Envy debilitates a society

(This policy bulletin is an extract from From poverty to property: Themba Sono’s five steps to real transformation published by the FMF Books, 1999)

A society that is consumed by envy will not prosper. In South Africa, as in other African countries such as Nigeria, the letters PHD have come to mean “pull him/her down”: anyone who starts accumulating wealth is to be “pulled down” to the material level of the people surrounding them. Throughout the ages kings, chiefs, politicians and others have used force to appropriate the property of astute, able and hard-working people. They have done this with the approval of the envious.

Protection of citizens and their property from appropriation by force is relatively recent in human history. Strong and widely-supported protections were explicitly defined for the first time in the American constitution in the late eighteenth century. Other countries subsequently followed the example of the USA and as a consequence the world has, during the past two hundred years, lifted itself out of poverty and misery at a faster rate than ever before in history. Poverty is now the exception rather than the rule, and many people who are considered poor today have a standard of living that would have qualified them to be in the “middle class” a century ago.

George Washington, the first President of the United States, lived in a house with no electricity, and therefore with none of the electrical appliances that so many of us take for granted today. There was no flush toilet. He travelled in a horse-drawn carriage over dirt roads. When he lost his teeth because of poor nutrition there were no dentists to supply him with dentures. Yet he lived in relative luxury compared to most people of the time.

Even the poorest Americans today live in greater comfort than President Washington did. The dramatic improvement in living conditions over the past two centuries not only illustrates the progress the world has made but also shows how people can improve their own lives under the right conditions.

Source: This policy bulletin may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

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