Where Does Inequality Come From?

Harry Frankfurt has elegantly and brilliantly undergirded the centrist liberal's rejection of equality as a goal.

On Inequality by Harry Frankfurt. Princeton University Press. 120 pages.

WHEN ASKED TO NAME her proudest accomplishment, former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quipped, “New Labour.” She was right. The Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s not only physically but also ideologically dismantled the British social welfare state. In particular, centrist liberals jettisoned their party’s goal of economic equality in favor of the more modest goal of alleviating poverty. Tony Blair changed the infamous Clause IV of the British Labour party constitution, with its aspiration “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof.” Blair wanted to enhance the standard of living of the poor — not to reshape the distribution of wealth or to threaten the position of the rich.

Asked in April 2001 to defend the “justice” of the deeply unequal society he presided over, Blair explained:

When you say where is the justice in that, the justice for me is concentrated on lifting incomes of those that don’t have a decent income. It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.

Though Blair pivots smoothly, that second instance of “justice” functions rhetorically. Justice, as Plato observed long ago, concerns an interrelation of parts, not merely the amelioration of the indigent. Note how cleverly Blair chooses a sports celebrity, who got rich quasi-magically, rather than a businessman or banker, whose fortunes were made with other people’s labor and by virtue of the deregulation and privatization of the British economy. When detached from a theory of how wealth and poverty connect, charity, even public charity, aspires to communal improvement rather than distributive justice. The goal of alleviating poverty had entirely replaced a vision of an equal society.

In On Inequality, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt defends exactly such a shift in progressive politics. To be sure, Frankfurt does not discuss Blair or New Labour in this slim volume, which is adapted from two of his published journal articles. Like his peers in the world of Anglo-American philosophy, he eschews contemporary events and real-world cases, instead arguing abstractly and generally. Indeed, he writes, “So far as I am aware, nothing I shall say […] implies anything of substance as to the kinds of social or political policies it may be desirable to pursue or to avoid.” Nonetheless, whether he wants to or not, he has elegantly and brilliantly undergirded the centrist liberal’s rejection of equality as a goal.


Frankfurt argues against egalitarianism, the view that economic equality is, in itself, morally desirable. “It is not important,” he writes, “that everyone should have the same.” To be clear, equality might be pragmatically useful. If for instance, it happened that economic inequality threatened democracy, we would have a reason to desire equality. But that would not be a recommendation of equality for its own sake, and thus not for egalitarianism. Instead of equality, Frankfurt suggests we should value sufficiency. That is, we should desire not that everyone have the same, but that everyone have enough. Now, even if we turn from equality to sufficiency, we might retain our progressive economic agenda. Since, in capitalist societies, the rich have more than they need and the poor do not have enough, satisfying everyone’s needs will reduce inequality. But that will just be a coincidence. If the poor will now have what they need, David Beckham’s income is a matter of indifference.

Equality depends on relative comparisons between people; sufficiency depends on what each person needs. Almost no one would say “no” to more money, but most people, Frankfurt thinks, have a threshold of resources — the amount necessary for the things they care about and the kind of life they want — with which they would be content. As Frankfurt argues, what counts as sufficiency will vary based on a person’s tastes, values, lifestyles. A Manhattan-based opera-lover, for instance, requires far more income than a small-town film buff. Frankfurt notes that while egalitarians think it better for people to have more equal incomes, they would never favor evaluating their own welfare comparatively: “Many egalitarians would consider it rather shabby or even reprehensible to care, with respect to their own lives, about economic comparisons.” (Frankfurt is talking about moral norms, not real-world practice: even the most virtuous of philosophers has been known to eye his neighbor’s Prius enviously.) But if you think equality is important as a moral end, you ought to judge how well your life is going by comparing your income to others. Not only do advocates of equality err conceptually, they also encourage people to mistake their own happiness for their relative standing in society.

Frankfurt convincingly refutes several popular arguments for egalitarianism. For instance, some utilitarians derive their egalitarianism from the so-called “diminishing marginal utility” of income. As people earn more, this principle posits, they get less satisfaction from each additional unit of money. Intuitively, people spend their money first on the goods that make the most difference to their happiness. The dollar spent on subsistence food buys far more happiness than the dollar spent on a haircut. Since people tend to spend rationally, they will first buy the most happiness-efficient goods, so that the larger their income, the less efficient each marginal dollar. If you want to maximize happiness, then, you should redistribute money from rich to poor, who will get more happiness from the money.

