In his short but provocative book On Inequality, Harry Frankfurt sets out to debunk economic equality as a valid moral ideal, and to develop an alternative proposal for what ought to properly exercise our moral concerns and our political ambitions, namely the doctrine of sufficiency, the demand that everyone have enough. What matters, for Frankfurt, is not how our economic condition compares to that of others, but whether it suffices to meet our basic needs.
What he finds problematic about our current economic affairs is not that some enjoy greater resources than others, but that some are so deprived of them altogether that they are condemned to suffer poverty amidst a nation of plenty. He admits the oft-repeated ethos of equality may be rhetorically effective, perhaps even pragmatically justified on occasion, but considers it ultimately misguided or groundless. In the best case, he credits it for alerting us to the real issue, poverty, albeit in a conceptually confused manner; in the worst case, he charges that the rhetoric of equality alienates us from our most authentic needs and interests, contributing to “the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.”
His arguments against equality and for sufficiency are intriguing and original, some naturally more persuasive than others. His characterization of the doctrine of sufficiency is tantalizingly suggestive, yet remains abstract, if not altogether vague and underdeveloped. Readers may be excused if they feel they have been introduced to a compelling notion, an intriguing alternative to the egalitarian ideal, that remains stubbornly indistinct and ill-defined. Frankfurt’s aspiration is to supply a rigorous analysis of our moral ideals without tapping into any social or political ideologies. This is prone to arouse suspicions of some readers, but I would like to take him up on this aspiration, summarizing and assessing some of his central contentions on their own terms.
What Frankfurt finds problematic about our current economic affairs is not that some enjoy greater resources than others, but that some are so deprived of them altogether that they are condemned to suffer poverty amidst a nation of plenty. He admits the oft-repeated ethos of equality may be rhetorically effective, perhaps even pragmatically justified on occasion, but considers it ultimately misguided or groundless.
The analysis begins by separating instrumental from intrinsic appeals to equality. Due to contingent or instrumental connections to other things, Frankfurt plausibly notes, equality (or inequality for that matter) may lead to more or less desirable situations. If the rich become increasingly able to marshal their wealth to purchase political influence, this may compromise the very integrity of our democratic political system. Yet even if so, the problem would reside in undesirable effects of inequality, not in its intrinsic undesirability per se. And the notion that inequality is intrinsically undesirable is Frankfurt’s chief target. It is therefore a bit surprising that he devotes such a considerable portion of his very short book arguing against the diminishing marginal utility justification of equality, which he claims “comes closer to regarding the value of … equality as being intrinsic,” but in fact appears quite distant still and instrumental in character. In any case, the principle of diminishing marginal utility holds that equal distributions maximize the aggregate satisfactions of the members of society, since the utility of money supposedly invariably diminishes at the margins: additional units of money translate into lower satisfaction increases than prior units. Again, even if that were true, the problem would seem to reside in effects and not inhere in inequality as such.
But Frankfurt argues the principle is not even true. One may have to attend a good number of opera performances before one comes to appreciate the genre; one may have to read through several Victorian novels, or study many classical thinkers, before the light turns on. There are acquired tastes, after all. In short, the utility curve may go up, not down, as one moves forward in the utility graph, similar to the interest accumulation of savings. Perhaps more pertinently, the principle of diminishing marginal utility conflates money, the universal medium of exchange, with particular commodities, the consumption of which does tend to lead to satiation. The second truffle offers lower gustatory pleasure than the first. Yet why purchase a second truffle at all, as opposed to a first glass of fine wine? Why buy another ticket to the water park, and not spent the next day instead in a museum, followed by a hike through the Appalachians, followed by a good read on the porch, and so on and so forth. The smart person would not foolishly waste money on waning repetitions, but use it to acquire fresh and exciting opportunities. Frankfurt raises additional worries, pointing out also some startling mistakes in at least one formulation of the principle, but in the end, the discussion, though interesting, seems curiously off target, deflecting the reader from the main theme which concerns the intrinsic appeal (or lack thereof) of equality.
Some of Frankfurt’s arguments against the intrinsic importance of equality track familiar worries, such as the leveling down objection: “Inequality of incomes might be decisively eliminated … by arranging that all incomes be equally below the poverty line. … [T]hat way of achieving equality of incomes … has very little to be said for it.” “Very little” presumably in the sense of having nothing whatsoever to be said for it, lest it remains open to egalitarians to reply, as some in fact have, that they never held equality to be the sole and decisive consideration of intrinsic importance; leveling down would plausibly offend other important considerations, which collectively might very well let the very little yet still non-zero egalitarian plus appear insignificant by comparison. So for the argument to carry through, it must be really nothing, which is what many anti-egalitarian critics should and have urged.
