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Tearing Down the Joneses: Fostering Envy Over Wealth Distribution


PJTV's Bill Whittle uses a great illustration that I'm about to shamelessly rip off. Imagine that you work in an office, occupying one of many cubicles. One afternoon, the boss calls you into his office and tells you that you've done such an incredible job that the company has decided to provide you with a $5,000 bonus. In that moment, how would you feel? Pretty darn good, right? Your day just got $5000 brighter! Your mind might go straight to what you could do with the money, the vacation you could take, the bills you could pay, the possible boost to your savings or investment accounts. You'd probably swell with pride at the recognition you've earned and head out to tell a friend and co-worker the great news. He would listen intently, then smile and tell you that he and everyone else earned a bonus too -- only theirs is $10,000.

Now how do you feel? What only a moment prior was overflowing joy and celebration instantly metastasizes into something wholly different. You actually feel worse than you did before getting an extra $5000. Instead of thinking about what you can do with the money you got, you think of what you could have done with the money everyone else got. From a dark place, you acknowledge that you'd rather see no one receive a bonus -- including yourself -- than see others get more than you.

There's something about the human heart which fosters such envy, an emotion so powerful that it can drive us to work against our own interests in pursuit of equity. It's better that everyone get the same, even if the same is nothing, than for some people to get more than others. So that dark corner of our heart proclaims.