Has ‘Income Inequality’ Become Code For ‘Envy?’
Religion & Liberty Online

Has ‘Income Inequality’ Become Code For ‘Envy?’

There are, according to Christian teaching, 7 deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Unchecked, these dark places in the human heart will lead to the ultimate death of Hell (yes, some of us still believe in that.)

There is much discussion today about “income inequality.” President Obama has declared it the most important issue of our time. He says it is not about equal incomes, but equal opportunity, referencing the rise of Abraham Lincoln from poverty to presidency. CNN is now declaring such inequality “the great destroyer” and notes that it includes not just opportunity, but wealth and income as well.

I am left wondering: has “income inequality” become code for “envy?”

John Zmirak, in a piece from Crisis, asks us to test our envy, and I think it’s a good idea. First, let’s be clear as to what envy truly is. St. Thomas Aquinas breaks it down into four parts, and it is the fourth that really drives home the point:

It’s the final, fourth brand of “sadness” that St. Thomas condemns as the pathogen Envy:

 In a fourth way a man may be sad at the goods of another inasmuch as that other surpasses him in good things; and this is properly envy, and is always evil, because it is grief over that which is matter of rejoicing, namely, our neighbour’s good.

So, while other vices amount to exaggerations or distortions of wholesome appetites — for marital bliss, glory, or justice — pure Envy craves evil for its own sake.

Zmirak then asks the reader to ponder a situation where envy might creep in:

At your job, you have a colleague — let’s call him Mr. Wonderful — whose talents and task are starkly different from your own. You’re not direct competitors (which would muddle things), except in the vaguest way, so he’s no threat to your job. You’re plugging away just fine in your position, and from time to time your work gets the praise it deserves. It’s the same with him, and has been for years.

Then something happens. A project he’s working on becomes enormously successful, seemingly through happenstance. Suddenly, Mr. Wonderful’s work is attracting all kinds of internal attention and bringing in significant new business. He starts disappearing for long lunches at chi-chi restaurants with your boss and is given a nice private office — which you pass each day en route to your cubicle. Your cube, which used to feel like a comfy den where you worked contentedly, now seems to close around you like one of the veal-pens in the movie Office Space, and you start to feel strangely possessive about that red Swingline stapler on your desk.

Mr. Wonderful is still perfectly friendly to you, but now in what seems a slightly swaggering way that makes you suspect he’s trying to be Magnanimous about his success. And you really, really hate that. You feel like he’s tossing you bits of goodwill that you’re expected to catch in your mouth like dog treats, then wag your tail. And that’s exactly what you do.

In the course of things — maybe you were doing opposition research on the guy, just admit it — you turn up some embarrassing secret about his past. Nothing creepy or criminal, but an incident or character trait that would take some of the gilding off Mr. Wonderful’s halo, and slow down his canonization. Let’s say you accidentally found a bottle of his schizophrenia medication. What do you do with this information?

A situation of inequality has arisen. Mr. Wonderful’s work has brought him some glory…and you don’t like it. That’s envy.

All of this, for me, brings to mind a short story by Kurt Vonnegut. In this story, Harrison Bergeron, Vonnegut writes:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

So much for equality. Harrison – a genius – has the bad luck of falling in love with a beautiful ballerina, who has been “equalized” by being made to wear a mask to hide her beauty and to have cement blocks strapped to her feet to hinder her dancing. Equal.

The next time you hear the phrase “income inequality,” think about Mr. Wonderful, Harrison Bergeron and envy. Just think about it.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.