On Inequality

Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, is probably best known for his book On Bullshit. In his new book, a revised and expanded version of two journal articles published decades ago, he takes on those who find economic inequality morally objectionable. On Inequality (Princeton University Press, 2015) may not be the last word in the debate over income distribution, but it should sharpen the terms of the debate.

Eliminating income inequality, Frankfurt argues, cannot be a fundamental goal because “inequality of incomes might be decisively eliminated … 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.” (p. 3) Instead, we should focus on reducing both poverty and excessive affluence. “That may very well entail, of course, a reduction of inequality. But the reduction of inequality cannot itself be our most essential ambition.” (p. 5)

It is not morally important that everybody have the same. “What is morally important is that each should have enough. If everyone had enough money, it would be of no special or deliberate concern whether some people had more money than others.” (p. 7) That is, egalitarianism is not morally significant; sufficiency is.

When we are morally disturbed by the circumstances of the very poor, we are not upset that they have less money than others but that they have too little. “What directly moves us in cases of that kind … is not a relative quantitative discrepancy but an absolute qualitative deficiency.” (pp. 41-42)

“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. Whether one person has a larger income than another is, however, an entirely extrinsic matter. It has to do with a relationship between the incomes of the two people. It is independent both of the actual sizes of their respective incomes and, more importantly, of the amounts of satisfaction they are able to derive from them. The comparison implies nothing at all concerning whether either of the people being compared has any important unsatisfied needs.” (pp. 46-47)

Frankfurt replaces an easy to understand, though inherently flawed concept—equality—with a much thornier one—sufficiency. A person who has a sufficient amount of money is content (or it would be reasonable for him to be content) with what he has. He has no active interest in getting more.

Frankfurt deflects some obvious criticisms of this notion of sufficiency, but in the final analysis I don’t think sufficiency can be the centerpiece of either a theoretical or a practical model of income distribution. It rests on the classic economic model of the rational agent, which has been more or less debunked by behavioral economics. It assumes a state of mind (contentedness), impossible to quantify and even perhaps to know, as the touchstone of a moral economic society. And it flies in the face of reality. Does Warren Buffett, who certainly has an active interest in getting more money, have an insufficient amount of money? Does the retail clerk who is not actively searching for a way to make more money thereby have a sufficient amount of money? Frankfurt’s refocus on sufficiency, and thereby contentedness, reminds me somewhat of the attempt to use gross national happiness rather than gross domestic product as the measure of prosperity.

On Inequality may not solve the kinds of problems that liberal politicians in particular rail against, but it makes an important contribution by challenging the way these problems are formulated. It’s a worthwhile, stimulating read.