Beggar Thy Neighbor. By Daniel Schuchman
Daniel Schuchman's review of Harry G. Frankfurt's On Inequality (Princeton, 102 pages, $14.95)
Wall Street Journal, Oct 09, 2015
In a 2005 best seller, Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton philosophy professor, explored the often complex nature of popular false ideas. “On Bulls—” examined outright lies, ambiguous forms of obfuscation and the not-always-transparent intentions of those who promote them. Now, in “On Inequality,” Mr. Frankfurt eviscerates one of the shibboleths of our time: that economic inequality—in his definition, “the possession by some of more money than others”—is the most urgent issue confronting society. This idea, he believes, suffers from logical and moral errors of the highest order.
The fixation on equality, as a moral ideal in and of itself, is critically flawed, according to the professor. It holds that justice is determined by one person’s position relative to another, not his absolute well-being. Therefore the logic of egalitarianism can lead to perverse outcomes, he argues. Most egregiously, income inequality could be eliminated very effectively “by making everyone equally poor.” And while the lowest economic stratum of society is always associated with abject poverty, this need not be the case. Mr. Frankfurt imagines instances where those “who are doing considerably worse than others may nonetheless be doing rather well.” This possibility—as with contemporary America’s wide inequalities among relatively prosperous people—undermines the coherence of a philosophy mandating equality.
Mr. Frankfurt acknowledges that “among morally conscientious individuals, appeals in behalf of equality often have very considerable emotional or rhetorical power.” The motivations for pursuing equality may be well-meaning but they are profoundly misguided and contribute to “the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.”
The idea that equality in itself is a paramount goal, Mr. Frankfurt argues, alienates people from their own characters and life aspirations. The amount of wealth possessed by others does not bear on “what is needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself.” The incessant egalitarian comparison of one against another subordinates each individual’s goals to “those that are imposed on them by the conditions in which others happen to live.” Thus, individuals are led to apply an arbitrary relative standard that does not “respect” their authentic selves.
If his literalist critique of egalitarianism is often compelling, Mr. Frankfurt’s own philosophy has more in common with such thinking than is first apparent. For Mr. Frankfurt, the imperative of justice is to alleviate poverty and improve lives, not to make people equal. He does not, however, think that it is morally adequate merely to provide people with a safety net. Instead, he argues for an ideal of “sufficiency.”
By sufficiency Mr. Frankfurt means enough economic resources for every individual to be reasonably satisfied with his circumstances, assuming that the individual’s satisfaction need not be disturbed by others having more. While more money might be welcome, it would not “alter his attitude toward his life, or the degree of his contentment with it.” The achievement of economic and personal contentment by everyone is Mr. Frankfurt’s priority. In fact, his principle of sufficiency is so ambitious it demands that lack of money should never be the cause of anything “distressing or unsatisfying” in anyone’s life.
What’s the harm of such a desirable, if unrealistic goal? The author declares that inequality is “morally disturbing” only when his standard of sufficiency is not achieved. His just society would, in effect, mandate a universal entitlement to a lifestyle that has been attained only by a minuscule fraction of humans in all history. Mr. Frankfurt recognizes such reasoning may bring us full circle: “The most feasible approach” to universal sufficiency may well be policies that, in practice, differ little from those advocated in the “pursuit of equality.”
In passing, the author notes another argument against egalitarianism, the “dangerous conflict between equality and liberty.” He is referring to the notion that leaving people free to choose their work and what goods and services they consume will always lead to an unequal distribution of income. To impose any preconceived economic distribution will, as the philosopher Robert Nozick argued, involves “continuous interference in people’s lives.” Like egalitarianism, Mr. Frankfurt’s ideal of “sufficiency” would hold property rights and economic liberty hostage to his utopian vision.
Such schemes, Nozick argued, see economic assets as having arrived on earth fully formed, like “manna from heaven,” with no consideration of their human origin. Mr. Frankfurt also presumes that one person’s wealth must be the reason others don’t have a “sufficient” amount to be blissfully carefree; he condemns the “excessively affluent” who have “extracted” too much from the nation. This leaves a would-be philosopher-king the task of divvying up loot as he chooses.
On the surface, “On Inequality” is a provocative challenge to a prevailing orthodoxy. But as the author’s earlier book showed, appearances can deceive. When Thomas Piketty, in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” says that most wealth is rooted in theft or is arbitrary, or when Mr. Frankfurt’s former Princeton colleague Paul Krugman says the “rich” are “undeserving,” they are not (just) making the case for equality. By arguing that wealth accumulation is inherently unjust, they lay a moral groundwork for confiscation of property. Similarly, Mr. Frankfurt accuses the affluent of “gluttony”—a sentiment about which there appears to be unanimity in that temple of tenured sufficiency, the Princeton faculty club. The author claims to be motivated by respect for personal autonomy and fulfillment. By ignoring economic liberty, he reveals he is not.
Mr. Shuchman is a fund manager in New York.