A VOLATILE MIXTURE OF HUMAN MOTIVES CLOUDS
THE FERGUSON INCIDENT AND ALL OUR POLITICS
Each worker is promised the standard day’s pay. But when evening comes, the workers hired earliest are upset because those who began work later are paid the same amount as they. The early-hires grumble, feeling they should receive more, since they put in a full day’s toil while the others worked only a couple of hours.
“I’m not cheating you,” the boss responds, quite taken aback. “Didn’t you agree to the usual daily wage?”
Where the grower sees himself as being charitable, the workers perceive unfairness.
“So what if I give this last worker the same as you?” he asks. “Aren’t I free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I’m generous?”
The story is an allusion to God who dispenses His mercy as He wills. But it also contains a brilliant insight into human nature: namely that there’s a fine line between justice and envy.
This was illustrated dramatically by the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri.
What started as an appeal for justice over the presumed unprovoked killing of Michael Brown quickly mutated into waves of looting. It’s a pattern we’ve witnessed time and again in riots across the country, from Watts, to Detroit, to Newark, and many other cities.
Some act of the police perceived as unwarranted or excessive offends a community’s sense of fairness or is considered illustrative of ongoing official abuse. This spurs eruptions of public anger and loud calls for justice — which broaden to include a range of complaints and demands for redress of social and economic disadvantages.
In short order, local stores, malls and shopping centers are attacked, and concern with justice degenerates into a massive no-pay shopping spree. It’s envy on steroids, as businesses get stripped of items that represent the “good life” to aggrieved people who feel their prospects doomed by unfairness seen as insurmountable.
Sensible elements within the community decry these orgies of acquisitiveness, since they tend to undercut the legitimacy of justice appeals and feed into ethnic stereotypes (the hot prize right now is the giant flat-screen TV, which while large, is easier to carry off through a smashed store window than the clunky tube televisions and component sound systems of riots past).
But sensibleness rarely trumps envy. Indeed, envy is an enormously complex phenomenon.
It’s one of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins, those human failings traditionally held by Christianity as damnable (the others being wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust and gluttony). Yet, there’s no denying the part envy plays in more praiseworthy approaches to advancing one’s situation in life (more praiseworthy than theft, that is). Seeing what others possess — or what they’ve accomplished — can be a strong and valid motivator.
Justice and envy have been the Yin and Yang of pretty much every progressive social movement in history. The combination is essential to any successful revolution. You may whip people up into a momentary burst of righteous indignation over some injustice. But the prospect of tangible gain — getting a piece of what the rich have — is generally more effective at making them stick with an extended struggle than inspiring exhortations are.
While I’ve driven through the St. Louis metropolitan area many times on I-270, I’ve never been in Ferguson. So I don’t know whether this is an especially impoverished community. News reports would suggest that it’s a typical working-class suburb with mixed economic elements and neighborhoods of varying affluence.
But the justice/envy combination was clearly at work in the rioting there. It was powerful enough to attract opportunists from outside of town, giving rise to what’s been sardonically called looting tourism. And it drew a fair share of the professional agitators who make a career of exploiting local conflicts for the sake of national publicity.
I would argue that envy is the key factor in politics. Consider all the current hubbub about income disparity, especially that being promoted by politicians of leftward persuasion. What does it really matter if the rich hold a “disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth,” as it’s so often put? For that matter, what’s “disproportionate?” The middle class is, and always has been, where the lion’s share of wealth resides, because the middle class is the overwhelming majority of the nation, the rich a tiny sliver.
But so what if those at the top have as much as is asserted? What are they doing with all their money?
They aren’t stuffing it inside of mattresses. They’re investing it, and they’re using it to live opulently — both of which activities fund the conduct of business, generate demand, and in other ways drive our economic system.
Which helps to create the jobs that distribute wealth throughout the population.
That’s, in fact, how the economy works — how it always works, everywhere and at all times — though the concept is much derided as “trickle-down theory.”
Now, you might wish you could trade places with the rich and be the one doing the trickling. And that’s envy.
Most people never accomplish this dream, of course. Their envy most often gets expressed in acquiring things they believe can give them a lifestyle that’s sort of like how they assume the rich live — essentially, surrounding themselves with those same “good life” symbols which looters seek: giant flat-screen TVs and all the rest. Only most people don’t smash store windows to get them. They go into debt.
The Left would have us believe that all of this is unjust…
What about the poor? they ask.
It’s a question that pricks our consciences — that should prick our consciences, in fact, because we have an obligation to help the needy.
And so defining appropriate and effective means of aiding the poor — of strengthening the social safety net for those in genuine need, and moving people out of poverty where possible — is our ongoing national challenge. It’s controversial, and it’s politically charged.
Charged, to a great extent, with envy, though it’s mostly presented as justice.
We will be a long time finding out what really happened in that ill-fated confrontation between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson. Right now, it’s looking like Brown attacked Wilson, though Wilson certainly did react in a way that raises questions — all those bullets fired.
But the search for justice will go a whole lot smoother if the envy that’s been stirred by this tragic incident can be set aside.
At least to the extent that’s humanly possible.