A touch of class envy, or something quite like it, may be hardwired into humans. Most societies have cues which discourage conspicuous displays of superiority.
It is true that absolute egalitarianism seems to be rare, even in hunter-gatherer tribes, and most groups expect leaders to show some elevation, because they represent the prestige of the group to outsiders. But on the whole, ostentation is discouraged.
Because ostentation exists, we might speculate that the social cues are not very powerful. Yet at the day-to-day level, among families, neighbors, and clans, they are quite powerful. The peasant’s disapproval of the Lord of the Manor has little effect, yet both are affected by disapproval within their immediate circles.
Altruistic Punishment is thought to be a partial explanation of how cooperation is enforced. Members of the tribe will spend their own resources unasked to punish those breaking the social rules. The cost may be the risk of confrontation, as a person who intervenes against a bully, or even a criminal. People may go well out of their way and cease productive activity in order to report a miscreant to the authorities. Being a busybody carries social risk in itself, but some of it seems necessary.
If punishment seems unnecessarily negative for this concept, you may think of it as "holding others accountable."
Most studies of altruistic punishment are artificial, laboratory constructions, but these may illustrate the simpler social structures which complex interactions are based on. In one set of experiments, subjects were told that $20 would be divided by an anonymous other between the two of them. If they accepted the deal, it would go forward. If they rejected it, neither would get anything. Measuring personal advantage only, then, subjects should accept any deal offered, even if the “other” kept $19 and gave you $1. Hey, it’s a free dollar. Why complain?
But people punish that behavior. They often reject a 17-3 payout, giving up the $3 for the purpose of signaling to the other: “you should not act this way.” There is a sense that it is bad for all of us if people are allowed to go around acting like that. Rejecting an offer may also be an expression of refusing to be humiliated. To be openly seen as not receiving the tribe’s resources, and accepting that situation, may worsen one’s status in the group. When the division is believed to be controlled by chance, people rarely reject any offered sum.
As the number approaches a 10-10 split, fewer people reject the deal. Even 12-8 deals are seldom rejected with an anonymous other. If subjects have been introduced to the person they believe is dividing the money (the division is in fact controlled by the experiment and has nothing to do with the person introduced), they insist on greater fairness.
There are related topics of people’s attentiveness to procedural fairness, the idea of relative rather than absolute poverty, and our perceptions of how the decision maker acquired the position, all of which I will tackle in other posts For the moment, it is enough to note that simply receiving a sum of money one would not have otherwise had is not enough for us, somehow. This has political implications for what economic policies people will accept. Advocates for more purely free-market policies like to point out that “everyone does a little better – so what if some do a lot better?” Advocates for more redistributive policies highlight the greater disparity between the high and the low incomes. To those people, that some benefited enormously while some benefited only a little is seen as a problem.
This second attitude, which conservatives tend to dismiss as foolish class envy and misunderstanding how the system works, may actually be part of our natural makeup. That wouldn’t make it right, of course, as violence, robbery, and rapine also seem to be preloaded into our nature. We may automatically assume that if A receives an extra $12 while we receive only $8, that something by definition must be unfair. We expect the tribe’s resources to be divided evenly, unless we can see a clear connection between A’s actions and the increase for all. If A is a better hunter or more skillful trader with other tribes, we can see how he might deserve a greater share. But if we don’t see that connection, we consider ourselves equally deserving – whether we are or not.