It is impossible to ignore the stark disparities of income and wealth that prevail in the United States, and a great many of us are troubled by this state of affairs.
But is economic inequality really what bothers us? An influential essay published in 1987 by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt suggests that we have misidentified the problem. Prof Frankfurt argued that it does not matter whether some people have less than others. What matters is that some people do not have enough. They lack adequate income, have little or no wealth and do not enjoy decent housing, health care or education. If even the worst-off people had enough resources to lead good and fulfilling lives, then the fact that others had still greater resources would not be troubling.
When some people don’t have enough and others have vastly more than they need, it is easy to conclude that the problem is one of inequality. But this, according to Prof Frankfurt, is a mistake. The problem is not inequality as such. It is the poverty and deprivation suffered by those who have least.
Prof Frankfurt’s essay did not persuade all his fellow philosophers, many of whom remained egalitarians. But his challenge continued to resonate and, in 2015, even as concerns about economic inequality were growing in many corners of society, he published a short book in which he reaffirmed his position.
And Prof Frankfurt, it seems, has a point. Those in the top 10 per cent of America’s economic distribution are in a very comfortable position. Those in the top 1 per cent are in an even more comfortable position than those in the other 9 per cent. But few people find this kind of inequality troubling. Inequality bothers us most, it seems, only when some are very rich and others are very poor.
Even when the worst-off people are very poor, moreover, it would not be an improvement to reduce everyone else to their level. Equality would then prevail, but equal misery is hardly an ideal worth striving for.
So perhaps we should not object to economic inequality as such. Instead, we should just try to improve the position of those who have least. We should work to eliminate poverty, hunger, bad schools, substandard housing and inadequate medical care. But we should not make the elimination of inequality our aim.
Is this the correct conclusion? I think not. Economic inequality matters a great deal whether or not it matters “as such”. Start by considering two points that Professor Frankfurt himself would accept. First, to succeed in eliminating poverty and securing decent conditions of life for all Americans would require raising taxes on the rich significantly. Although the ultimate purpose would not be to reduce inequality, the indirect effect would be to do just that. So even if inequality as such is not the problem, reducing inequality is almost certainly part of the solution.
Second, even if economic inequality is not a problem in and of itself, it can still have bad effects. Great disparities of income and wealth, of the kind we see in the United States today, can have damaging effects even when nobody is badly off in absolute terms. For example, the wealthiest may be able to exert a disproportionate share of political influence and to shape society in conformity with their interests. They may be able to make the law work for them rather than for everyone, and so undermine the rule of law. Enough economic inequality can transform a democracy into a plutocracy, a society ruled by the rich.
Large inequalities of inherited wealth can be particularly damaging, creating, in effect, an economic caste system that inhibits social mobility and undercuts equality of opportunity.
Extreme inequality can also have subtler and more insidious effects, which are especially pronounced when those who have the least are also poor and lack adequate resources, but which may persist even if everyone has enough. The rich may persuade themselves that they fully deserve their enormous wealth and develop attitudes of entitlement and privilege. Those who have less may develop feelings of inferiority and deference, on the one hand, and hostility and resentment on the other. In this way, extreme inequality can distort people’s view of themselves and compromise their relations with one another.
Read the rest of the article here at The Business Times