[FORUM]The constructive elements of envyHere’s a quiz. Three families of different nationalities lived in poor circumstances around a wealthy family. One day, a mountain spirit appeared before them and asked each family to make one wish. A Japanese man hoped to have a house as big as his neighbor’s and an American widower wished for a wife as beautiful and kind as his neighbor’s. A shanty turned into a mansion and a beautiful woman appeared. But the last family’s wish was unusual: “Please let my neighbor’s son fail in the college entrance exam, as my son did last year.” What would be the nationality of this family?
The answer aside, this joke indicates that there are two kinds of envy, which occurs when a person does not have what others have. One is “upward (standardization) envy,” in which a person wishes to rise to be equal to others, and the other is “downward (standardization) envy,” in which a person wishes others to fall to be equal to his situation.
In a reality where there are no mountain spirits, in order to satisfy upward envy we ourselves need to make painstaking efforts and/or get support from the government. And it also takes a considerable amount of time to do so. For these reasons, the government or an individual can opt for an easier way to accomplish the standardization in a short time, that is, downward envy.
These tendencies can be found in a variety of economic and social policies that emphasize balanced development, including our educational policies and real estate measures. For example, the high school standardization policy attempted to heal the national malady of private lessons. The tax system was altered to try to stop the surge in housing prices in the Gangnam district of southern Seoul. The public concept of housing was raised. Labor policies sided with workers. Business policies put a drag on the large companies. Policy ideas gave greater priority to distribution than growth. Regulations were imposed on the Seoul metropolitan area to curb its development. Media policy put pressure on the Chosun, JoongAng and Dong-a Ilbos, three major newspapers. Behind all these attempts lies downward envy. The reason we do not recognize this point easily, or are reluctant to admit it, is because such envy often appears in the disguise called justice.
Policies based on envy will have side effects and often fail to accomplish even their original goals. The education standardization policy lowered the level of scholastic ability and failed to stop private lessons. Some criticize that the government’s makeshift remedy fueled the rise in housing prices in Gangnam, and the policy intended to crack down on house prices there aggravated envy, hostility and a sense of incongruity among the people.
The government’s labor policy instigated strikes violating the law and principle, only to shrink the investment and employment activity of foreign companies as well as domestic companies.
When downward envy is prevalent, the economy and society stagnate, losing vitality and competitiveness. In the extreme case it can result in the destruction of individuals and disaster for a country. Some examples are Othello, the character in Shakespeare’s play, and Hitler, who incited the German people to slaughter the Jews and triggered World War II.
A responsible government, if it is concerned about the future of the country, should formulate policies aimed at upward standardization instead of stirring up envy among the people.
The revision of the high school standardization policy, the development of a high-class housing complex comparable to Gangnam, the deregulation of various rules, and the formulation of economic policy putting priority on growth, employment and competitiveness, all point to an upward direction.
Back to the above quiz: There is no correct answer. Many people might argue that the answer is Korea ― Koreans can’t endure others’ prosperity, even if we can stand hunger, so when it comes to envy our nation is first by far. But because Germans, Russians, and Ukrainians also believe their nation is second to none in terms of envy, we don’t have to torture ourselves.
Envy is a natural and universal feeling among humans. Inequality, its source, needs to be corrected. But a healthy society will come when constructive upward envy is put ahead of destructive downward envy. If each individual and the government makes an effort to move in this direction, our economy and society will regain vitality and competitiveness, and have an opportunity to take off once again.
* The writer is director of the JoongAng Ilbo Economic Research Institute.
by Ro Sung-tae