Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

A culture of envy

Many people are worried about their social status and inequality. We live in what I call a culture of envy.

Matt Welsh, a software engineer who previously was a Harvard professor, wrote about the Fame trap last week, telling us that the pursuit of academic fame made him unhappy:

Once I had kids, I really started to appreciate the toll it was having on my family (…), and I started to realize that maybe I had my priorities all wrong. (…) I think chasing academic fame is not the best reason to go down that path. I wish I had known that when I was finishing my PhD.

The scholarly book of the year is probably Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This book has served as a rallying point for all of those who worry that managers are enriching themselves without bounds.

What is at stake in all cases, is that people insist on playing what Carse calls finite games. They may not realize that it is what they are doing… they may not even realize that they agreed to such games, but that is what they do nevertheless.

In finite games, there are winners and losers. The accumulation of wealth, the acquisition of a high social status… only make sense as games if there are winners or losers.

It is important to realize that this has nothing to do with absolute wealth and everything to do with envy. Let us put it clearly:

  • If you drive a luxury car, it is almost certainly to create the envy of those (like me) who drive a cheap Honda. Or to lessen the envy you feel with respect to those who drive luxury cars. Thorstein Veblen called it conspicuous consumption.
  • If you achieve fame, people will be envious of it. Your fame only makes sense if you have more of it than others, and if it is desired by others.

In a wealthy society, envy can quickly become the driving force. It is not about meeting your basic needs, but about achieving an envious position. In effect, you seek to be better off than most… in whatever finite game you are playing.

What is the alternative? Carse examines at length what he calls infinite games. You know that you are playing an infinite game when….

  • You are never playing against other people, against other teams. You are playing with others.
  • Rules can be reinvented…- The game may never end…- Players have no compelling reason to be envious of each other…

You cannot force others to play your finite games. Matt Welsh decided to drop out of the academic fame game. He had the tenured professorship at Harvard but he decided to play other games, elsewhere. The same is true of money… you can buy a BMW and a big house to create envy in others… but these people can decide at any time that they are not players in this game. They may choose not to pursue the acquisition of luxury goods, and not to be envious of you.

I think that it is time that we pay less attention to people who take finite games seriously. I believe that it is the irony of a book like Piketty’s. You are most likely to be upset by financial inequalities if you take finite games seriously. So who is Piketty? He earned his PhD from the London School of Economics when he was 22. He went on to become a professor at MIT, and he ended up creating and leading his own prestigious school in Paris. If anyone takes finite games seriously, it is Piketty. The intellectual leader of Occupy Wall-Street, David Graeber, is similarly a competitive over-achiever… a professor at Yale University and now a professor at the London School of Economics. These are people who would not have taken “regular jobs”. I believe that if there is one thing humanity needs to do to get through the next few centuries, is to reject envy and stop taking finite games seriously. It also happens to be a recipe to be happier on an individual basis. Take the regular jobs. Avoid conspicuous consumption. Be ok with just being a dad to your kids, as opposed to a famous star. Be ok if your kids grow up to be just regular happy folks that never win anything.

Next time you feel envious, please pay attention. And choose your games carefully.