You can make a good argument that, by the late 20th century, the Seven Deadly Sins had become the Seven Lively Virtues.  In the 1960’s, the media lauded the anger of students who bombed police stations and set dormitories on fire.  Hollywood glorified lust the way it had once glorified chastity.  Government at every level subsidized sloth.  As for gluttony, for years the Guinness Book of World Records celebrated eating and drinking excesses, including such categories as “heaviest cat.”  An ex-president of the United States said on national television that “greed is good.”  Black pride came to be regarded as the quintessential virtue of that community (though white pride is still the deadliest of all sins).  But envy is the little engine that drives left-wing politics in America, the cash cow of the Democratic Party, Pavlov’s bell.

In the rush to denounce the consumerism of the middle class, we often forget the degree to which the folks who live in untidy neighborhoods and buy groceries off the discount table likewise share in our national obsession with getting and spending.  As a country, we’ve always forgiven the poor for wanting things that bankers and doctors take for granted—indeed, congratulated them for their raw envy.  At the same time we’ve condemned the rich for enjoying those very same things.  One of the unspoken assumptions underlying our democracy is that until you’re “well off,” you’re miserable.  Our popular songs repeat the phrase “as happy as a king,” and nobody seems to question the simile.  Charles I?  Louis XVI?  Nicholas II?

I remember sitting in an Army infirmary, waiting for a pill (that’s all they ever gave you) while doctors performed an autopsy on a major.  The nurse told us that he’d committed suicide, and that the procedure wouldn’t take much longer.  I was sitting next to a private who looked to be in his late 40’s, the Man With the Hoe in fatigues.

When he heard what was going on, he turned to me, shook his head, and said, “Jeez, why would a major want to kill himself?”  He couldn’t imagine a problem that being a major wouldn’t solve.  I suspect a reservoir of unacknowledged envy lay behind that question—a desire to be a dues-paying member of the officer’s club, to be chauffeured about in a jeep, and (above all) to buy the things a major’s pay would buy.

Poet Edwin Arlington Robinson deals with the same phenomenon in “Richard Cory,” a poem that increasingly tricks ideological critics into regarding it as an attack on wealth and privilege.  It is anything but that.

In the first stanza, the anonymous speaker tells us he represents the poor folks, who view the rich, polished Richard Cory with unapologetic awe:

Whenever Richard Cory went to town,


We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown.

Clean favored, and imperially slim.


Through the use of the words crown and imperially, the poet hints at a submerged metaphor that almost surfaces in the third stanza: Richard Cory as king and the people as subjects.


And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,


And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.


Rich and debonair, Cory becomes for the “people on the pavement” the ideal to which they can only aspire.  Is their attitude simply wistful fantasizing, or is it envy—bitter, pure, and unappeased?  The next stanza answers that question and also by implication rebukes the people for their mulish belief in the superficialities of life.


So on we worked, and waited for the light,


And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.


Why did Richard Cory kill himself?  Unrequited love?  It happens even to the rich and debonair; but not, insofar as we can tell, to Richard Cory.  Mental illness?  No evidence of that.  Latent homosexuality?  A popular choice today, I’m sure, though nothing in the text even hints at a motive for suicide.  That’s because the poem isn’t about Richard Cory.  It’s about “the people,” about the proletariat that Karl Marx and Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg so shamelessly sentimentalize—and about a pervasive envy, rooted in simplistic materialism.

We recognize and condemn this materialism in, say, Ebenezer Scrooge, and all the more easily because it is totally absent in Bob Cratchit, who, living in poverty, offers a toast at Christmas dinner to his money-grubbing employer: “I’ll give you Mr. Scrooge, the Founder of the Feast.”  No envy there.  But when we see Scrooge’s vice alive and well in the poor, we immediately begin to manufacture excuses, to transform vice into virtue, even to baptize a deadly sin and welcome it into the Body of Christ.

Secular society deals with that broiling envy in at least two ways.  The free market—trafficking in illusion—offers imitations of the luxuries the upper-middle class and rich enjoy.

Suburban developments feature three-bedroom, two-bath houses with gables, turrets, and jacuzzis.  Garages built on the side extend the width of the house and appear from the street to be extra rooms, particularly when the garages have curtained faux windows.

Rich folks have hideaways in exotic places.  Therefore, blue-collar workers and retirees, living on fixed incomes, can buy one fiftieth of a condominium through a time-sharing plan.  They can use their tiny square of heaven for a specified week once a year—just so Madge can tell the girls at the beauty parlor, “Clyde and I are flying down to Florida tomorrow to spend a week at our condo.”

You can buy knockoffs of Rodeo Drive clothes on the streets of major cities and in flea markets everywhere.  On Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Hermes scarves go for a ten-dollar bill; and a flea-market dealer in South Carolina sells Ferrari fold-up sunglasses for three bucks, while the same pair is selling for $100 to $200 in New York City.  Fake designer purses (Kate Spade, Chanel, Prada) are everywhere, supercilious smiles on their faces, pretending to be the real thing.

The Franklin Mint can turn a trash collector into a collector of fine art for only three payments of $19.95—plus shipping and handling.

At discount furniture stores you can get sleigh beds, Chippendale chairs, Charles X reclamiers, and hand-woven Indian rugs.  And you won’t have to pay a penny for the next 18 months—nothing down, no interest.

