Is Economic Inequality Immoral?

Michael Stephens | September 7, 2015

Harry Frankfurt, whose formal concept of “bullshit” is indispensable to both professional and everyday life, recently published an article for Bloomberg View arguing that (1) economic (income and wealth) inequality is, in and of itself, morally insignificant and (2) “egalitarianism” (being concerned about economic inequality in and of itself) is harmful. The article is an excerpt from a book he has coming out at the end of the month.

According to Frankfurt, egalitarianism is loosely based on the belief that “the possession by some of more money than others is morally offensive.” This belief is false, he says, and it leads us astray. Frankfurt suspects that what most of us are really — and justifiably, in his view — reacting to when we express moral reservations about inequality is the potentially abject condition of those lower down the income distribution; not simply because there are others who have more, but rather if those in the lower income or wealth percentiles do not have enough resources to achieve some substantive standard of well-being (“not a relative quantitative discrepancy but an absolute qualitative deficiency”). In other words, it is poverty, or, more broadly, the condition of not having “enough,” that is morally significant, rather than monetary inequality per se:

“Mere differences in the amounts of money people have are not in themselves distressing. We tend to be quite unmoved, after all, by inequalities between those who are very well-to-do and those who are extremely rich. The fact that some people have much less than others is not at all morally disturbing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty.”

Frankfurt goes further: not only is egalitarianism based on a false belief, it is itself morally disorienting. Being overly focused on other people’s incomes — on the mere quantitative relationships between incomes — he argues, interferes with our ability to determine our own substantive economic needs and interests. (“A preoccupation with the condition of others interferes, moreover, with the most basic task on which a person’s selection of monetary goals for himself most decisively depends. It leads a person away from understanding what he himself truly requires in order to pursue his own most authentic needs, interests, and ambitions.”)

From this perspective, it would seem to follow that a great deal of economic research on patterns of income or wealth distribution not only dwells on morally insignificant issues but, to the extent it is motivated by egalitarian concerns or draws public attention to supposedly trivial monetary differences, such work “contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.” In fact, if we buy all this, we might even be compelled to say that income distribution research is less significant (and more harmful) than ever these days, since, as those who study the US distribution have pointed out, so much of the action lately is focused on the increasing distance between the top 1 percent and all the rest (or even the top 0.01 percent).

What should we say about this?

First, even if we grant Frankfurt everything he argues for, this would not necessarily require us to disregard economic inequality or do nothing to remedy it. There are other reasons to worry about inequality. There is, for instance, a macroeconomic case. Papadimitriou, Nikiforos, Zezza, and Hannsgen argue that the growing disparity in the US income distribution has been a major contributor to financial instability and threatens the sustainability of economic recovery. There are also normative political reasons for being concerned about excessive amounts of wealth and income being concentrated in the hands of the few. So even if we’re persuaded by Frankfurt, we would have to weigh these other considerations (macroeconomic, political, social, and so on) against the moral harm he believes results from preoccupation with income differences.*

Second, the implications of Frankfurt’s argument are not necessarily as conservative (for lack of a better term) as some might imagine. In fact, his “doctrine of sufficiency”** could have quite radical policy implications.

Even if what we really care about is the “absolute qualitative” condition of citizens, rather than the “relative quantity discrepancy” in their incomes, there’s no particular reason why the former needs to be identified with some concept of a minimally tolerable, bare bones standard of living. Our substantive conception of the kind of life or capabilities that we would like every citizen to be able to access might end up requiring material resources well above, say, the official poverty line in the United States (we might care more about the condition of those who do not have regular and stable access to food and shelter than we do about, say, the time squeeze experienced by middle income families — but this doesn’t mean that only the former can be regarded as morally significant). In other words, “enough” might end up being quite a lot. And if that were the case, a Frankfurtian doctrine of sufficiency might still entail redistributive policies of some sort.

All of the above is based on accepting, for the sake of argument, Frankfurt’s premises and conclusion, but of course we needn’t do so. Branko Milanovic has written a blog post taking issue with Frankfurt, and Tom Masterson notes that Frankfurt’s argument seems better aimed at those who call for equality of outcomes (rather than, say, equality of opportunity).

One final, trivial, comment. Surely the experience of growing inequality of incomes itself plays a large role in stoking relative status anxieties (keeping up with the Joneses and all that). Even if egalitarianism in Frankfurt’s sense also plays a non-negligible role in our “moral disorientation and shallowness” (and that seems doubtful), it might still follow that securing equality of outcomes would, on the whole, serve an important (in Frankfurt’s view) moral purpose: namely, helping individuals focus on determining their “authentic,” substantive needs rather than being distracted by insignificant contrasts. I don’t mean to suggest that this is anything like a compelling basis for defending egalitarian (equality of outcomes) policies, but it is an odd result of the Frankfurtian view, perhaps.

* Based on a 1987 paper of his on the same topic, it’s quite likely Frankfurt would have no problem with this line of argument.

** A phrase from the ’87 paper.

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