the part for the whole, the lesser for the greater, and to stray from the path of goodness. 

Want More? 
Richard Gunderman's Educational Despotism
Sarah Skwire's Adam Smith’s Slips and the End of Othello & Why Mandeville Makes Smith Mad
Garth Bond' s Mandeville’s Social Toyman and Social Media