Review of Harry Frankfurt’s “On Inequality”

Harry Frankfurt’s new book is an expanded version of his essay “Equality as a Moral Ideal,” with some new stuff about equality and respect. The original essay contains 75% of the ideas here for less than three-quarters of the price, so it’s a better value for what it’s worth.

Frankfurt’s book is a model of how public philosophy should work—by keeping the political discourse honest. He is interested in the reasons why distributive justice matters and to distinguish the good reasons from the bad ones.

Frankfurt’s argument in this book is unassumingly radical. He claims that “equality as such has no inherent or underived moral value at all.” This is a significant claim in light of the refrain made popular by Amartya Sen that every serious political theory is a theory of equality. In place of equality, Frankfurt defends a principle of sufficiency. What has inherent and underived value (to use a phrase) is that people have enough.

Frankfurt attacks two defenses of equality in this book: first, that an equal distribution of money maximizes utility, and second, that equal treatment is a form of respect.

The first argument for equality is appeals to the well-known principle of diminishing marginal utility: the utility of each additional unit of a commodity tends to decline. In the case of money, this means that an additional dollar to Donald Trump is worth less than an additional dollar to a homeless man outside Trump Tower. The implication, the argument continues, is that redistribution from Trump to the homeless man will increase overall utility until the point of equal marginal utility between them—an equal distribution.

Frankfurt’s criticisms of this argument are several. The most original, perhaps, is that the while the value of individual commodities may diminish at the margin, there is no reason to think that the value of consumption, that is, the value of money, need to diminish at the margin. There are also effects like thresholds or “warm-up” effects that make value increase at the margin. Finally, as economists have long observed, the argument assumes that we can make inter-personal utility comparisons. This is a fine assumption if people’s utility curves are in fact the same. But that assertion itself is unlikely to be true. People differ in their enjoyments of the same goods, their general capacity for enjoyment, and the rate at which their utility curves diminish. (An argument with equality as its conclusion assumes people are the same? Whodathunkit?)

Equal distribution is also defended on grounds of respect. It is disrespectful, many claim, to treat people unequally. However, Frankfurt notes that unequal treatment is only disrespectful if there are no grounds for treating people differently. If we face a situation where you and I must decide how to cut a cake, there is a sense in which it would be disrespectful for me to take the lion’s share of the cake. However, if there were grounds for giving me more of the cake—perhaps I am starving—then there are grounds for unequal distribution. Equality does no work in the cake argument. Rather, it is disrespectful to cut the cake unequally because an unequal distribution would be arbitrary, or without grounds. When we disrespect a person, Frankfurt claims, “the person is dealt with as though he is not what he actually is.” There is no conceptual relationship between respect and equality.

Frankfurt finally has a very interesting claim, anticipated by Tocqueville, about the effect of equality on our attitudes toward ourselves. The demand for equal treatment makes our needs and wants a function of what others have, rather than what is most important or vital to us as individuals. Equality tends to alienate us from ourselves and cause each person to see herself “from the outside” rather than as someone with a life to lead. This effect of equality tends to lead us away from the singular task of thinking for ourselves what we need and want. Frankfurt claims that this effect is in part the consequence of a false belief that equality is what really matters.

Just to be clear, Frankfurt is not arguing against some forms of redistribution, and he is not advocating for a limitless ceiling to wealth so long as the least-advantaged has enough. He claims that regulation and taxation is likely necessary, for example, to prevent manipulation of the political process by the most-advantaged. Similarly, he also claims that egalitarian policies may be the most effective strategy to meet the demands of his principle of sufficiency. Frankfurt is not taking any positions here about actual policies, only about the reasons for those policies.