4) Economics of Envy – The War on Private Property
Dostoevsky held a deep-rooted distrust and disdain for centralized power. He also despised the decadence exhibited by many among Russia’s elite. He was a man of the people, not of big government nor big business (which, especially in those days, operated under the protective umbrella of big government).
But some misunderstand Dostoevsky’s aversion to “big” as a condemnation of what we know today as free-market capitalism. The caricatures of wealthy robber barons wearing ivory-rimmed monocles or the Monopoly Man lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills tend to jump to the front of people’s minds any time a discussion of free-market economics presents itself, whether that be around the water-cooler at work or in the pages of a 19th century Russian novel.
I’ve had friends who lean fiscally Left and know my Dostoevsky appreciation ask me what I think of his anti-capitalistic message. My response is simple: Dostoevsky hated centralized power and licentious living among the rich, all while loving concepts such as private property, personal responsibility, stewardship, and creative innovation. He waxed poetically against socialism, Marxism, and those who thought they knew best how to handle other people’s lives. He wrote extensively on how political and economic freedoms were nothing without the rule of law and a citizenry that strove toward a virtuous society.
To most folks “capitalism” is merely an abstract concept, just as “socialism” is merely a label. The issue is values; Dostoevsky hated what we would consider “progressive” economic and political values. He hated them so much, he understood their deep flaws so well, that he chose to write about them in his books, identifying a root motivation that drove so many on the Left in his day: envy (or covetousness).
Last time, I cited his novel The Devils and the characters of Peter Verkhovensky (an ardent socialist radical) and his hapless father Stepan Trofimovich (a man who dabbled in progressivism, which greatly influenced his son’s future radicalism). In an utterly self-serving manner — though insightful — the father Stepan ponders aloud to a friend why it is his son Peter and his progressive friends seem to be so obsessed with money:
I’ve noticed that all these desperate socialists and communists are incredibly stingy, avaricious, and terribly eager to own things. One might even say that the more ardent a socialist a man is, the stronger is his need to accumulate goods. Why is this? Does it stem from the emotional element of their socialism?
As syndicated radio talk show host Dennis Prager often says, more people died in the 20th century because of class warfare than because of racism, homophobia, and sexism combined (and x 1,000,000). The myth perpetrated by every leftist rabble-rouser from Lenin to Hugo Chavez is that they are “men of the people” who care nothing for power or wealth, only the betterment of the proletariat. But what invariably happens is those who began by chanting “eat the rich” begin to eat (and live) like the rich they ate.