Apologies to Andy Rooney, but have you ever noticed that none of the Seven Deadly Sins are particularly bad? Think about it. The Seven Deadly Sins are (in no particular order): Anger, Greed, Envy, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, and Pride. All of us have large dollops of them. Maybe that’s why they are considered deadly: we have them, and we die, and thus these are the Seven Deadly Sins. But that seems too pat.
If we were really serious about bad character, I’d replace at least three of them with: Cruelty, Deceit, and Malice. Perhaps I run with a particularly good crowd, but none of the people I know have any of these really in more than negligible amounts. In any event, these three are far worse than the traditional Seven.
Now, maybe the whole point of the Seven Deadly Sins is that they are so normal — they are our “ordinary vices,” a phrase that Montaigne coined in his essay “On Cannibals.” They eat away at our character because they are part of our everyday existence, and before we know it, we are terrible people. That makes sense. In other words, it is their very mildness that makes them so devastating.
I couldn’t help thinking about this upon finishing Bob Frank’s wonderful book Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class. Bob has been writing for years about “positional goods,” that is, goods whose value depends upon on how much of the good other people have. The classic example is that lots of people would rather have a $200,000 house when everyone else has a $150,000 house, instead of a $300,000 house when everyone else has a $400,000 house. In Falling Behind, Bob is at pains to show how this is not the result of that Deadly Sin, Envy: people want houses priced relatively highly not because they are envious or snobbish, but rather because this means they will be in better school districts. Reality is not Lake Wobegon: not every child can be above average, and so everyone wants to be in the highest cohort.
All true. But it seems to me odd that the central critique of the theory of positional goods and relative preferences is essentially, “we can’t have public policy cater to people’s Envy, because Envy is bad.” Virtually the entire classical theory of economics supports policies that appeal to people’s Greed: they will produce more if you pay them more for it. I find Bob to be completely persuasive that taking account of positional goods is not about Envy, but if it is, so what? They don’t call it the dismal science for nothing. And if you object to any public policy that caters to the Seven Deadly Sins, that doesn’t leave you with many arrows in your quiver.
Last thing: I was first introduced to the Seven Deadly Sins by, of all things, the Muppet Show. The Muppet Show’s 1974 pilot, “Sex and Violence,” featured the “Seven Deadly Sins” competition. Midway through the show, a Muppet appeared to Kermit and told him that she was “Leafy Green Vegetables.” After some confusion, Kermit explained that she wanted the Seven Main Food Groups competition down the hall. Then Lust started chasing after Leafy Green Vegetables. All good fun.