But as Frankfurt shows, some goods provide more happiness only after cultivation. Your 100th opera ticket or expensive bottle of sake may provide more happiness than your first, simply because you need to learn to appreciate opera and sake. And some goods provide much more happiness in conjunction with other goods. The last stamp in a collection is typically much more satisfying to buy than the first. So money may not have diminishing marginal utility, and this argument for economic egalitarianism fails. It is convenient but shaky logic to think that utility curves will morally necessitate economic egalitarianism.


While Frankfurt cleverly parries the arguments of academic philosophers and economists, he ignores Marxism entirely. The omission is unsurprising but unfortunate. Marxists often make messy arguments, which mix normative evaluation with history and political theory. They prize incisive political-economic history over the pristine, abstract concepts that populate Anglo-American normative ethics. As the philosopher Brian Leiter has argued, from a Marxist perspective normative ethics look peculiar, particularly their frequent concerns with theory over practice, subtle distinctions rather than pressing social problems, and individual choices rather than collective political systems.

At the risk of simplifying a complex family of discourse, one imagines that a Marxist reading On Inequality would ask: Where does inequality come from? For the Marxist, inequality is first a social phenomenon, rather than an abstract concept, and to understand a social phenomenon, you have to understand its history. Marx thought that most inequality occurs because capitalists can pay workers less than the products of their labor are worth. That is, workers can be exploited. They labor very hard, they produce goods of great value, but the factory-owner or investor captures most of that value. If so, equality is desirable because it restores to workers their rightful desserts — in Clause IV’s language, “the full fruits of their industry.” Implicitly, the Labour Party’s old platform insisted that the wealth currently sitting in financiers’ and CEO’s bank accounts had been made by, and ought to accrue to, workers.

Frankfurt would object that the Marxist has mixed up equality and fairness. Others would dispute the Marxist account of exploitation, but Frankfurt should not, since he wants his normative theory to stand regardless of the empirical facts about inequality. Certainly everyone is due their just rewards, and if there is exploitation, that ought to be remedied. But that is logically independent of equality. What about, for instance, non-laboring poor people, from whose labor the capitalists have not skimmed the cream? Economic egalitarianism would require equalizing those people’s wealth with everyone else’s, though they have not been exploited. Perhaps the Marxist only thinks she cares about inequality; really she cares about exploitation and people getting what they are owed. The Marxist might reply that the lines between laboring and non-laboring poor are blurry, that low wages require long-term unemployment and capitalists indeed prefer a “flexible labor market.” It is unlikely either could convince the other, because political economics and conceptual analysis demand conflicting standards of rigor. Frankfurt believes he has shown our intuitions do not support egalitarianism, whereas Marxists think his thought experiments, like Tony Blair’s invocation of David Beckham, are ideological fairy tales shorn of social context.

In recent years, arguments like this one have taken on a new urgency. After the financial crash of 2008, the ideological battles that Thatcher and Reagan supposedly ended have reopened. Movements like Occupy Wall Street and the anti-austerity protests in Europe, scholarship like Thomas Piketty’s work on capital accumulation, and now Bernie Sanders’s presidential candidacy all signal a crumbling of the neoliberal consensus. Frankfurt’s work, which refutes liberal arguments for egalitarianism, contributes to that debate. Perhaps most importantly, On Inequality may unsettle those fuzzy-minded liberals who know they are committed to a more equal society but are not sure why. Given Frankfurt’s convincing proof that bourgeois, academic ethics cannot sustain a critique of inequality, these liberals may find themselves turning to intellectual traditions that offer a more radical, systemic critique.


Raphael Magarik is working on a PhD on English at the University of California Berkeley. He has written for publications such as The New Republic, TheAtlantic.com, and The Daily Beast.

LARB Contributor

Raphael Magarik is working on a PhD on English at the University of California Berkeley. He has written for publications such as The New Republic, TheAtlantic.com, and The Daily Beast.


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