What Really Matters?

Frankfurt, Harry. On Inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

The French economist Thomas Picketty made quite a splash in 2014 with the publication of a giant tome that no doubt was 2014’s leader in that dubious category of ratio of copies sold to copies read. None-the-less, he did get people thinking about the issue of income inequality.  President Barack Obama has declared that income inequality is “the defining challenge of our time.”

Not so fast, says Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. In a small book (89 pages and not many words on a page) he manages, with the gift that philosophers seem to have to succinctly consolidate vast constellations of ideas, to make the argument that Picketyy’s ethical concern is misplaced.

For Frankfurt, the fundamental challenge “is not the fact that the incomes of Americans are widely unequal. It is, rather, the fact that too many of our people are poor.” The morally compelling challenge is not to make everyone equal (would you be satisfied if every family in the U.S. had an annual income of $20,000?), but to make sure that everyone has enough. He calls this alternative to egalitarianism the “doctrine of sufficiency.”

He notes that no one seems bothered by the fact that the extravagantly rich have more than the “merely” well-to-do. But if income inequality in and of itself was an ethical concern, that should bother us. The fact that it doesn’t should tell us something. And “The fact that some people have much less than others is not at all morally disturbing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty.”

Of course, the worse off in our society don’t have plenty and if the taxation required to remedy this situation would result in less inequality, that is fine with Frankfurt. But it is not the reduction in inequality that is the moral good achieved. Equality itself is not the morally desirable thing. It is the lifting of people out of poverty that is morally significant.

Does Frankfurt or Piketty have the better ethical framework? You can decide, but I did some research on my own and you might first be interested to know that the following are some countries with lower levels of inequality than the U.S. (some are significantly lower; the data can be found by googling “gini coefficients for countries”): Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Venezuela and Vietnam. If you had no vested interest in any of these countries, including the U.S. (i.e. no family there, no history there), where would you choose to be a poor person if you had to make such a decision?

To the extent that some of the inequality we have is the result of historic racism or the U.S. depriving Native Americans of their land or people obtaining their wealth by illegal or unethical means, Frankfurt would be the first to say that such evils must be addressed. But, again, it is those evils, and not the resultant income inequality, that is the morally compelling issue.

Frankfurt doesn’t say as much, but I suspect that if every family unit in our country had sufficient food to eat, 500 square feet of decent living space per person, access to good medical care and quality schools, and a job with full benefits, Frankfurt would say it doesn’t matter if someone owns three vacation homes and an 8000 square foot mansion. To focus on the latter is to miss what is ethically important.

Frankfurt does not see the emphasis on inequality as merely misguided, but as capable of producing significant harm. “To the extent that people are preoccupied with economic equality, under the mistaken assumption that it is a morally important good, their readiness to be satisfied with some particular level of income or wealth is – to that extent – not guided by their own most distinctive interests and ambitions.

“But, surely, the amount of money available to various others has nothing directly to do with what is needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself. Thus a preoccupation with the alleged inherent value of economic equality tends to divert a person’s attention away from trying to discover…what he himself really cares about, what he truly desires or needs, and what will actually satisfy him.”

Those desires and needs, differing from one person to the next, will always make the goal of equality a mirage. Imagine the day arriving on which perfect equality has finally been achieved. What will happen on the next day? Mrs. Smith will voluntarily choose to work overtime, or work an extra job, to be able to help the family afford a vacation to Europe. Mrs. Jones will choose to spend her extra time playing with her children. In time, the Smith family will be richer than the Jones family and it will not be because of any choices made that we can criticize. Within a generation or two we will be back again in the situation we are in now and there will be a new Thomas Picketty decrying the state of inequality. Hopefully, for the sake of balance, there will also be another Harry Frankfurt to remind us of what really matters.

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