On Inequality

k10536Harry G. Frankfurt
2015

On Inequality is a curious book. For one thing, it’s based on material previously published. That’s not unusual in itself, but in this case the earlier work dates from 1987 and 1997. It’s not often that a new book in the social sciences, never mind the hard sciences, relies so comfortably on such ancient sources.

Frankfurt’s book appears to have been prompted primarily by the unexpected popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which makes an argument against income inequality with which Frankfurt strenuously — and repetitively — disagrees.

I’m not unsympathetic with Frankfurt’s quite narrow central thesis: “From the point of view of morality, it is not important that everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.” You don’t have to distribute ten jackets equally among eight people to give everyone a jacket. Point made.

Seems obvious enough, yet Frankfurt spends all of his short book making and remaking this simple point. Weren’t the original journal articles sufficient? Why go to this trouble now, unless to attempt to remedy the lack of attention paid to the point then by cashing in on the current interest piqued by Piketty?

Just after making his key assertion, Frankfurt rushes to soften the edge of his thesis: “Even if economic equality itself and as such is not important, commitment to an egalitarian economic policy might be indispensable for promoting the attainment of various desirable social and political ends. Also, the most feasible approach to reaching universal economic sufficiency might actually turn out to be, in fact, a pursuit of equality.”

In other words, even though economic equality isn’t an important goal in itself, pursuing it may help society achieve other, core goals. Even though we know that it’s neither attainable nor necessary, we should work toward it anyway because we might reach some real goals while chasing after this false one.

At this very early point, I came close to just putting the book away and moving on to something else. But it was a very short book, and I was curious to see if Frankfurt had some other, more enlightening points to make. A few passages approach the point of utility, enough so that I don’t feel that I wasted my reading time … entirely.

Frankfurt elaborates his view of the costs and benefits of working toward an unreachable and unimportant economic equality: “Economic egalitarianism distracts people from calculating their monetary requirements in the light of their own personal circumstances and needs. Rather, it encourages them to aim, misguidedly, at a level of affluence measured by a calculation in which—apart from their relative monetary situation—the specific features of their own lives play no part.”

The prevalence of egalitarian thought is  damaging in another way as well. It not only tends to divert the attention of people from considerations that are of greater moral or human importance to them than the question of economic equality. It also diverts the attention of intellectuals from the quite fundamental philosophical problems of understanding just what those more important considerations are, and of elaborating—in appropriately comprehensive and perspicuous detail—a conceptual apparatus that might reliably guide and facilitate their inquiries.

Continuing more narrowly, Frankfurt argues that under some circumstances “giving additional resources to people who have less than enough of those resources, and who on that account are in serious need, may not actually improve the condition of those people at all.”

In fact, he argues, moral objections to inequality are more properly understood as objections to inadequacy: “What I believe they find intuitively to be morally objectionable in circumstances of economic inequality is not that some of the individuals in those circumstances have less money than others. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too little.”

In principle, he argues, “The doctrines of egalitarianism and of sufficiency are logically independent: considerations that support the one cannot be presumed to provide support also for the other.”

The fundamental error of economic egalitarianism lies in supposing that it is morally important whether one person has less than another, regardless of how much either of them has and regardless also of how much utility each derives from what he has. This error is due in part to the mistaken assumption that someone who has a smaller income has more important unsatisfied needs than someone who is better off.

And if we’re going to recognize that economic equality has no “underived moral worth,” Frankfurt argues, we have to take the same attitude toward all the other social equalities.

In addition to equality of resources and equality of welfare, several other modes of equality may be distinguished: equality of opportunity, equal respect, equal rights, equal consideration, equal concern, and so on. My view is that none of these modes of equality is intrinsically valuable. Hence I maintain that none of the egalitarian ideals corresponding to them has any underived moral worth.

So we come at the end to this: “The evil does not lie in the circumstance that the inferior lives happen to be unequal to other lives. What makes it an evil that certain people have bad lives is not that some other people have better lives. The evil lies simply in the conspicuous fact that bad lives are bad.”

I don’t see much with which to disagree in Frankfurt’s rather obvious argument — other than his rush to republish it in book form while the topic has popular buzz.

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4 thoughts on “On Inequality

  1. “You don’t have to distribute ten jackets equally among eight people to give everyone a jacket. Point made.”

    Does this statement become more repugnent if we replace ten jackets with a hundred jackets or a thousand jackets? What if additional jackets were used to make sure those with single jackets only had single jackets for the remainder of time?

    It is not sufficient to simply provision for the poor, we also need to ensure they have equal opportunities. Does the author acknowledge this?

    • Good questions, but not ones that Frankfurt addresses.

      He is entirely satisfied with sufficiency, which he constantly contrasts with what he considers unobtainable, even undesirable equality. (“Inequality of incomes might be decisively eliminated, after all, just by arranging that all incomes be equally below the poverty line. Needless to say, that way of achieving equality of incomes—by making everyone equally poor— has very little to be said for it. Accordingly, to eliminate income inequality cannot be, as such, our most fundamental goal.”) Eliminate insufficiency, and let the “excess” fall where it may.

      The only time that he addresses the repressive powers of excess is in a brief aside about buying political influence.

  2. Seems obvious enough, yet Frankfurt spends all of his short book making and remaking this simple point. Weren’t the original journal articles sufficient? Why go to this trouble now, unless to attempt to remedy the lack of attention paid to the point then by cashing in on the current interest piqued by Piketty?

    I think Frankfurt, or more likely his publisher, is trying to recreate the surprising success of On Bullshit, which was a similar republishing of an old journal article as a stand-alone book that skyrocketed to the NYT Best Sellers list. Also, people seem to find short books that say obvious things very satisfying; definitely less painful than committing to Piketty’s tome.

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