January 7, 2019 | by Brad Lips Print

Two vices loom large within our modern dialogue over policy and politics: greed and envy.

Greed is the vice that the political left assigns to the political right. Cutting taxes in ways that benefit the rich, slashing regulations in order to goose business profits, and excusing conspicuous consumption of the American public as a matter of individual choice — these all seem to justify a stereotype of selfishness and greed. 

People on the right don’t see it that way. Lower taxes, less regulation, and choice are all key to progress, job creation, and rising living standards. It’s economic freedom at its finest. Government intervention in economic life interrupts the flow of an otherwise self-sustaining economic ecosystem. Greed is a term used selectively by the left to punish their adversaries, when in fact we all are driven to act in our self-interest.  

When the political right looks at the political left, they see an agenda driven by envy. It’s a destructive element in society, worthy of God’s Top Ten List. Sure, envy ranks notches below “Thou shalt not kill,” but the warnings about coveting are smart ones. Human history is full of experiments that have tried to eliminate envy by forcing “equality.” None of those stories ended well (see the French Revolution, the Soviet Union, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, and the nightmare of Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialism unfolding before your eyes).   

But those on the left don’t see themselves as motivated by envy; rather, they are driven by a sense of justice and a desire to address past wrongs that have marginalized certain populations. Our past and present are littered with disparities that strike a sensible person as unfair. 

So those on the left ask those on the right to stop being greedy — and to surrender to programs of redistribution and accommodation. 

Those on the right push back, arguing that the lefties should get over their envy and appreciate their opportunities.

Where does this end?

I’d like to suggest a compromise.

Those on the left need to admit that greed is baked into our human DNA, and if we’re to build a healthy society, we will let people pursue their self-interest with a minimum of rules to constrain them. That’s the gist of Jefferson’s insertion of “the pursuit of happiness” into our Declaration of Independence. 

In return, those on the right need to admit that envy is also not going away either. While it’s true that we must steer away from redistributive schemes that gum up what works in our economy, there are in fact inequalities that matter. 

Addressing those inequalities smartly provides an opportunity to work together for change.

Can we agree on eliminating corporate welfare and other forms of cronyism? Can we work to ensure parents can choose among quality educational opportunities for their children no matter where they live? Can we eliminate barriers to participating in the formal economy?

Topics like these can unite veterans of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party and anyone in between who is skeptical about the nexus of big government and big special interests.

We also can gain appreciation for how much common ground we have by looking abroad to the more severe inequalities that plague other countries. 

Systemic discrimination exists in every society, and it is especially pernicious in many developing countries. Women in such countries typically struggle with substandard education, low-paying jobs in the informal sector with no protections or legal rights, and few opportunities to escape this spiral. The World Bank reports that there still are 18 countries where women may not be employed without their husbands’ expressed permission.

There’s no magic wand that can be waved to eliminate some of these inequalities that are embedded in various cultures. Most Americans today can agree — after lessons learned following military adventures in Iraq and Libya — that interventions by us “outsiders” tend to trigger harsh blowbacks no matter how benevolent our goals. 

Instead, we should listen to “insiders” who can offer pragmatic and achievable insights about how to make progress against systemic inequalities. Little revelations about how to remove barriers to opportunity are available if we listen closely enough. In Sri Lanka, a civil society organization seeking better educational outcomes for females has focused on improving access to sanitary napkins, recognizing there is a seldom-spoken reason why girls miss a week of secondary schooling every month.

We can also step back to view the big picture and take solace that persistent inequalities are likely to erode over time, as long as more of the world’s countries are connected through trade and open to information. Think of what happened over the past quarter century to the caste system in India. People who were “untouchable” according to millennia-old social customs were suddenly valued employees when India’s economy liberalized and foreign investors sought out hard workers with no regard to their family background.   

As we enter 2019, let’s turn down the volume on the partisan rancor that bubbles from the Twitterverse and cable news channels. Let’s focus on addressing the inequalities that matter by staying committed to our values of an open and tolerant society.    

Brad Lips portrait
Brad Lips has served as Atlas Network's Chief Executive Officer since 2009, after previously acting as its Chief Operating Officer. Learn More about Brad Lips >