Whither a Chicken in Every Pot? Book Review of ‘On Inequality’ by Harry Frankfurt

on equalityWith few exceptions, there’s little of what we know of as egalitarianism in the ancient world. Plato, we know, believed in the equality of the sexes; and since some souls were more valuable than others, those souls were more capable of higher development. Aristotle was versed on the equality of free citizens but also believed that some were slaves by nature. Galatians has an argument on the equality of all souls, a doctrine likely modified by Augustine’s theology of election.

When the notion of egalitarianism appears in public discourse these days, it’s unlikely that the discussion has anything to do with salvation or damnation or whether or not all rational beings have an equal capacity for virtue. The argument is, rather, that inequality is a morally objectionable barrier to a “good” life.

Very likely the revolutionary movements in America and France at the end of the eighteenth century posed a theory of human nature in which, somehow, all persons own the limitless potentiality of perfection–given the appropriate social arrangements leading to a “good” life. Thanks to Rousseau.

That seems to be the rub: given the appropriate social arrangements.

What seems inappropriate are the privileges of prestige and opportunity owned by some and not by others. What “evolves,” then, and which becomes the target of modern egalitarianism, is economic inequality which mounts an ideal of equal power, equal prestige, and equal regard as ends brought about by an equal re-distribution of goods, especially money, a means.

Since the political season is upon us, the topic is in the public square, broadcast nightly, debated. Economic inequality is politically argued from the liberal and socialist left as the most divisive issue of our time.

In his provocative new book, On Inequality, Harry G. Frankfurt, however, makes a compelling argument that the ultimate goal of justice is to end poverty not inequality.

It’s true, Frankfurt argues, that behind all the differences of talents, merits, and social advantages there is something characteristic in human nature by virtue of which all men are equal. But the egalitarian focus might be said not so much to assert equality as to deny the justice of some existing inequality of treatment based on some allegedly irrelevant differences of quality or circumstance.

The moral fundamentals are abstractly something like this:

A is supposed to be equal to B since in theory such is to be the goal of social justice. When the gap between the economic resources of A and B increases the development is regarded by

many people as deplorable and immoral. So writes Frankfurt in his “Preface.” The problem is compounded because those of greater wealth enjoy “competitive” advantages over those with less wealth. They consume more conspicuously but above that lies social and political influence; those with wealth are more likely to influence the character of our “social mores and conduct,” and in doing so determine “the quality and trajectory of our political life” (x). In theory, it’s morally objectionable and what’s morally objectionable likely undermines the integrity of our republic.

And as we daily learn in the plethora of debates this political season, what’s morally objectionable must naturally be controlled or avoided in the light of “appropriate legislative, regulatory, judicial, and executive monitoring” (x). Capitalism must somehow be saved from itself, to paraphrase a presidential candidate.

But none of this is a self-evident truth–so argued George Will in a recent column.

There would thus seem to be a moral conundrum since the fundamental producer of economic inequality is freedom. To endorse economic equality as a moral ideal is to disparage freedom as a moral imperative, a self-evident truth.

Frankfurt, one of the most influential moral philosophers of our time, believes the argument is distracting. We are “morally” obligated to eliminate poverty but not to achieve equality or reduce inequality. Merely to disparage wealth is to argue that those who are affluent are “guilty” of economic gluttony, an argument in which there is some truth, distortion, and abuse. But to disparage wealth is to suggest that the egalitarian ideal of economic equality should be accorded a significant moral, political and social priority.

To this disparagement, Frankfurt writes, “In my opiniion, this is a mistake. Economic equality is not, as such, of any particular moral importance; and by the same token, economic inequality is not in itself morally ojectionable. From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough. If everyone had enough money it would be of no special or deliberate concern whether some people had more than others” (7, emphasis Frankfurt’s).

His point is: The belief that there are moral reasons for caring about economic inequality is far from innocuous. “As a matter of fact, this belief tends to do significant harm” (9).

In other words, there’s a diversity of inclinations. The egalitarian ideal of economic inequality, however, tests the boundaries of moral considerations by awakening sympathy and imagination. There are some “penumbra” rights so much more important than others that those others ought always, or nearly always, to be sacrificed when and if the need arise. Economic inequality is thus a bit like a handicap which is like an imbalance which must be rectified up to some standard of well-being.

Frankfurt, however, rejects the presumption that egalitarianism and economic equality is “of any intrinsic moral importance” (65) and he argues that economic equality as such has any inherent or derived moral value at all. It is, rather, an illusion. Economic inequality is not a serious and objectionable barrier to a “good” life.

Thus if A has more money than B it does not mean that B is doing considerably worse than A; B may be doing considerably

better than A in terms of life’s “good” prospects. It’s fallacious to assume that because the economic status of B is radically inferior to A that B’s life is also inferior to A. Economic inequality is not a threshold separating lives that are “good” from lives that are not “good.” We exaggerate, therefore, the moral importance of economic egalitarianism which proposes for its argument impartiality when in fact it’s social engineering outcome is arbitrary. The outcome can be achieved and sustained only “at the cost of repressing liberties that are indispensable to the development of that undesired tendency” (10).


Whatever may be the merit of this argument concerning the relationship between equality and liberty, economic egalitarianism engenders another conflict, of more fundamental significance. To the extent that people are preoccupied with economic equality, under the mistaken assumption that it is a morally important good, their readiness to be satisfied with some particular level of income or wealth is–to that extent–not guided by their own most distinctive interests and ambitions. Instead, it is guided by the quantity of money that other people happen to have (10).

In fact, a calculation of how much money is enough for person cannot intelligently be made: “In this way the doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time” (14, emphasis mine).

Frankfurt references his “alternative to egalitarianism” the “‘doctrine of sufficiency’–that is, the doctrine that what is morally important with regard to money is that everyone should have enough” (7).

On face value that would seem little different than economic egalitarianism. But Frankfurt begins with this provision: It’s a mistake to assume that someone with a smaller income has more important un-satisified needs than someone who is better off” (46).

What then does it mean for a person to have enough?

To Frankfurt it does not mean enough just to get by. Likewise for a person who is unhappy with how his life is going, the difficulties that account for his unhappiness will not be alleviated by more money. There are also goods that money cannot buy. Life’s satisfactions and un-satisfactions are seldom due to the size on an income. And an income is not an indication of a person’s social worth.

Tawney once argued that the word “inequality” has acquired a pejorative force. The more a society engineers the “sameness” of equality, the greater will be the differentiation of treatment. Few people would thus be left to evaluate their own well-being, their own capacities and particular needs. Thus to exaggerate the moral importance of economic equality is harmful because it’s alienating, separating a person from his own individual reality.

Equality and inequality are thus a greater issue than the redistribution of income. Traditional moral wisdom is more concerned with equality of respect which has also traditionally argued that the issue is not income inequality but moral and cultural inequality.

Frankfurt’s book may not be the last word but one can hope

that it sharpens the debate this political season. There are, after all, some living in this world who have no active interest in getting more. The book is a worthwhile read while that chicken is cooking in the pot.

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