Envy and the Undoing of American Mores

One exchange in the second Presidential debate caught my imagination. It was the one in which Mr Romney asked Mr Obama whether he ever thought about his pension, and Mr Obama replied that he did not, but that he was sure that it was smaller than Mr Romney’s.

Of course, Mr Romney’s question was itself an attempt to rebut Mr Obama’s assertion that Mr Romney had invested in companies that had outsourced formerly American jobs to China, with the clear implication that Mr Romney had enriched himself thereby. The point of Mr Romney’s rebuttal was that, almost certainly, and whether he knew it or not, Mr Obama had also invested in companies that outsourced American jobs, ergo, where outsourcing was concerned, they were in the same boat.

Everyone knows that a debate between presidential candidates is not a disinterested inquiry after truth, not anywhere in the world, so that perhaps one should not analyze what is said in them too carefully. They are, rather, exercises in point-scoring, more akin to gladiatorial entertainment than to serious intellectual discussion.

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Still, the exchange is worth analyzing a little. First, let us take the form of Mr Romney’s attempted rebuttal of Mr Obama’s accusation. He used the tu quoque argument, you also are guilty of what you accuse me of.

But this is virtually an admission of guilt rather than an assertion of innocence, as can be seen from the following. If I reply to someone who accuses me of lying that he does not always tell the truth, I am attacking his moral standing to accuse me, not saying that I did not lie. If I had told the truth, if the accusation were false, I should simply say, ‘I did not lie.’ It is extremely rare for someone with nothing on his conscience to reply tu quoque.

Moreover, it is usually used only when something discreditable is at issue. If I praise you for an act of kindness you might just disclaim credit by saying that anyone, including me, would have done it, but this is said out of modesty rather than in self-defense. Not patriotism, then, but tu quoque, is the last resort of the scoundrel.

In effect, Mr Romney was admitting Mr Obama’s charge against him. Perhaps the moment went too quickly for people to notice this; after all, it was not a major part of the debate. But there was another aspect of Mr Romney’s attempted rebuttal that was not reassuring. It is surely one thing for Mr Obama’s blind trust to invest some, probably quite small, portion of his pension fund in companies that have outsourced jobs to China, and quite another to invest large sums in companies that you know are going to make large profits by doing so. The two things are not at all equivalent.

A franker answer by Mr Romney would have been that outsourcing of jobs is not deleterious to the economy of the United States, whereas the protectionism necessary to prevent it would have been deleterious. But whether this is so or not is a very complex question, particularly difficult when the jobs are outsourced to a country as opaque to the US as China, and is hardly suitable to be decided in a forum such as a presidential debate. And even if the question could be decisively decided in favor of outsourcing, it might not be very good electoral politics to trumpet it in times of unemployment and precarious employment. In choosing to attack Mr Romney on this point, then, Mr Obama, or his advisors, chose shrewdly, for there was no easy defense.

Mr Obama’s jibe that his pension, or pension fund, was smaller than Mr Romney’s, and that even so he did not bother to look at it, was pure demagoguery. He implied what is unlikely to be true in any larger sense, namely that, being a man of the people, he is uninterested in his own financial affairs. In a narrow sense this might be true; he has much on his mind at the moment to occupy him other than the cultivation of his personal wealth. But once he leaves the White House he will have few causes to worry about his finances unless he develops very expensive tastes indeed. He no more has to worry about his pension than does the Queen of England have to worry about whether she has any money with her when she leaves Buckingham Palace.

Mr Obama’s reference to Mr Romney’s great personal wealth was an implicit appeal to envy. The latter—envy—is one of the seven deadly sins, of course, and is therefore a permanent temptation to fallen creatures such as we. With the possible exception of pride, it is the sin that is most difficult to expunge from the human heart; it is far more destructive than gluttony.

Now American society has many faults, no doubt, as all things human do; but the one sin of which it was traditionally freest, by comparison with all other societies, was envy. More people wished good luck to the successful in America than in any other society, though of course not all; fewer people were bitten by envy, and more people impelled by emulation, than anywhere else in the world. Indeed, there was a time, and not so long ago, when to display or appeal to envy would have been regarded as un-American, a virtual repudiation of the American dream. Mr Nixon despised Mr Kennedy as a pseudo-aristocratic spoilt brat, but didn’t dare say so in public in case it sounded envious.

So Mr Obama’s appeal to envy is a symptom, and perhaps a reinforcement, of a cultural change. It goes without saying that his own financial position is one which 99.9 per cent of the enviously-inclined might envy; but an appeal to that envy, to suggest even subliminally that a man with a large fortune is in some way existentially less suited ipso facto to the highest office than a man with less money, is no more traditionally American than would be a sneer at a man’s humble beginnings.

The excitation or exploitation of envy is wrong, even where the fortunate do not deserve their good fortune.

This column first appeared October 17, 2012 in Liberty Law blog sponsored by Liberty Fund and is reprinted with permission.


  • Theodore Dalrymple

    Theodore Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute.

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