David Sedaris, Duke University, Economic Efficiency, Exploitation, Free Markets, Freundschaftsbeziehungen, Gleichschaltung, Mark Twain, Marxism, Michael Munger, Nutzenfreude, Nutzenschmerz, Paretian, Pareto Improvements, Pareto Optimality, Privilege, Property Rights, Schadenfreude, Scottish Enlightenment, Social Justice, Tradenfreude, Tradenschmerz
Michael Munger is a professor of economics at Duke University who has coined a term for the distaste we observe, in some quarters, for the success of others. He calls it Nutzenschmerz, a conjunction of the German words “nutzen” (benefit) and “schmerz” (pain).
According to Munger, nutzenschmertz is an impulse of “indignant outrage over someone getting” … “an undeserved benefit”. Of course, “undeserved” is a key word here. I suspect those inflicted with nutzenschmerz apply definitions as flexible and arbitrary as the envy from which they suffer. Nutzenschmerz is a special kind of envy, however, because it doesn’t necessarily imply a personal want of the benefit. It’s simply a condemnation of another’s good fortune. Munger applies an additional twist to the definition, which I discuss below. As a mnemonic device, it might be helpful to think of nutzenschmerz as a hatred for anyone who “gets their nut”!
People of good spirit believe success in others is something to admire, at least if it doesn’t come at someone else’s expense. Perhaps success is more admirable as the fruit of hard work and talent, as opposed to dumb luck. But good luck is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s often said we make our own luck. Well, maybe only lucky people say that! “Luck” doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of others, however, and no one “loses” things they have no right to expect.
Furthermore, one’s success, lucky or otherwise, often inures to the benefit of others in the form of better products, new jobs, and higher income. For example, if I were to find a deposit of some rare earth mineral on my property while digging a well, I’d consider myself quite lucky. I would then hire people to mine it. The new supplies of the mineral would be used in industry, bringing more plentiful supplies of certain products to consumers. New jobs! Cheaper products!
Economists have a particular framework for discussing “successes” of this kind. If a change occurs from which everyone benefits and no one loses, economists say the change is a Pareto improvement. If only only a few benefit and no one is made worse off, it is a weak Pareto improvement. When all such opportunities have been exhausted, we have reached a state of Pareto optimality. Free markets generally move society toward that state, externalities aside. This is an aspect of what’s meant when we say markets promote economic efficiency. And when technology, tastes, or resource availability change, as they do constantly, new opportunities arise for Pareto improvements.
The Left is selectively intolerant of success and even Pareto improvements from luck or effort. The attitude is usually couched in terms of undeserved “privilege” or some form of “exploitation”. They exempt their own gains, of course, especially when they find themselves in a position to pick winners (and that enterprise almost always involves picking losers as well). In fact, they are probably inclined to celebrate success that owes to subsidies for politically favored activities, which clearly come at the expense of others and are not Paretian in any sense. Social justice warriors demand a free pass on coveting what belongs to others, and they are often just as contemptible of successful effort as they are of dumb luck. Whatever it is you have, or have achieved, don’t expect them to respect it … or your right to have it.
The word Nutzenschmerz amuses me partly because the original German form of my name begins with the letters “Nütz“. Also, like Munger, I’ve always been charmed by the German linguistic practice of stringing words together, like the more familiar Schadenfreude, which means to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Or Freundschaftsbeziehungen (friendship demonstrations). Mark Twain said some German words are so long they have perspective! David Sedalis once commented that he heard lots of long words in Germany, but one of the few that stuck was Lebensabschnittspartner:
“This doesn’t translate to ‘lover’ or ‘life partner’ but, rather, to ‘the person I am with today,’ the implication being that things change, and you are keeping yourself open.”
Then, of course, take Gleichschaltung (the standardization of political, economic, and social institutions in authoritarian states). Er … no, please, not that!
In addition to nutzenschmirz, Munger has coined the term Tradenfreude, meaning “joy … at observing the ‘well-contrived machine’ of commercial society, with everyone trading with everyone else for conveniences and necessities.” By extension, he adds Tradenschmerz, meaning the hatred reserved for free markets by many leftists.
Nutzenschmerz is an emotive force that shapes the Marxist psyche. It could be dismissed as incidental to a shallow grasp of the mutually beneficial nature of voluntary trade. However, it also demonstrates a fundamental disrespect for property rights. It’s a rejection of the very things that motivate human action, and which enable cooperation on a scale unprecedented over nearly all of human history preceding the Scottish Enlightenment.
I propose that we should all practice a philosophy of Nutzenfreude, by which I mean taking pleasure in the Paretian successes of others. It might be vicarious, or it might signal the genesis of new opportunities for the rest of us! The thing is, those successes all represent human progress to one degree or another, from which we all derive incremental benefits. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be watchful for harms or externalities, but neither should we regard every success with suspicion, or worse, nutzenschmerz!
Do as Munger says: fight nutzenschmerz! And revel in nutzenfreude!