THE FIRST THING you should know about On Inequality is that its title is incredibly misleading. Harry Frankfurt’s newest book, another slim volume modeled after his best-selling 2005 On Bullshit, is not really about inequality. Rather, and this distinction is important to Frankfurt’s entire purpose, the book contains a strident argument against economic equality as an independent moral imperative. “Against Equality,” then, might have been a better title.
Put simply, Frankfurt believes that economic equality is not a worthy goal for its own sake. He thinks we should pursue the goal of the elimination of poverty (a condition in which some people have too little) rather than the goal of the equality of resources (a condition in which everyone has the same amount). On Inequality contains just two chapters, lightly updated versions of essays Frankfurt published in the 1980s and 1990s titled “Equality as a Moral Ideal” and “Equality and Respect.” These chapters make two versions of essentially the same point: “equality as such has no inherent or underived moral value at all.”
You might ask why I’m making all this fuss about terms. Isn’t an argument against equality as a moral imperative relevant to contemporary debates about inequality? Well, no. In Frankfurt’s own words: “nothing I shall say concerning these issues implies anything of substance as to the kinds of social or political policies it may be desirable to pursue or avoid.” There is a vigorous debate concerning the causes and consequences of the recent rise of inequality in the United States, and the possible policy responses that might decrease inequality or its pernicious effects. If you are looking for a book relevant to this debate, look elsewhere.
Instead, Frankfurt devotes his book to attacking the doctrine of “economic egalitarianism,” the idea that “it is desirable for everyone to have the same amounts of income and of wealth.” He argues that egalitarians have put their emphasis in the wrong place. The problem is not inequality as such, but that some people do not have “enough.” Put differently, Frankfurt argues that ending poverty is a moral imperative, but achieving economic equality is not. This argument proceeds via a rebuttal of certain claims made about the diminishing marginal utility of income (the idea that one dollar provides less enjoyment to a millionaire than to someone in poverty).
Frankfurt provides several (highly stylized) counterexamples when economic equality actually produces clearly worse outcomes to some kind of inequality and thus correctly notes that diminishing marginal utility isn’t sufficient to guarantee that complete equality maximizes social welfare. My favorite hypothetical is a desert island–style example where 10 people have enough food for eight to survive if two people are given none, but all will starve if the food is divided evenly. Fair enough, and worth keeping in mind if one is trapped on a desert island with precise knowledge of one’s food supply and time to rescue. Frankfurt thus contributes to an old genre of debate about the problem of adding up individual utility functions to make claims about optimal policymaking — or, as is more often the case, to clarify what claims we can’t make.
Frankfurt’s book is a philosophical treatise on how complete economic equality fails as a moral compass. I can imagine a world in which such an argument would be an important intervention. I do not believe we live in that world. Who exactly is Frankfurt arguing against? As a sociologist who studies the history of debates over income inequality, I admit to significant confusion. Frankfurt never really cites examples of the argument he is criticizing; he seemingly takes for granted that proponents of radical equality are everywhere. Perhaps they are, in some corner of American philosophy. In the public debate over economic inequality, I have not seen any. Even communists argue “to each according to his need,” which is not exactly a call for complete equality: it is, instead, rooted in the concern for having “enough” that Frankfurt thinks should be paramount.
Instead, as Frankfurt admits, that public debate focuses on inequality because of its pernicious effects. We care about inequality not because we believe that everyone should have the exact same economic resources but because contemporary inequality has grown to a level that is recognized to have terrible consequences. Research by academics across the social sciences has shown how increased inequality — and especially the growing affluence of the very rich, documented by economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and colleagues — produces harmful effects for our politics, our health, and our economy itself. The political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue that the opinions of economic elites have far more influence on policy outcomes than the opinions of average Americans. In turn, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that this outsized policy influence helps create inequality, as economic elites use their control of policy to weaken unions and lower taxes. Beyond politics, the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett document, in their book The Spirit Level, how unequal societies fare worse across various measures of population health including life expectancy, obesity, and more. And a new literature in economics has begun to find evidence that more equal economies experience faster economic growth, contrary to conventional wisdom about a tradeoff between equality and efficiency.
Frankfurt agrees that there are compelling reasons to care about real-world inequality, but he argues that we should not hold the principle of economic equality sacred. Instead, we should focus on fighting inequality to the extent that such inequalities produce negative effects. To my eye, that seems to be an accurate characterization of political debates on the left. So what’s the problem?
Frankfurt does attempt to motivate his argument around one negative consequence of holding economic equality as an independent moral imperative. He claims that valuing economic equality (rather than the elimination of poverty) leads to a form of “alienation.” By this he means not alienation in the Marxist sense, but rather a jealous materialism where individuals care more about what others have than whether they have enough and thus contribute to “the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.” On reading these lines, I admit to experiencing a bit of moral disorientation myself. From the vantage point of 2015, the current mobilization for economic justice seems to be a very healthy political response to the worsening inequality of the past 30 years and the attendant negative consequences. Frankfurt looks at calls for economic equality and somehow sees a reinforcement of crass materialism. I don’t get it.
Perhaps Frankfurt’s case could have been strengthened if he’d included any examples of actual egalitarian discourse. His discussions of economic egalitarianism largely take the form of attacking a doctrine, not presenting any examples of its deployment in political debates. I suppose that’s to be expected from a philosopher, but it makes understanding and substantiating a claim about the supposed alienating effects of egalitarian discourse very difficult. Put another way: Frankfurt makes an empirical claim that egalitarian doctrines produce alienation, but offers no evidence for that claim.
The one example provided of contemporary political discourse is an unsourced quote from President Obama calling inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” Frankfurt then chides him for overemphasizing inequality instead of poverty: “It seems to me, however, that our most 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.” Frankfurt misreads the president, and this example suggests how he misreads the entire contemporary debate on inequality. President Obama’s quote comes from a speech titled “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility” in which he identifies mobility combined with inequality as the “defining challenge.” The tone of the speech is very much in line with Frankfurt’s idea of emphasizing having enough. President Obama frames the challenge of mobility around the problem of middle class families no longer feeling like they are getting by: “Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles — to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement.” In other words, we have defined enough in a way that many people can no longer meet it, because the gaps between the haves and have-nots have grown, and fewer and fewer people can achieve the status of “haves.” Obama’s quote is not an example of valuing equality for its own sake, but a measured response rooted in an understanding of the negative consequences that have flowed from increases in inequality and declines in mobility.
Frankfurt’s On Inequality ultimately disappoints. If you happen upon a philosophical debate about the merits of complete economic equality — perhaps conducted during those long empty hours on your desert island — Frankfurt’s book will prove invaluable. Alas, for the rest of us, an argument against equality tells us next to nothing about inequality.
Daniel Hirschman is a lecturer in economic sociology at the University of Michigan. In the fall, he will be assistant professor of sociology and organizational studies at Brown University. He studies the history of economic statistics and the role of economic experts in policymaking.