Bigger just means bigger; it doesn’t mean better

After an eceee summer study with the theme of sufficiency, it is good to see this column by the writer and philosopher, Julian Baggini, continuing the theme in The Guardian. As he writes, our desire to always go one better is natural but that doesn’t mean we should let it consume us with envy. What are your views?

From houses to wages, it’s time we realised that size isn’t everything

Among our nation’s many long-term property woes is that British homes are not only becoming less affordable, they’re also getting smaller. However, news from over the pond suggests shoebox living may not be a problem after all. In the US, average house sizes have been growing but satisfaction with them has remained flat. Bigger just means bigger; it doesn’t mean better.

It’s just one study, but on this occasion the usual academic caveat of “more research is needed” is, well, not needed. Psychologists already know that we are compulsive comparators. Improvements to our own fortune don’t have any lasting effect unless they make us better off than those around us, not just better off than we were. Indeed, we often feel worse if we get more but see peers get even more still.

These findings are as close to incontrovertible as you can get in a field as contentious as psychology. What we make of them, however, is very much a matter of dispute.

From the left, it’s proof that inequality is bad for human wellbeing. Therefore we should do more to manage markets so that they don’t result in large differences in wealth. Unfettered capitalism simply puts us in a race of competitive consumption that the majority are doomed to lose. Better to share the pie more widely than to constantly strive to grow it.

The right agrees that competition is indeed natural and that’s exactly why we should not resist it. The “politics of envy” is a lame response to the realties of human aspiration. In a healthy, freedom-loving state, people use their jealousy as a spur. In a weak, socialism-infected one, it sours into bitter resentment.

Both sides have a point but miss the main one. Both take it for granted that what is apparently “natural” settles the issue. The left says that if it’s natural to be unhappy with inequality, we should minimise it. The right says that if it’s natural to compete with your neighbour, we should embrace the struggle. Both responses overstate how immutable so-called “natural” psychological responses are and understate how much depends on how we respond to them.

There are plenty of natural psychological responses that we rightly attempt to counter. One is prejudice. Racism is deplorable but as the widely taken Harvard Implicit Bias Test shows, it is almost impossible to completely eradicate. That doesn’t stop us fighting it, which we can do with a great deal of success. Only an idiot would say that because some kind of residual prejudice against people perceived to be “not like us” can’t be removed we should just give in to nature and become unapologetic bigots.

When assessing the evidence that we can’t stop comparing ourselves with others, few stop to ask how we could better deal with this impulse. The right is not entirely wrong to say that we ought not to let it foster resentment. Knowing that you are hardwired to notice other people’s relative fortune should and could make you more willing and able to question your envy. You may not be able to stop thinking that it would be nice to have as big a house as the Joneses, but you can stop yourself becoming a bitter, green-eyed monster.

More fundamentally, nature may have cursed us with the desire to rank ourselves, but what we rank ourselves against is clearly socially constructed. After all, no one looked enviously at a BMW in the Pleistocene. You only feel inadequate in a smaller home in a society that values property as a marker of social status.

At the same time, we are not complete slaves to the dominant value system. I used BMWs as an example, but I just don’t have any desire to have an expensive car. Some people envy their neighbour’s massive flat-screen televisions, others their extensive libraries. You might want your friend’s salary, but you might prefer another’s low-paid creative profession.

Perhaps we have most reason to envy species that don’t go in for our kind of crass social ranking at all. But that would also be pointless. To deal with our fallen nature, we need a two-pronged approach that tackles both the material conditions of society and the inner condition of ourselves.

First, we need to decide whether to give in to our more competitive instincts and let inequality grow, or to build on our other, at least as powerful, cooperative ones and use policy instruments to create a more equal society.

At the same time, accepting human nature for what it fundamentally is does mean accepting all the ways in which our culture has come to accommodate its baser elements. To treat our envy at others’ houses or incomes without question is to buy into precisely the kind of materialist value set that many profess to reject. If we really believe social status should not be determined by the size of our assets we should challenge ourselves when we notice that we’re eyeing up other people’s.

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