Crab Bucket

Harvey_Rritt commented on the “Acting White” post in a way that made me think a moment:

Terry Pratchett calls it the Crab Bucket. It is a perfect expression. (He does that.) When a crab starts to get out of the bucket full of crabs, the others, awaiting death by live steam, pull the escaping crab back into the bucket.

My own take is less elegant:


The Crab Bucket expression is very old indeed. While Aristotle did not refer to crabs, he noted the Greek version of “argumentum ad invidiam” or argument from envy as a logical fallacy.

Instinct and Envy


With crabs, of course, there is no envy; that’s not what is going on. Crabs, like many creatures, are naturally inclined to climb. When they see a surface nearby that is higher than them, they begin to climb upon that surface … even if it is another crab.

Then the second crab becomes a rising surface, and other crabs see both and naturally pile on. They don’t see “competing crabs”; their natural instinct to climb is triggered, and in the crab world they are merely working to elevate themselves. It doesn’t work well in practice.

Humans are not so simple; their thoughts and emotions do figure into actions at a conscious level. The presence of someone doing well should produce a “hey, I could do well, too!” effect. But in the minds of people of very limited imaginations or with ulterior motives to manipulate such people, those doing well deserve to be attacked instead. “You didn’t build that,” Obama famously quipped. In other words, you do not deserve your success. At a commencement speech to inspire people to success, Obama quipped “At some point, you’ve made enough money.” Somehow, these statements in Obama’s mind translate to “confiscate their property and give it to others instead” as if the others deserve it. But since the government keeps most of it for themselves, the important thing seems to be that successful people shouldn’t be able to keep their money and property.

Progressive Teddy

Teddy Roosevelt made a similar statement a century ago, which I wrote about recently. After discussing ways in which fortunes could be honorably earned (he rejected financial investments), he then had the money of the successful in his sights:

It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

Years before the Sixteenth Amendment allowing such taxes, he talked up income and estate taxes on the well-off.

So Teddy Roosevelt was appealing to the crab bucket mentality, encouraging his audience to look upon success as something to be taken away, not something to strive for.

The Neighbor’s Cow

An old Soviet Russian story comes to mind, and I just saw it mentioned in an article:

An old Russian joke tells about a poor peasant whose better-off neighbor has just gotten a cow. In his anguish, the peasant cries out to God for relief from his distress. When God replies and asks him what he wants him to do, the peasant replies, “Kill the cow.”

The joke illustrates an important point about human nature: the line between envy and clamoring for justice can be very thin.

The subject came to mind when I read a recent column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times about the issue of income inequality and the redistribution of wealth. Douthat noted that taxing Peter more will not solve Paul’s problems. The most likely outcome of “soaking-the-rich,” he wrote, would be to “buy a little more time for our failing public institutions,” like public schools. A “public sector that has consistently done less with more” would simply have more to do less with. Listen to that. He’s right.

Despite this, many people insist on soaking the well-off because, like the Russian peasant, what they want is to see their better-off neighbors knocked down a peg. That’s how envy works.

Thomas Aquinas defined envy as “sorrow for another’s good.” It is the opposite of pity. And it is one of the defining sins of our times.

In Fairness to Crabs …  and Not-Crabs

Just out of fairness to the family that includes crabs, some of them do exhibit highly cooperative behavior, again by instinct rather than any altruistic notions. This article describes hermit crabs lining up by size so that when the larger one moves to a still-larger shell, the next one takes his shell, then the next his, and so on.

Now, hermit crabs are not technically crabs at all, despite the name. But humans are not generally picky about such distinctions; most people believe that the Alaska King Crab that commands such praise at dinner is actually a crab. After all, it is named a crab. But the next time you’re in a crab house, count the legs on the Alaska King Crab pictured or mounted for display. Compare this to other types; you will see that the Alaska King is short a pair of legs. These animals are actually a type of hermit that long since abandoned the idea of a borrowed shell. But if you look underneath, the abdomen is still twisted to one side … to hold onto the shell that these creatures abandoned millions of years ago.

==============/ Keith DeHavelle