Human beings like to find out not only what people say but why they say what they do. The impulse to search for motivation, I’m guessing, is highly adaptive. In many circumstances, it serves us well. And it even contributes to valuable discussion. When I hear what you mean and not what you say, I’m able to be more generous and more responsive. It’s a tenet I try to follow.
Like most traits, however, the search for motivation has downsides. When we ascribe bad but hidden purposes to our enemies, we start down a useless and destructive road. Most recently, I have in mind the assertion that those advocating a higher marginal tax rate on high wage earners and increases in tax rates on unearned income do so out of “envy.”
I don’t know how often the various political factions engage in motive-fixing. I feel it most acutely when conservatives ascribe to me reasons for my positions that I know I do not have. And it’s not only in politics. I’ve been lumped in as a purely status-conscious computer consumer on account of my longstanding use of Apple gear. In reality, I’m a nerd, not someone trying to adopt a look or posture by my choice of nerd equipment.
So what of this “politics of envy” thing? Obviously, I can’t say that everyone who advocates for higher top marginal rates does so for reasons unrelated to coveting the privileges of the wealthy. I only know for sure that I am not and never was so envious of such things that it led me to advocate for forcible redistribution. Many people would prefer to acquire more wealth, sure, and a salutary social goal is to increase everyone’s wealth. But just because someone would like to make more money does not mean that they are so jealous of those who already do that they want to seize that wealth for that reason.
That the public advocates for more progressive taxation are not motivated by envy strikes me as so obvious that I, naturally, wonder at the motivations of those who suggest they are. But this takes us further down the road from debating the actual question in front of us. Once we start the motivation war, I’w swept in. Frankly, I think the “envious of the rich” message bearers are of two types. First are those who know it’s bullshit but need the appearance of an argument that has emotional appeal. They need this so that cable news can present the debate as having two sides and therefore a matter of opinion rather than an analysis of facts. They need it also to check the impulse of the struggling to complain about their lot. To do so, the envy-propagandists assert is to be truly sinful. Nothing keeps the disadvantaged in line like really making them feel they have a moral duty to stay there.
Second are those who actually believe that progressive advocates are envious of their greater wealth. I suspect that, in many cases, holding that view is a strategy to dissipate cognitive dissonance. The people advocating for taking more of my wealth are envious. They want to be me. On that, they have rights far inferior to mine. So my keeping my wealth is not selfish, as giving it up would not be for a public purpose but only to enrich the looters - and I should decide how I want to help my fellow man. In this way, the idea that some additional redistribution might actually increase the size of the pie in addition to alleviating some suffering is cast aside, and the negative feelings about one’s own selfishness are forgotten.
You see how these suspicions about the motivations of the other side do very little for us? In speculating, I’ve just taken us further down the spiral and away from what’s actually at stake. But how are we supposed to respond to a charge of “envy”? That emotional appeal is just not effectively combatted by sober analysis showing, in a nutshell, that a society is more prosperous, including its rich, when a very broad part of it can comfortably buy shoes, computers, games, food, and other goods. Even if you’re unmoved by appeals to do what we can to decrease suffering, you can surely understand that some distributions of wealth generate greater gains over time, just like some allocations of capital within a firm will promote better growth than others - and that the market may not always deliver optimal allocations.
But the envy-peddlers have sought to turn a policy debate into a base, emotional one. I’m not one who believes emotion should be drained from politics, but calling out your opponent for what you believe is his or her motivation injects emotion in all the wrong ways. I wish we could expunge it from political discourse. As suspicious as I am of the motives of the Republican leadership, I’m going to try to keep my mouth shut about it. What matters is to debate what they say, not what I think their ultimate purpose is.
This is all a somewhat long way to say that in all walks of life that involve disagreement, we need to foster a generosity of spirit. The cost of that is being occasionally played for the sucker in someone’s long game. But intelligent engagement with the immediate arguments is often sufficient to disrupt any such longterm, nefarious plots. And it’s a far better way to live one’s own life.