On Inequality is another short read from Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. Frankfurt immediately sets out to critique economic egalitarianism. He points out that the haves are not as much of a concern as the have-not’s (i.e. addressing the problems of society’s poorest is more of a concern than taking away from society’s richest), but he points out that the excesses of society’s richest are distasteful. Frankfurt points out that the inequality of political power that sometimes accompanies extravagant wealth is more of a concern than the wealth itself. Frankfurt advocates for the “doctrine of sufficiency”, emphasizing that although more economic and political equality may have a positive impact in many ways, the notion of societal equality as a fundamentally right moral principle is incorrect.
Frankfurt illuminates the dangers of comparison when he deals a deadly blow to the idea that it is right and fair for everyone to possess equal amounts of materials and goods. As an individual with differing ambitions, obligations, and requirements, it is silly think that one person’s fulfillment comes through having the same amount of wealth as the next person. All of this Frankfurt establishes within the first 12 pages.
Frankfurt then goes on to elaborate on some of the defenses of equality as a fundamentally right moral principle. He makes an argument about distribution of goods and utility thresholds when resources are scarce. His argument compellingly emphasizes that there are situations in which inequality is necessary for survival (i.e. the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people may not always result from equal distribution of goods if there are not enough goods for everyone to subsist on).
Resources are often not globally scarce, even for the large population that this planet supports, but resources are often scarce locally. In these situations populations must make decisions about the distribution of resources, and prioritizing the distribution of resources towards that which will provide the most efficient output seems to be common sense. With the technology and communication that modern society possesses, it is the hope that such local catastrophes may be adverted more and more, but Frankfurt’s point holds true – prioritizing equality in situations of scarcity is unlikely to produce the most utilitarian beneficence.
Besides the practical utility of goods, Frankfurt emphasizes that equality is not a fundamentally right moral principle in part because inequality does not prevent a person from being contented with his or her life (i.e. contentment is not dependent on having as much as the next person). This point again acknowledges the individuality of the person. Individuals do not want or desire the same things, but for some reason people often advocate for attainment of similar or equal resources thinking that will lead to fulfillment in life. It’s refreshing to realize that one person does not need the same things as the next person, and that one person may be significantly more contented having less than a discontented but wealthy neighbor.
Frankfurt does not appear to be defending price gauging, lobbying, or other advantageous uses of resource or wealth distribution. Frankfurt states that rights, respect, consideration, and concern should be afforded to every person. On Inequality may be disturbing to some who misinterpret what Frankfurt is saying, but the book is ultimately a rational examination of the idea that economic equality is intrinsically the moral high ground.
On Inequality, like other small books that Frankfurt has written, provides a critical outlook on a subject that deserves more examination. Frankfurt provides an encouragingly detailed reflection on the concept of equal distribution of resources. His words are not idly written, chosen out of a reflexive feeling of defensiveness, or issued based on an immediate emotional response. Rather, Frankfurt provides a non-polarized assessment of a subject that receives far too many sound-bite responses. That is essentially what make Frankfurt’s books enjoyable to read.