Equality Philosophy Politics

Harry Frankfurt Gets It Wrong On Inequality

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Protesters against the impact of wealth on American politics - New York City 2015
Protesters against the impact of wealth on American politics – New York City 2015 ©

The eminent philosopher Harry Frankfurt has issued a small book comprising parts of two essays written some decades ago (On Equality, 2015, Princeton University Press). The stimulus to this publication is the recent work of Thomas Piketty on economic inequality in the developed countries, and Frankfurt’s view that

It is, I believe, of some considerable importance to get clear about these matters. Appreciating the inherent moral innocence of economic inequality leads to an understanding that it is misguided to endorse economic egalitarianism as an authentic moral ideal. Further, it facilitates recognition of why it may actually be harmful to regard economic equality as being, in itself, a morally important goal.

We will see however, that Frankfurt strips the concept of ‘economic inequality’ so bare as to render it meaningless more or less by definition, and that what he does regard as important inevitably brings us back to economic inequality as a highly significant issue as it manifests in the real world.

Frankfurt makes a bad start in the first essay, by demonstrating ignorance of economic concepts of poverty. He states

Inequality of incomes might be decisively eliminated, after all, just by arranging that all incomes be equally below the poverty line.

(Frankfurt’s emphasis)

Such a thing is only possible if we are referring to an absolute poverty line, which in the developed world should be irrelevant, as there is more than enough wealth for everyone to achieve a minimal standard of living. Much more often when talking about poverty what is referred to is a relative poverty standard, being that level of income that allows someone to participate meaningfully in the common activities of the society in which they live. (We will see later how this relates to the concepts of sufficiency and respect that Frankfurt refers to later in the book.) Relative poverty is not a new concept – in essence Adam Smith recognised it in 1776:

Under necessaries, therefore, I comprehend, not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people.

An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Book 5, Chapter 2

A widely used measurement of relative poverty is 60% of the median income (that income received by the central individual or household in the relevant distribution). Clearly, as a matter of logic, it is not possible for all incomes to be below this poverty line.

Frankfurt goes on to argue that

Our basic focus should be 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. Economic equality is not a morally compelling ideal.

There is a slide here that seems unworthy of a thinker as celebrated as Frankfurt, from the ‘reduction of inequality’ to ‘economic equality’, and this confusion recurs throughout the book. No-one seriously interested in these issues thinks absolute economic equality or anything approaching it is an achievable or even desirable goal. The concern is with the current level of inequality and its tendency to increase, and how this involves co-existing relative poverty and (relatively) excessive affluence.

So when Frankfurt says that ‘it is not important that everyone should have the same…what is morally important is that each should have enough’ (Frankfurt’s italics) but then goes on to point out that ‘commitment to an egalitarian economic policy might be indispensable for promoting the attainment of various desirable social and political ends’ he is failing to distinguish his position from that of most who have a practical concern about economic inequality.

The source of Frankfurt’s claim that despite these considerations ‘economic inequality is not in itself morally objectionable’ is a narrowly philosophical view. Stripped of context and consequence, differences in money incomes and money wealth are just differences in numbers. As such, of course they cannot be assigned moral, or indeed any significance. ‘My number is twice your number’ has no bite – but ‘my access to food, housing, information, political influence is twice yours’ most certainly does. So when he says ‘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’ he is correct only in this narrowly defined sense that he has artificially created – one that has nothing to do with real and practical social concerns.

He digresses at some length to attack the idea that reduction in inequality can be justified on the basis of the diminishing marginal utility of consumption – that the more one consumes the less satisfaction one gains from each additional unit. As a consequence redistribution from rich to poor must always increase total satisfaction and so is desirable on utilitarian grounds. His attacks are cogent, and similar arguments can and have been employed to also attack the foundational neoclassical economic doctrines of the marginal products of capital and of labour. But this digression is irrelevant here unless it is necessary to show that economic inequality is somehow important apart from its economic and social corollaries and consequences, which few practical people and certainly not Piketty himself are really claiming.

Frankfurt makes much of the notion of having ‘enough’: that quantity (in monetary terms) with which one is content not to actively seek out further acquisition, and rightly points out that this is not the same as ‘having just enough to get by, or having enough to make life marginally tolerable’. As such it should be obvious that for us social animals, what is enough cannot be unconnected to what others have. If we cannot dress as others, read the same books as others, attend the same entertainments as others, participate in the same political fora as others, then we do not have enough. The costs associated with doing these things are bound to increase as society as a whole becomes richer and so they become more elaborate and more sophisticated. If the economic status of some of us becomes far enough below the average, then the result is either that we cannot access these common spheres, or that these spheres no longer become common – splintering society into non-cohering fragments. The concept of enough, in the social context, is inevitably a relative one.

In the second essay in the book Frankfurt emphasises the importance of treating people with ‘respect’, which he defines as ‘dealing with him (sic) exclusively on the basis of those aspects of his particular character or circumstances that are actually relevant to the issue at hand’. Failing to treat someone with respect

conveys a refusal to acknowledge the truth about them…the person is dealt with as though he is not what he actually is…it is as though his very existence is reduced.

This, according to Frankfurt, entails impartiality and the avoidance of arbitrariness, but not ‘outcomes that are in some pertinent way indistinguishable’. There is some contradiction here since Frankfurt also says

Every person should be accorded the rights, the respect, the consideration, and the concern to which he is entitled by virtue of what he is and what he has done.

(My emphasis.)

So it’s not actually clear whether Frankfurt regards ‘respect’ as something fundamental owed to everyone, or something that has to be earned. In any case as he himself suggests, if characteristics are held in common then common entitlements follow. As fellow human beings living on a common planet in a globally interconnected society, it seems that we have more in common than we don’t and so a presumption of equal rights, respect, consideration and concern does follow. It is within this presumption that discussion of economic inequality should be taking place rather than the sterile philosophical context that Frankfurt gives it.

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