Schadenfreude is a German word, but really the British should have invented it. I think we take more delight in the misery of others than any other country. Such cheap emotions might feel satisfying, but envy is a ruinous trait — as well as one of the seven deadly sins — and a sordid national characteristic.
The gloating comments online and in the media at the struggles of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant business are unpleasant and unproductive. If entrepreneurs didn’t take risks, where would the jobs, exports, tax generation and wealth creation come from?
Why are we so venomous towards those who are more successful? Just look at Oliver’s Wikipedia page: it is relentlessly nit-picking about his considerable achievements. The entry suggests he is no more than a string of failed restaurants, mouse droppings, dishonest advertising and unpaid staff. Which small-minded contributors spend time on Wikipedia recording such stuff?
In fact, Oliver is a leading light in the transformation of Britain’s food culture; the creator of thousands of jobs; and a tireless campaigner for what he believes are good causes. As it happens, I disagree with some of his campaigns, but I still admire his energy, ambition and enthusiasm. He is the very definition of anti-elitism, a dyslexic school leaver and son of a publican who put in huge amounts of work to become a world-famous broadcaster and restaurateur.
As the clergyman and author Charles Caleb Colton wrote: “Of all the passions, jealousy is that which exacts the hardest service and pays the bitterest wages. Its service is to watch the success of our enemies; its wages to be sure of it.”
Unfortunately, the British have always had mixed views of those who prosper. Our politics stokes envy. The basis of socialism has always been hatred towards the rich and successful. Resentment is the driving force of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party: just look at his threats towards the finance industry. His recent speech attacked the City for its “out-of-control financial wizardry and gambling” and he stated that its “dominance over industry” was “obvious and destructive”.
Part of the psychology of envy is to blame others for your own misfortune: so Corbyn and his cohorts see the City as the source of all capitalist evil. Another characteristic of envious people is ignorance — demonstrated here by Corbyn’s profound lack of understanding of how business actually functions and what the City does.
Overall, financial services provide 2.2m jobs and generate a £44bn trade surplus, together with £72bn of taxes. It is a highly productive and diverse sector, encompassing areas such as insurance, foreign exchange trading, shipping services and asset management. Britain is a world leader in these areas: if Corbyn diminishes them, what does he think will replace their contributions?
Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of income tax in 2016-17 was paid by the top 10% of earners, demonstrating that the British economy is already heavily redistributive. Yet Oxfam — the somewhat discredited charity — recently promoted the idea that Britain suffered from “an extreme form of capitalism that only works for those at the top”. Oxfam has been too busy fomenting envy and playing politics to keep its own house in order.
Like so many on the left, they cannot grasp how incentives and markets work in the real world. They dream of a utopia like the one in Alice in Wonderland, where the Dodo bird says: “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.” Such fantasies disregard human nature and neglect the importance of differing talents, ambition and luck.
Busy people have no time for envy. They participate, rather than peering at the world as passive observers. Those who are mere onlookers and critics in life can grow sour and ill-disposed towards their active fellow citizens. As the psychologist Erich Fromm wrote: “There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation, which permits envy to be acted out under the guise of virtue.”
I prefer places where people want to get ahead by dint of hard work, where they cheer entrepreneurs. Such an attitude inspires more individuals to take the plunge and start a business — and that initiative is the chief engine of innovation and economic progress: not misguided government intervention, but a culture that celebrates rather than denigrates winners, and embraces free enterprise, diligence and risk-taking.