Time to get started with a new book! This time it’s going to be Harry Frankfurt’s On Inequality, an obviously current topic. Frankfurt, of course, is the author of a number of well received, often slim and incisive, books, most famously On Bullshit, where he clarifies, among other things, the distinction between a liar (one who knows the truth, and uses it to effectively deceive others) and a bullshitter (one who uses a chaotic mix of truths, half truths and lies in order to get whatever he wants — the current President of the United States arguably being the archetypal example).
Frankfurt divides On Inequality into two parts: economic equality as a moral ideal, and equality and respect. I will discuss the first part here and the second one in my next post.
The discussion of economic equality as a moral ideal begins with Frankfurt’s statement that the most fundamental social challenge in the United States today is not that people’s incomes are widely unequal, but that too many people are poor. In order to begin to back up this notion, he points out that, after all, we wouldn’t want to eliminate income inequality by making everyone poor. Frankfurt immediately acknowledges that there is a number of people in the US that have far more than is necessary to flourish, and whom he says are guilty of “economic gluttony.” Economic gluttony is a “ridiculous and disgusting spectacle,” but reduction in inequality would be a side effect of combating both poverty and economic gluttony, and should not be a primary goal in itself.
One of the reasons we need to rein in economic gluttony, argues Frankfurt, is that it carries a number of potentially anti-democratic effects, as when few very wealthy people essentially control political power through their money and influence. But, Frankfurt argues, many people seem to think that economic inequality is inherently morally problematic, a position that he regards as highly questionable. As he puts it:
“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.” (p. 6)
Frankfurt writes that being preoccupied with how much money other people have is alienating, in the sense that such preoccupation distracts us from reflecting on what is it that makes our own life worth living, and therefore from which focusing on the resources we actually need to pursue such a life. The result is that:
“The doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.” (p. 14)
The chapter proceeds by considering a number of arguments often being made in support of the idea that inequality is undesirable. Frankfurt discusses several of these, aiming to show that economic equality only has value in a derivative manner, not per se. This strikes me as correct, but I also wonder who would, in fact, argue for an intrinsic moral worth — i.e., regardless of consequences — of equality.
One such example is based on the principle of diminishing marginal utility. The idea is that more economic equality maximizes aggregate utility, i.e. the aggregate satisfactions of members of society. This, in turn, derives from the rather hard to doubt notion that a marginal dollar brings less utility to someone who is already rich than to someone less wealthy.
But, Frankfurt counters, the demand for some kinds of goods will increase as a result of redistribution of wealth, because more people will want those goods, driving the corresponding prices higher. The outcome will be that any progress made by the most poor will be offset by a decreasing purchasing power of the middle class, thus — on average — nullifying the benefit of wealth redistribution.
Well, maybe. To begin with, it is not clear to me why one wouldn’t also see a countering effect due to the fact that at least some of the goods that come to be in large demand will be more efficiently produced, at increasingly lower costs. Moreover, this sort of conclusion cannot be reached simply on the basis of a qualitative argument. Detailed quantitative simulations, ideally backed up by empirical evidence gathered in the field, are necessary.
A bit later on (section IV of the first part), Frankfurt engages in one of those philosophical thought experiments which I increasingly think miss the point, and may arguably be misleading. He invites us to imagine an hypothetical situation where there is a limited number of resources, so that some, but not all members of a given population will survive. It is easy to contrive the numbers in such a way that forcing people to share equally — thus eliminating inequality — will result in everyone’s death. This is supposed to show that equality is not an inherent moral good.
No kidding, I would respond. First, again, I doubt anyone has sensibly suggested that equality is good per se (Frankfurt nowhere in the book provides direct evidence to back up this claim). Second — and most importantly — yes, in the highly artificial situation imagined by Frankfurt it would be grotesque to insist on equality. But no modern society is even close to being in such a situation, rendering the whole thought experiment rather silly.
In section V Frankfurt rejects what he sees as the widespread moral intuition that inequality is objectionable in itself, and suggests that what people find problematic is, again, that fact that some have to little:
“Mere differences in the amounts of money people have are not in themselves distressing. We tend to be quite unmoved, after all, by inequalities between those who are very well-to-do and those who are extremely rich.” (p. 41)
The underlying idea here is that the two doctrines of sufficiency and equality are logically independent, and that one cannot simply deploy arguments in favor of one as if they were pertinent to the other. Frankfurt goes so far as accusing egalitarians of hypocrisy, pointing out that many are quite happy to accept large incomes that are not justified on the basis of their own theories. This, again, is what happens when one confuses sufficiency (which truly is desirable) with equality (which is not, except in terms of certain indirect consequences, such as disproportionate political influence).
The flip side of the coin when it comes to the “hypocritical” egalitarians actually reinforces Frankfurt’s point: these same people don’t seem bothered by the fact that others make a lot more money, so long as they make enough to be reasonably free to pursue their own goals. I certainly count myself in the latter group: I don’t care, per se, how much more money some people make compared to me, because I’m lucky enough to be able to live the kind of life I want to live. That freedom of mine, however, does not obtain for a lot of people who make less than I do. But here Frankfurt strikes me as being right: the situation of these people is problematic not because they make less than others, but because they do not make enough. Insufficiency, not inequality, is the problem.
Frankfurt is careful (p. 25) to stress that “having enough” does not just mean enough to survive, or to live a tolerable life. That, for human beings in modern societies, is not, in fact, enough. “Enough” means an amount of wealth sufficient to pursue the kind of goals one is interested in pursuing. In my case, for instance, living in a large cosmopolitan city, enjoying at least some of its offerings, and being able to devote much of my time to reading and writing.
Moreover, “enough” also doesn’t mean that the person in question couldn’t benefit from, or would not welcome, additional income. When the State of New York finally renewed its teachers’ contract (after five years of stalling), I got a significantly larger paycheck. I did not need it in order to live the life I want to live, but it was welcome nonetheless. The point, as Frankfurt articulates it, is that I did not have an “active interest” in getting a higher salary. When I got it, it was a nice bonus, which allows me to do a few more things. But I was not preoccupied in the least by the missing money (as much as it was ethically and legally due to me by the State of New York).
It was refreshing to see that Frankfurt — going against what I will call the Wall Street ethos, for lack of a better term — doesn’t think there is anything wrong with people who take my attitude toward money:
“There are quite reasonable people who feel that their lives are good enough, and that it is not important to them whether their lives are as good as possible. The fact that a person lacks an active interest in getting something does not mean, of course, that he prefers not to have it.” (p. 55)
In a sense, says Frankfurt, the situation is similar to a man who is deeply in love with a woman and is happy about his relationship. It would be perverse to criticize him on the ground that, if he really tried, he could do “better,” quite regardless of the fact that there obviously isn’t a single measure of “better” out there, and of the even more obvious fact that the amount of money in one’s bank account certainly is no such measure.
This leads us to the end of the first part of On Inequality. In the next post of this series I will tackle what Frankfurt has to say about the relationship between equality and respect.