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Monday, November 30, 2015

Envy As The Enemy of Conservativism

This article explores the meaning of the adjective "conservative" as it is used to describe people.

While "conservative" is most often used as an adjective to modify a noun in a political / partisan context, it is more appropriately used as a philosophical modifier to describe one's larger values and perspective on life. 

Those values, it seems, are so much more than a mere reduction into narrow, partisan political categories.

It seems that one prime characteristic of the conservative is the principle of respect. By this, I mean a respect, in many regards, and for many other people, principles and beliefs. 

That respect often has a common denominator far from the least. It is a respect for the effort of others -- and the character which that effort demonstrates.

Effort is independent from the concepts of achievement, success or sacrifice, even though effort is often found in the same mix as these other concepts to produce ultimate achievement. One can achieve without being successful; think of the marathon runner who achieves a particular goal (a targeted time or pace) without winning. One may be successful without sacrifice, such as through the receipt of luck like the game-show contestant or lottery ticket winner. Yet it is exceedingly rare to achieve success without either sacrifice or effort, and it is even rarer still for sacrifice not to involve a degree of considerable effort (such as the effort to exercise the discipline to withstand and overcome privation or deprivation).  Hence, effort should be held preeminent as a value. 

Now, effort is no guarantee of success. It is not even predictive of success. Yet the absence of effort is largely predictive, if not of failure, then of one's failure to fulfill one's potential -- what might be called one's potential to achieve. 

Ability is a strong driver towards achievement. Yet many disciplines are full of people with ability. But who are the ones to "make it"? Thus, while ability is most often found prior to achievement, and ability may be an almost-necessary precursor to achievement, it is just not a sufficient precursor; something else is needed. That difference-making element is effort.

I contend that when we write that we respect achievement and success, it is more accurate to write that we respect the effort that led to that achievement. After all, we do not respect one's achievement -- fortune, really -- of holding the winning lottery ticket, an event for which luck is virtually the sole contributor (save for stubborn foolishness deemed as perseverance). 

And while ability and skill contribute to the achievement, those qualities do not illustrate one's personality, one's character traits, in the manner of effort. One may be slothful yet still possess great skill (and the luck and occasional flash of discipline to use it), such that the skill does not speak to character. Yet the reverse is quite different. Mediocre skill combined with great effort can result in great achievement, so much so that one's mediocrity is often (and incorrectly) used as evidence of one's grand character, as if mediocrity itself were a credential and not a mere circumstance or relative handicap.

As such, effort illustrates the character of respecting the traits so often found to produce and foster achievement: discipline, perseverance, dedication, and so on. Therefore, we find ourselves respecting achievement because it serves as the proxy for those traits. 

It follows that conservatives admire and exalt not individual achievement, but rather the traits whose presence so often is necessary to foster the achievement. 

But what of the inverse, the opposite of those traits? How does one view the envy, jealousy and schadenfraude towards those who achieve?

The reasoning outlined here hints at a basic incompatibility. If conservatism at its personal, psychological core exalts the traits that induce and inspire effort, then conservatism must also scorn, dissuade and punish the traits which punish effort. It follows that the emotions of envy and jealousy must be targeted, because those emotions reward non-effort and those who seek to benefit from the effort expended by others. As such, envy induces the redistribution of the fruits of positive behavior away from its possessors (the good actors) and towards its detractors (the bad actors), while localizing, concentrating and restricting the costs of effort to its expenders.

But what is envy -- at its root, at its core, what is it? It is just desiring what another had -- I wish I had that too -- or must it involve the demand to take from another -- I don't only wish I had that, but I must deprive that other person of his achievement, his effort, and keep it away from him?

If envy is really the latter, it supports the inference (really, it requires it) that what another has, his property, his achievements (financial, relationships, etc.), perhaps something totally intangible like self-esteem or confidence, is really rightfully owned by another? And by so doing, envy becomes the antithesis of property rights. It becomes the emotional manifestation of the belief that one person can never claim unfettered, unquestioned possession of his work, his sacrifices or their products, that in fact everything he has is subject to the constant threat of confiscation or destruction, at the hands of another who asserts either greater power (e.g., might makes right) or a moral superiority ad infinitum over the former, lesser person.

Envy rewards those who avoid effort. On that basic level and for that basic reason, envy would appear to be the polar opposite, the mortal enemy, of the effort so often responsible for achievement and the conditions necessary for success. It follows that envy and its associated emotions are incompatible with, and inhospitable to, the positive emotions necessary for effort and therefore for success and achievement in any arena.

Eric Dixon is a New York lawyer, strategist and business advisor. 

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