A more original attack follows a few pages later: “[T]he amount of money available to various others has nothing directly to do with what is needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself. … [A] preoccupation with the condition of others interferes with the most basic task on which a person’s intelligent selection of monetary goals for himself most decisively depends. … Exaggerating the moral importance of economic equality is harmful, in other words, because it is alienating. It separates a person from his own individual reality, and leads him to focus his attention upon desires and needs that are not most authentically his own.” Egalitarian preoccupations are thus not merely charged to express an irrational emotion of envy, as many conservative anti-egalitarians persistently maintain, but cut even more fundamentally against our most inner and authentic core. Frankfurt curiously chooses not to elaborate this tantalizing suggestion of the allegedly alienating effect of egalitarian preoccupations. One can only speculate how the suggestion would fare under pressure. At least two considerations hint the answer might be not too well. First, even though alienation does indeed appear an undeniable and objectionable result of many egalitarian preoccupations—the figurative keeping up with the Joneses—the question is whether this must be so of all of them. Many domains are inherently comparative. Education is an example. It offers little consolation to having attended a very good school when all of ones competitors have attended truly excellent schools, causing one to miss out on that crucial call for an interview over and over again. Some things really matter to us at least partly (even if not exclusively) in terms of how they compare. The egalitarian might wish to break out of the vicious circle of competition for what the economist Robert Frank has called positional goods, such as social status or political power, leading to a “preoccupation” that is, arguably, anything but alienating, but, to the contrary, flowing from an appreciation of the real quagmire and destructive inner logic of the collective pursuit of positional goods. Thus, one is left wondering whether Frankfurt has identified a problem with only some egalitarian preoccupations as being essentially misdirected, as opposed to a problem with the egalitarian preoccupation as such. The little he says on this point does not help his overall case.
What egalitarian intuitions really alert us to, according to Frankfurt, is not the fact that some individuals have less money than others, but “the fact that those with less have too little.” After all, few are distressed “by inequalities between those who are very well-to-do and those who are extremely rich.”
A second and admittedly more subtle worry would be that alienation need to vitiate against the intrinsic importance of equality as such, but only against the preoccupation with it, and even though this may seem like hairsplitting, moral philosophy has produced many similar cases where such fine distinctions matter, cases Frankfurt is undoubtedly aware of. The famous paradox of hedonism is a case in point. As has been observed since ancient times, the single-minded pursuit of happiness or pleasure is frequently self-defeating, because in order to achieve true happiness, one must care about something other than happiness for its own sake. One must care about friendship and not just its tendency to produce happiness to gain true happiness from it. So there could be something “alienating” about a single-minded hedonistic preoccupation. But, as most philosophers have come to recognize, this does not imply that happiness does not enjoy intrinsic importance, not even that it is the only thing enjoying such importance. It might simply be inadvisable as a matter of practical strategy to directly pursue (or be preoccupied with) what happens to have intrinsic importance. Likewise, it is entirely consistent to hold equality to matter intrinsically and to advise against being preoccupied with it due to alienation effects.
What egalitarian intuitions really alert us to, according to Frankfurt, is not the fact that some individuals have less money than others, but “the fact that those with less have too little.” After all, few are distressed “by inequalities between those who are very well-to-do and those who are extremely rich.” In the abstract, this seems a very compelling thought. The more specific question is what it takes to have enough rather than too little. Can the doctrine of sufficiency be supplied with a non-arbitrary threshold with justice reigning above and injustice below? Frankfurt’s elaborations of the notion of sufficiency are intriguing but ultimately unhelpful. They seem mostly concerned with establishing the rationality of being content with what one has, with being satisfied with one’s level of satisfaction, as opposed to always striving to maximize one’s overall satisfaction. A spouse could believe his or her partner is not necessarily the absolute best yet be entirely content and refuse “to take an active interest” in trading up.
It is a surprising fact of recent empirical work on happiness, for instance, that even sex workers of Calcutta occasionally report relatively high levels of satisfaction. But if they meet the relevant threshold, who would not?
All this is reminiscent of the debate in decision-theory between the satisfying and optimizing approach sparked by Herbert Simmons, and although it raises fascinating issues, it remains unclear how it bears on egalitarianism and matters of social justice. For the connection between what it is rational for an individual to be content with and what, as a matter of justice, society owes to its individual members in terms of sufficiency seems rather tendentious. An individual with expensive tastes and grand ambitions might not easily content himself with his lot, without necessarily being irrational in taking an active interest in moving up to the very top, but if the doctrine of sufficiency amounts to anything, it must surely refuse to validate particularly excessive complaints, such as not to be afforded with the most exquisite garment or sports car or ski-vacation. Surely less will count as enough. Conversely, the stoic poor might manage to content themselves with the bare essentials, but their stoicism is unlikely to release society from its obligations towards them. Surely only more will count as enough. It is a surprising fact of recent empirical work on happiness, for instance, that even sex workers of Calcutta occasionally report relatively high levels of satisfaction. But if they meet the relevant threshold, who would not? None of this undermines the prospects of developing a non-arbitrary standard of sufficiency. But beyond formulating a compelling notion of sufficiency in the abstract to contend with the egalitarian ideal, it is unclear how much Frankfurt has contributed to the task of adequately spelling it out in this book.
In sum, On Inequality makes for an engrossing read, offering plenty of food for thought in a small number of pages. The ratio of substance to page number is surely hard to surpass. Yet brevity is not always a virtue. The book is not quite up to the task, disregarding even the almost complete refusal to engage the egalitarian literature. Whether Frankfurt even meets the sufficiency standard for a proper exposition of his very own ideas is doubtful. Readers unsympathetic to Frankfurt’s core contentions will charge him with having attacked a straw man, and given the cursory nature of his remarks it is hard to entirely dismiss the complaint. Those sympathetic with his core contentions will regret that he did not say more, following through on his numerous intriguing suggestions. Finding myself in the latter camp, accepting his broad conclusions and general point of arrival, I wish the travel there had been on firmer footing. The insights are there; the arguments are still incomplete.