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Frankfurt On Inequality

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Daniel Hirschman’s review of Harry Frankfurt’s exercise in lazy profit-taking book confirms my fears about it:

HE FIRST THING you should know about On Inequality is that its title is incredibly misleading. Harry Frankfurt’s newest book, another slim volume modeled after his best-selling 2005 On Bullshit, is not really about inequality. Rather, and this distinction is important to Frankfurt’s entire purpose, the book contains a strident argument against economic equality as an independent moral imperative. “Against Equality,” then, might have been a better title.
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Frankfurt provides several (highly stylized) counterexamples when economic equality actually produces clearly worse outcomes to some kind of inequality and thus correctly notes that diminishing marginal utility isn’t sufficient to guarantee that complete equality maximizes social welfare. My favorite hypothetical is a desert island–style example where 10 people have enough food for eight to survive if two people are given none, but all will starve if the food is divided evenly. Fair enough, and worth keeping in mind if one is trapped on a desert island with precise knowledge of one’s food supply and time to rescue. Frankfurt thus contributes to an old genre of debate about the problem of adding up individual utility functions to make claims about optimal policymaking — or, as is more often the case, to clarify what claims we can’t make.

Frankfurt’s book is a philosophical treatise on how complete economic equality fails as a moral compass. I can imagine a world in which such an argument would be an important intervention. I do not believe we live in that world. Who exactly is Frankfurt arguing against? As a sociologist who studies the history of debates over income inequality, I admit to significant confusion. Frankfurt never really cites examples of the argument he is criticizing; he seemingly takes for granted that proponents of radical equality are everywhere. Perhaps they are, in some corner of American philosophy. In the public debate over economic inequality, I have not seen any. Even communists argue “to each according to his need,” which is not exactly a call for complete equality: it is, instead, rooted in the concern for having “enough” that Frankfurt thinks should be paramount.

The last time Frankfurt took a decades-old academic journal article, enlarged the fonts and margins, added a nice cover and a marketing team, and sold it for $9.95 I was willing to offer at least a partial defense of the exercise. While I’d have preferred a bit more additional work to justify the book, in 2005 his philosophical account of bullshit turned out to be a much-needed and valuable addition to the lexicon of political discourse: it gave precise account of a particular category of pernicious discourse we were (and are) drowning in. Elevating that analysis from obscurity served a purpose beyond Frankfurt’s profile and Frankfurt/PUP’s bottom line.

At first glance, this might seem like a similar situation. Economic inequality is far more central to political discourse than it was when the papers were initially published, 1987 and 1997. But unlike “On Bullshit,” repackaging these papers as a contribution to the present discourse has the effect of making them seem rather more pointless than they actually are. Political philosophy that treats ‘economic inequality’ entirely as an abstraction, rather than an urgent practical and political problem, hasn’t aged well at all. Frankfurt’s articles work just fine as contributions to narrow academic philosophical project. But that project has moved on. The intervention of Elizabeth Anderson, in particular, reframed the debate in important ways–while she is often read as defending a version of sufficientarianism like Frankfurt, her framing of economic inequality as a problem of justice and democracy, rather than morality, moved the conversation in a far more productive direction. (Amazon’s search inside the book indicates that whatever light updating Frankfurt may have done, it did not include any engagement with Anderson’s work.)

I would love to see Frankfort tackle the question of economic inequality again, in light of subsequent philosophical debates about egalitarianism, political, economic, and sociological scholarship about the causes and consequences of economic inequality, and the trajectory of economic inequality generally in the last few decades: if he’d defend something like his 1987 version of sufficientarianism today, and what that defense would look like, and if he’d revise in light of where we are and what we know in 2016, that would be interesting too. I fear he’s going to make take some money from people purchasing this book on the assumption that he’s doing something like that.

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