It’s rare, very rare, that I read something and simply agree with it. Even if I agree with the main idea, I find issues with the details. Sometimes it’s an exceptional case. Sometimes it’s a metaphor stretched too far. That’s part of what I enjoy about reading. It challenges me. It forces me to see things from other perspectives. Even if I don’t believe those perspectives to be correct, they help me grow. On Inequality by Harry G. Frankfurt was itself an exceptional case. I read the book, cover to cover, and simply nodded along. Not only did I not disagree, I couldn’t even quibble.
The book is divided into two parts, “Economic Equality as a Moral Ideal” and “Equality and Respect”. In the first part, Frankfurt makes the relatively modest point that economic equality is not a moral ideal. Equality is not a good in itself. Inequality is not a bad in itself. That point is controversial, and recognized as such, in today’s social justice movements. However, none of the support given to the argument is in the least controversial. Equality has nothing to do with well being. If two people both have nothing, they are equal. If two other people both have $1M, they are equal. If the four get together, there is inequality, but the inequality isn’t what’s bad. What’s bad is that two of the people have nothing. Frankfurt calls this the principle of sufficiency. People who talk about equality are actually reacting to insufficiency. We can tolerate inequality as long as the least well off have a sufficient amount.
In the second part, Frankfurt maintains his assertions from the first part, but opens room for limiting inequality. He does this in a pragmatic fashion. Equality or inequality are morally neutral, but equality can be a means to other desirable ends. Respect is the end that he focuses on. In a case of inequality such as the gender pay gap, it isn’t the inequality that is wrong. It is the lack of respect shown to women who make less money for the same job. Reducing inequality will be good because it will give everyone proper respect and respect is a moral ideal.
My thoughts have gone this way for a long time. Whenever I hear criticisms of the ultrarich, I feel like they’re misguided. I’m not saying Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg are good people, but their money isn’t what makes them bad (if they are bad). I don’t care that they have unfathomable amounts of money. I worry that far too many people don’t have enough money to get by. That’s an important distinction for several reasons. One is that even if Bezos were made poor, it wouldn’t necessarily enrich everyone or anyone else. People’s relative wealth are not actually related to each other. Another problem is that it is distracting. By focusing on the billionaires, it’s easy to forget about everyone else. We can alleviate poverty with or without Zuckerberg’s help. Stop using him as an excuse for inaction. And, often, people upset at the rich are simply sucking on sour grapes. They’re jealous and petty, which isn’t very helpful.
Because On Inequality was so in step with my own thoughts, I probably didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have, but I do recommend it. It’s short, so it won’t take you very long. Plus, you may think differently than Frankfurt and I. Our perspective could be good for you. Or you could show us where we’re wrong. That can be fun, too.