Who is richer, you or I? As long as we both have enough to live comfortably, it shouldn’t matter much. Many of us try not to let it matter. But sometimes such comparisons gnaw at us. In an era of globalization, with rapid economic growth in some areas and stagnation in others – and with television and the internet allowing us to see how others live – these comparisons are an increasingly important factor in the world economy.
The late social psychologist Leon Festinger argued that interpersonal comparisons of success, whatever our moral qualms about them, constitute a fundamental – and thus irrepressible – human drive, one that is present in every society and all social groups. Festinger argued that for any measure of success, whether wealth, ability, or merely personal charm, people tend to be most concerned about comparisons with others whom they see regularly and who are at a similar level of attainment. We tend not to be bothered by people who are either vastly more successful or vastly less successful. We consider them so different from us that we just don’t care.
Harvard professor Benjamin Friedman’s important new book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth details what the feelings generated by these comparisons mean for social harmony and the success of our economies.
Friedman argues that comparisons of wealth are more dangerous to a society if it appears that the rich are members of a different race or ethnic group. In that case, the comparisons become politicized, contributing to social conflict and thus tending to reduce economic success.