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Being Happy for Others

One of the hardest things to do is to be happy for other people.

Morally, the founding document of Western Civilization tells of one brother killing another (Cain and Abel). Then brothers who go their separate ways (Isaac and Ishmael), and show open hatred of one another bordering on violence (Jacob and Esau). Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers. The situation improves as Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menasseh are the first brothers in the Torah who are not jealous of the other’s success.

Finally comes Moses and Aharon, brothers who are openly joyous when their sibling has done well. And it is with these two brothers that an extended tribe is ready to become a people that openly aims to be a Light unto the Nations.

The message is simple enough, and yet seemingly has to be relearnt time and again: we should reject schadenfreude, and instead always root for everyone to do well. This is bitterly hard to do, especially when others have achieved where one might have failed – in marriage or children or business or any other endeavor in life.

Economically, celebrating the successes of others is equally important. Capitalism requires the freedom to exchange money, goods and services on terms that are acceptable to both parties. Which means that in any transaction, both sides reckon they got a good deal. When people start worrying that the other side got “too good a deal,” then it becomes a barrier to smart business. In actuality, what should matter is whether a transaction is acceptable to each party. But once people start worrying about the other guy doing too well, then envy leads us to prefer doing nothing at all.

Economic envy, just like jealousy between brothers, is a slow and sure poison. It leads to a society that justifies “Might Makes Right”, a road that starts with crony capitalism and ends with forcible redistribution of wealth, sold to the masses as “equality” but somehow always locking in the material, social and cultural exclusivity of those who get to decide what, exactly, “right” is.

Those of us who seek growth are not worried about other people doing well. On the contrary – we want them to do well! I want a successful China and Mexico and Africa. The richer other people are, the richer I will end up becoming as well, even if I might be poorer in comparison to those who work harder or make better decisions. In a world of freedom, a world in which the invisible hand and comparative advantage can come out to play, there are productive options for every person who is willing and able to work.

The same principle applies to unilateral free trade: a policy that maximizes people’s freedom to make their own decisions about what goods or services they buy or sell. In a world without envy, there would be no room to claim that someone else’s good or service should be defined as “unfair” or “dumping” or “price gouging.” Limiting or constraining imports will hurt one’s own country just as much as limiting or constraining exports. If you don’t want to buy or sell, then do not do so! What is true at the national level is just, if not more, true at the personal level: maximize freedom and let people make their own decisions.

There was a time, not so long ago, in which most Americans believed that a rising tide raises all boats. It was true then, and is still true now. The idea that one must limit freedom in order to “beat” the other guy as ultimately as pernicious in national trade as it would be to have a different three-point line depending on which team is trying to score.

The Torah’s tells us about brotherhood, and the lesson it is equally true for all of mankind. We win at all levels when we choose to celebrate the achievements of others. When we maximize freedom, we maximize the economic, social, and moral fruits that come when we realize that life should not be a zero sum game, and that when someone does well by dint of hard work and ingenuity and persistence, we should be thrilled on their behalf.

Comments are welcome!