Russell Kirk on Envy
Acton Institute Powerblog

Russell Kirk on Envy

Following up on the recent discussions of envy, here’s a bit from Russell Kirk’s book on economics:

It would be easy enough to list other moral beliefs and customs that are part of the foundation of a prosperous economy, but we draw near to the end of this book. So instead we turn back, for a moment, to one vice we discussed earlier—and to the virtue which is the opposite of that vice.

The vice is called envy; the virtue is called generosity.

Envy is a sour emotion that condemns a person to loneliness. Generosity is an emotion that attracts friends.

The generous man or woman is very ready to praise others sincerely and to help them in­stead of hinder­ing them. Generosity brings admiration of the achievements and qualities of other people.

Now, generosity, too, is a moral quality on which a sound economy de­pends. Producer and distributor, when they are moved by generosity, do not envy one another: they may be competitors, but they are friendly competitors, like contestants in some sport. And in a society with a strong element of generosity, most citizens do not sup­port public measures that would pull down or repress the more productive and energetic and ingenious individuals.

A spirit of generosity to­ward others is still at work in America. But in much of the world, a very different spirit has come to prevail. In Marxist lands, envy is approved by the men in power. Private wealth and personal success are denounced on principle. The Marxist indoctrinator deliberately preaches envy. By appeal­ing to that strong vice, he may be able to pull down constitutions, classes, and religions.

Be­cause the mar­ket brings substantial success to a good many individuals, the Marxist hates the mar­ket. A con­sis­tent Marxist declares that when two people ex­change goods in any mar­ket, both are cheated. Yes, both—that is what the Marxist says. Ex­change it­self is “capitalist oppression,” the Marxist propagandist proclaims. Certainly there is little profitable ex­change in Communist countries. Envying the market’s popularity and success, the Marxist denounces the market furiously.

In the long run, the envious society brings on proletarian tyranny and general poverty. In both the short run and the long run, the generous society encourages political freedom and economic prosperity.

Also, a successful free economy makes possible material generosity: it creates a mate­rial abundance that gives wealth to private char­i­ties and en­ables the state to carry out measures of public welfare.

For more on the topic, check out my co-authored piece with Victor Claar, “Envy in the Market Economy: Sin, Fairness, and Spontaneous (Dis)Order,” and another essay, “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity.”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.