Modern Politics: Money Isn’t Everything…Envy Is

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And now, dear, dear long-suffering reader, our political ruminations finally come CLOSE to the end.

Why has collectivism – not individualism – triumphed almost everywhere, we ask? Individualism – a genuinely free market – clearly delivers more goods and services than a collectivised economy. People may not really care about liberty, but surely they care about money?

Why is it that even in the U.S. of A, where getting rich is practically the national religion, the government intervenes (in the name of the people, of course) in countless ways – from fixing key lending rates to setting the terms of employment contracts?

Part of the answer comes to us from Helmut Shoeck, who wrote a book 40 years ago called, Envy. Money isn’t everything, said Shoeck. In fact, in some ways it is less than nothing. People envy people who are richer than they are mostly because it confers status…not because it has any inherent benefits.

This comes from the peculiar nature of wealth. After you have the basics – adequate food, clothing, healthcare and shelter, wealth only matters in a relative way. Even if you are a multi-millionaire, for instance, you will be relatively poor in a neighbourhood of billionaires. Since it is relative wealth that counts, you will be almost as satisfied – and maybe even more satisfied – to see your neighbours taken down a notch than to see yourself with a few more million.

Envy is such a powerful emotion that all societies eventually have to deal with it. In primitive societies, a rich chief might have been required to host a giant banquet. In the Middle Ages, laws were enacted forbidding people from showing off their wealth – the sumptuary laws. People were given a place, or rank, in society and expected to dress accordingly.

Sometimes they forced everyone to wear the same drab clothes – as in China during the Mao years – and sometimes they just took everyone’s property away – as in most communist counties. In the West, taxes were imposed.

Britain and the Scandinavian countries even had marginal income tax rates over 100% for a while.

People seem to hate the idea that their neighbours are having a better time in life than they are. It makes them favour controls, regulations, taxes…in short, it makes them favour a collectivist society.

But there is another important reason why individualism is rare and fleeting in the world.

And we will tell you about it, next week…

In the meantime, the trouble with democracy is that its politicians are too popular. A good husband, we recall mentioning last week, shouldn’t notice when his wife gets fat. But a free man should keep a close eye on his governors…and keep a pot of tar bubbling, just in case. Better yet…a noose.

An angry mob might run the king’s governors out of town on a rail…or even cut off the king’s head. But voters are reluctant to hang a man they just elected.

Too bad. Some of them have it coming.

And this from a colleague, Dan Ferris:

“Just finished reading an interesting stock-market study – ‘Sometimes The Worst Are First’ – in Fortune. It shows that companies in the bottom half of Fortune’s Most Admired Companies surveys have outperformed those at the top of the list, consistently. ‘From 1983 to 2006, the mean annualised return of the less admired companies was 17.8%, beating the more admired group’s 15.4% return.’”

Bill Bonner
for The Daily Reckoning Australia

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Best-selling investment author Bill Bonner is the founder and president of Agora Publishing, one of the world's most successful consumer newsletter companies. Owner of both Fleet Street Publications and MoneyWeek magazine in the UK, he is also author of the free daily e-mail The Daily Reckoning.
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