Are the poor envious of the rich?

Since Occupy Wall Street pushed inequality back into the mainstream consciousness, those on the right have scrambled to mount their defenses. Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor tried to defend by emphasizing the existence of social mobility, something that is actually quite low in the United States relative to many European countries. The rhetoric of the rich as job creators has also been flowing heavily, as nonsensical as it is. But the defense that has struck me as the most confusing is one that was briefly raised by George Will just a few days ago: complaints about inequality are just instances of class envy.

Many in the past and present have made this claim about class struggles, but I am never quite sure what to do with it. In a very narrow sense they are right. The 48.8 million Americans — 16.2 million of whom are children — that live in food insecure households doubtlessly do envy those who do not have to worry about whether they can afford their next meal. The 49 million Americans that live below the poverty line and the 51 million more who live just above it probably do envy the economic security of the rich. They envy not worrying about whether taking a day off for their sick kid will put them hopelessly behind in their rent.

The 50.7 million Americans who lack health insurance coverage probably do envy those who have regular access to medical treatment, and who are not constantly at risk of personal bankruptcy should a medical emergency strike. The friends and family of the estimated 45,000 Americans who die annually from lack of health insurance probably do envy those whose loved ones have not needlessly perished. Given that 74 percent of students in tier one colleges are from the top quarter of households, while only 3 percent are from the bottom quarter of households, I do not doubt that there are many poor teenagers who envy those from wealthier households and their transparently unequal advantages.

But where does this all get us? Is it somehow wrong to envy the lives of those who are not made to suffer the injustices you are? One could claim that all struggles against oppression and injustice are motivated by envy of this sort. Perhaps civil rights campaigners were just envious of white people and their ability to avoid the noose. The civil rights campaigners were probably envious of the nice schools white people could attend, the civic engagement white people could participate in, and the basic dignity and respect white people were afforded. Is it supposed to be a problem for advocates of racial justice that they may envy the lives of those who are not constant victims of racist oppression?

The same could be said of women’s struggles, queer struggles, immigrant struggles, and the struggles of any other marginalized and oppressed group throughout history. What the conservatives call envy, the leftists call a yearning for equality. What those who scoff at envy really seek to do is shut up those who are calling out privilege and injustice. I understand that conservatives do not think there is any injustice involved in these class issues. Indeed, this has always been the position of the conservative, denying injustices and blocking progress in favor of a status quo that affords them so many unequal and unfair benefits.

I do not have any doubt that the poor envy the economically secure. That does not pose any particular problems for those campaigning against inequality, nor does pointing out such envy substitute for a real argument. If the right-wing thinks they can make a compelling case for the justness of extreme inequality, then they should make it. This newly resurgent claptrap about envy is not such a case, and only reveals the severe insecurity of a political movement that knows it cannot convince people that the poor should do with less so the rich can have even more.