This is what the free market offers: to bridge the perennial gap between haves and have-nots in America.  It seems like a pretty good solution to the problem of rampant envy—that seemingly irrepressible urge to have what you can’t afford.  It’s like the Wizard of Oz giving the Tin Man a mechanical heart that ticks away but pumps no blood.  The Tin Man is happy as a king.  “God’s in his Heaven— / All’s right with the world.”

Yet viewed from another perspective, this hawking of the American Dream is outright fraud—the sale of delusions and debased dreams, the mainstream equivalent of those greasy little men who step out of alleys and offer you a genuine Rolex for only $50.  Thus the left cries: “American business shouldn’t prey on lower-income Americans by encouraging them to believe they live in a classless society.  Where is government, our old leveler, when we need it?”

And government replies: “Over here.  Leveling as hard as we can”: subsidizing housing for middle-income renters so they can rub elbows with a better class of neighbors; subsidizing certain farms, eight percent of which are owned by honest-to-god farmers, so they can compete with the other eighty percent (down-home folks like Archer Daniels Midland and Prudential Life); providing scholarships and loans for the semiliterate, so they can learn in college what they failed to learn in elementary school and become doctors, lawyers, and billionaire computer geeks like Bill Gates; and electing our 44th president, who tells us he intends to “spread the wealth around.”

It took the old socialist George Bernard Shaw to epitomize this too-familiar philosophy of government: “When you rob Peter to pay Paul, you will always have the support of Paul.”  Indeed, these days Paul is legion; and tens of millions of Pauls are receiving stolen goods.  The levelers call it social justice.

They claim the free market is too cruel to be legal.  It’s like standing by, watching a chicken snake swallow a mouse.  What chance does the poor mouse have in a merciless, God-abandoned world?  Let’s outlaw chicken snakes!  Or better yet, impose a 40-percent food tax on mice so that chicken snakes can barely afford to eat them.  Then use the tax revenues to fund an ad campaign warning mice to steer clear of chicken snakes.

This analogy assumes that social and economic manipulators intervene in nature purely out of sympathy for the mouse.  This is not necessarily the case.  Indeed, all such interventions may be motivated to some degree by a deep-seated, visceral envy of the chicken snake.

Despite protests to the contrary, deep in their soiled hearts, American leftists hate a winner and desperately want to see him toppled.  Their attitude is something more than a natural sympathy for the underdog.  You sometimes get a glimpse of green-skinned malice in their political rhetoric and actions.

For example, in 1962, collector Leonard Sherman of New Jersey bought three sheets of U.S. four-cent stamps honoring Dag Hammarskjold.  On one sheet, the yellow background was printed upside down.  The estimated value of that one misprinted sheet: $500,000.  Sherman made the mistake of telling the press about his purchase; and before sundown, J. Edward Day, Kennedy’s postmaster general, heard about Sherman’s good fortune and immediately ordered the postal service to print an additional 400,000 of the upside-down sheets for sale to the public.  In so doing, Day reduced the worth of Sherman’s misprinted stamps to just a little more than four cents each.

Note that collectors—who in four hours gobbled up 320,000 sheets of Day’s supplementary printing—got nothing of real value.  With the snap of one bureaucrat’s finger, a rarity became a commonplace.  Day couldn’t have believed he was enriching anybody.  He must have known he was arbitrarily confiscating the newly acquired wealth of a single collector, who, as it turned out, was a man of modest means.  Here was that rare situation in which he could actually allow one person to prosper without depriving someone else as a consequence.  He wasn’t robbing Peter to pay Paul.

So what motivated Postmaster Day to rob Peter?  It wasn’t empathy for low-income stamp collectors.  Day did not come from the wrong side of the tracks to go from rags to riches, like Horatio Alger’s Jed, the Poorhouse Boy.  He graduated from the University of Chicago and Harvard Law School, and then practiced law and made a lot of money.  Regardless of how rich they are, these leftists always seem to empathize with envy, which has become the chief political virtue of their Democratic base, the one quality that turns out their voters in hailstorms and blizzards.  Their slogan: Don’t let the filthy rich get in!

With Day it had to have been a kind of vicarious envy, a pinched vision of the world as consisting of wicked exploiter and powerless victim.  If he couldn’t give all impoverished stamp collectors a half-million dollars, at least he could sell them the same sheet of stamps and deny that son of a bitch Leonard Sherman something he, by god, didn’t deserve.  Be assured that Postmaster Day—who’d never met Leonard Sherman—knew precisely what evil lurked in the heart of a stamp collector worth $500,000.  Wouldn’t it be nice if every stamp collector had exactly the same stamps?  Wouldn’t those philatelist conventions be lovefests?

Underlying the apotheosis of envy are the unspoken assumptions that the ills of society are the result of economic exploitation, that everyone is playing an inevitable role in a gray historical drama, that no player is responsible for what he does.  In the end, all of us will have everything or nothing.  Either way, we will live in a just society.  In the meantime, however inevitable all this may be, the envious will remain virtuous, and the rich wicked.  Obviously, Americans in huge numbers believed in some part of that odd account of the world this past November.  It will be interesting to see what they believe four years from now.