Economic inequality is one of the most divisive issues of our time. In this article, Harry Frankfurt, one of the most influential moral philosophers in the world, argues that we are morally obligated to eliminate poverty – not achieve equality or reduce inequality, and how focusing instead on inequality is distracting and alienating.
There is very considerable discussion nowadays about the increasingly conspicuous discrepancy between the incomes of wealthier Americans and the incomes of those Americans who are less wealthy. President Obama has declared, indeed, that income inequality is the greatest political challenge of our time. But what is so awful about economic inequality? Why should we have the great concern, urged upon us by so many politicians and other public figures, about the increasingly large gap between the incomes of the richest people in our country and the incomes of those who are less affluent?
The first thing to notice about this issue is that economic inequality – however undesirable it may be for various reasons – is not inherently a bad thing. To arrange for the members of a society to be economically equal is not in itself particularly desirable. After all, one way to accomplish that goal would be to ensure that the economic resources available to each member of the society put everyone equally below the poverty line. To make everyone equally poor is, obviously, not a very intelligent social ambition.
So, the elimination of inequality – or, what is the same thing, the achievement of equality – is not, as such, a compelling goal. Indeed, a rather plausible case can be made that to take it as a goal is positively undesirable. Insofar as people aim for equality – i.e., for having the same as others – they are distracted from measuring the specific economic needs implied by their own particular interests, ambitions, and capacities.
The trouble with adopting equality as a social goal, then, is that it is alienating: it diverts people from being guided, in assessing their personal economic circumstances, by the most pertinent features of their own lives; and it leads them instead to measure their economic needs according to the significantly less pertinent circumstances of others.
Thus, it is not essentially desirable that each has the same as others. What is bad is not inequality. It is poverty. What is essentially desirable is that each should have enough – that is, enough to support the pursuit of a life in which his or her own reasonable ambitions and needs may be comfortably satisfied. This individually measured sufficiency – which by definition precludes the burdens and deprivations of poverty – is manifestly a more sensible goal than the achievement of an impersonally calibrated equality.
There are, of course, evils other than poverty that is important to avoid. The social undesirability of wide economic inequality does not lie only in a concurrent incidence of poverty. There are numerous important social requirements – infrastructure, education, and research that cannot be adequately funded while the wealthy control an extravagantly excessive proportion of society’s combined social product.
The evil of inequality lies also in the superior political influence, and other competitive advantages, enjoyed by those who are especially well-off. These advantages, when they are deliberately exploited, tend to undermine a fundamental requirement of our constitutionally mandated social order. Accordingly, such anti-democratic misuses of the individual and competitive advantages provided by exceptional wealth must be discouraged by suitable legislative, regulatory and judicial oversight.
It is not inequality itself that is to be decried; nor is it equality itself that is to be applauded. We must try to reduce or to eliminate poverty, not because the poor have less than others but because being poor is full of hardship and suffering. We must control inequality, not because the rich have much more than the poor but because of its misallocation of social wealth, and because of the tendency of inequality to generate unacceptable social and political influence.
However, inequality is not in itself objectionable; and, correspondingly, neither is equality in itself a morally required or compelling ideal.
The article draws on themes from the book On Inequality (Princeton University Press 2015) by Harry G. Frankfurt and is printed by kind permission of the author.
About the Author
Harry G. Frankfurt is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. His books include the #1 New York Times bestseller On Bullshit and The Reasons of Love (both published by Princeton University Press).