Matt Lewis

Obama’s campaign plan: Sow envy

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

It is becoming clear that President Obama’s re-election campaign is premised on stoking class division. Constant references to “income inequality,” the “Buffett rule,” and the “99%” — are all examples.

Considering his opponent, it might be smart politics (Mitt Romney is a very rich man; you should probably resent that), but envy is unhealthy for nations and individuals, alike (it didn’t become one of the “deadly” sins for nothing.)

(Note: Envy is not to be confused with a health ambition or zeal. I am specifically referring to Thomas Aquinas’s definition — sadness at the good of another.)

Tocqueville, perhaps, explained it best:

There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality that incites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.

(Emphasis mine.)

Everyone, to one degree or another, struggles with this. Envy is especially pervasive in the media world, where we constantly reflect on such petty questions, such as: “Why is he a CNN contributor instead of me?” — “Why didn’t they invite me on the show today? — “Why is hers the top story today?”

The best way to confront it is to count your blessings — to focus on the positive. If you’re not careful, comparing yourself to others can drive you mad. Someone will always be ahead.

Of course, it’s hard enough to manage envy when it is self-imposed. But what if someone you respect keeps telling you that you ought to resent what someone else has?

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what President Obama and his allies are doing. In 2008, they sold hope; today, they are selling envy. (Crack might be less harmful.)

At the macro level, ratcheting up envy and pitting one side against the other is dangerous to society. But this pernicious message is also harmful to individuals.

Here’s how it works. Let’s assume both sides of the political spectrum are stretching the truth a bit. For the sake of argument, let’s assume conservative “Free Marketer’s” downplay the degree to which the game is rigged — the degree to which connections, etc. — help the ruling class attain and keep wealth.

Even making the assumption that both ideologies are flawed, which worldview is most likely to help a given individual to succeed in our system?

The man who harbors resentment and anger (stoked by the very political leaders he trusts!) will likely be much worse off. He will have little incentive to work hard (considering he believes he cannot get ahead, anyway). If anything, he will work for political solutions — urging government to use coercive powers to bring about income inequality. But he will probably not attempt to start a business. And he will probably die a bitter and angry man.

Now let’s now take man who came here penniless but — maybe quixotically — believes he can be successful if he just works hard enough. He will be no doubt happier and much more likely to be successful. And while he will likely never have “Mitt Romney money,” does it matter? After all, he reasons, why should he care if Romney is richer?

America may not be fair, but it’s still the land of opportunity. And if this man now makes $100,000 a year and sends his children to college, who’s better off?