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The two sides of envy

Gershman, Boris (2010): The two sides of envy.

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Abstract

The two sides of envy, destructive and competitive, give rise to qualitatively different equilibria, depending on economic, institutional, and cultural environment. If inequality is high, property rights are poorly protected, and social comparisons are strong, the society is likely to settle in the "fear equilibrium," in which better endowed agents restrain their efforts to prevent destructive envy of the relatively poor. In the opposite case, the standard "keeping up with the Joneses" competition arises, and individuals satisfy their relative standing concerns through suboptimally high efforts. The different nature of these equilibria leads to starkingly contrasting effects of envy on economic performance. From welfare perspective, adoption of better institutions may not be Pareto improving, since positional externality is curbed in the low-output fear equilibrium. The theory is consistent with broad empirical facts from social sciences and bridges the gap between separate lines of research on envy.

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