This Emotion Drives the World

“The world is not driven by greed. It’s driven by envy.”

Here you have the sage conclusion of Mr. Charles Munger, aged 99 and one-half years.

Mr. Munger is of course the business partner of Warren Buffett and legendary vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.

This ancient draws his conclusion from many, many decades of penetrating and microscopic observation.

Penetrating and microscopic observation, that is, of man in action.

And he concludes that the world is not driven by greed — but by envy.

Envy. What human vice ranks fourth among the seven lethalist sins? That is correct. The answer is envy — the acid emotion of envy.

“Hate the Man Who Is Better off Than You Are”

“The whole gospel of Karl Marx can be summed up in a single sentence,” argued economics journalist Henry Hazlitt long ago:

“Hate the man who is better off than you are.” He continued:

Never under any circumstances admit that his success may be due to his own efforts, to the productive contribution he has made to the whole community. Always attribute his success to the exploitation, the cheating, the more or less open robbery of others. Never under any circumstances admit that your own failure may be owing to your own weakness, or that the failure of anyone else may be due to his own defects his laziness, incompetence, improvidence or stupidity.

The History Pages Are Filled With Envy

“Hate the man who is better off than you are…”

History is a detailed diary of this very hatred.

The French Revolution. Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. China’s Cultural Revolution. Perhaps even America’s unfolding cultural revolution of its own.

We cite but some examples.

They all set out to right wrongs. They mostly ended up wronging rights.

The right to life itself was often among them. How many lives has envy claimed throughout time?

We cannot furnish a specific answer. Yet the answer runs to many, many, many millions — you can be certain of it.

Jealousy Isn’t Envy

Here let us distinguish jealousy from envy…

The two are siblings — yet they are not twins.

It is said a man is jealous of his betters. Yet look closer. The average man harbors no jealousy for the great man.

The average man is not jealous of the Alexanders of this world. He is nor jealous of the Caesars of this world. He is not jealous of the Napoleons of this world.

He may envy them… yet he is not jealous of them.

That is because the world’s Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons are men stamped from a finer metal. The average man — inwardly — acknowledges this metal is not in him.

The sparrow understands its place is not among the soaring eagles.

Rather, the subject of the average man’s jealousy is his peer — the average man.


As we have argued before: The average man is not jealous of the champion golfer who once shot 60. He understands the feat is beyond him.

But he is jealous — not envious that is, but jealous — of the fellow duffer in his weekend foursome who once broke 80.

He is not jealous of the Hollywood movie actor who hauls in the unattainable beauty.

He is jealous instead of his acquaintance who captured the pretty-enough gal he himself set his cap for — the 7.5 out of 10 gal.

Is the average man jealous of a Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk with their billions and billions? He is not. He harbors little ambition to gather such fortunes as theirs.

Again, he may envy them.Yet he is not jealous of them.

Of whom is he jealous?

He is jealous of the other fellow who got the promotion over him — and the raise.

The Sage of Baltimore — H.L. Mencken — once defined a wealthy man as “a fellow who earns $100 more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”

Be assured, the wife’s sister… and her husband… feel that $100 sharply.

Envy Is Never Contented

Envy, jealousy, jealousy, envy — they perceive only what they lack.They do not perceive what they have. That is, envy gives a man a mighty itch. This itch he forever scratches. It is never soothed.

Today’s average fellow lives grandly and royally compared with actual royalty of yesteryear. Next to them he wallows in a sort of luxury scarcely conceived 100 years ago.

Could old Louis XIV cool himself with air conditioning devices against the savage summer heat? He could not. Today’s average man can.

Could Louis board a jet airplane that could deliver him half a world away within hours? He could not. Today’s average man can.

Could the same Louis stare at a television screen as live images from even the most distant parts tickle and delight him? Again, he could not. And again, today’s average man can.

Yet the envious man of today does not rate himself against the royalty of yesterday. He rates himself against what he believes to be the royalty of today.

And against this royalty he finds himself  lacking.

The Never-ending Chase

A man’s eye is forever glued to the next rung of the ladder… to the prettier plum just out of reach… to the greener grass just opposite the fence.

A poor man may aspire for the middle class. But once he finds himself lodged therein, discontentment soon bubbles within him. It is not enough.

He lights out for the upper classes.

If by grace he attains it, he at once takes notice of the floor above him. And he begins another merry chase up the ladder. There is always another.

Such is man. He focuses not on what he has… but on what he lacks. He is forever climbing ladders.

Here we do not criticize him.

It is this ceaseless striving that accounts for all material progress. A contented civilization does not erect skyscrapers, amass empires or rocket into space.

Only a striving, discontented civilization erects skyscrapers, amasses empires or rockets into space.

And only striving, discontented men get on in this world.

Envy Can Be Costly

We hazard envy can wreck a man’s wealth as easily it can wreck his soul. That is because envy is an emotion that rips the reasoning capacities from him.

And men of emotion are the market’s dupes. Nearly every time they are taken by reasoning men.

Can envy poison your investments? Yes it can, argues Mr. Marcelo Perez of Alhambra Investments:

In a day and age where… keeping up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians, or the Windsors) is no longer a silent, Sisyphean struggle but a top-rated TV series or Netflix special, it is only natural for this poison to seep into the investing world…

YouTube stars dole out “investment strategies” left and right, extolling the benefits of the newest and coolest moneymaking venture, as per views, of course. Message boards are full of posts containing stock and option trades that yielded percent returns in the hundreds and thousands, over the course of no more [than a] few days. Virtually riskless, they say…

And even if we are skeptical, we become befuddled with amazement, consumed by “Why not me?” We are driven by envy as much as we are by greed. We see that our neighbor is excelling, or so we think, so we change our own course, or regret that we didn’t take the plunge.

The Siren Call of Envy

By our lights, envy is a thing to be resisted in this world. Yet it exerts a very heavy gravity upon it. It is very difficult for most to resist the tug.

Perhaps we should all chain ourselves to our mainmast, like the ancient Ulysses. We should plug our ears against envy’s siren cries.

Thus we can navigate clear of the destroying rocks that have claimed other men.

Can we do it, collectively? Again, in this fallen world of sin… it is not easy.

Yet we might recall the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

“Our envy always lasts longer than the happiness of those we envy.”

The Daily Reckoning