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The best thing about Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Inequality is the paper

The popular philosopher’s ‘response’ to Thomas Piketty is pompous, trite and economically illiterate

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

Ten years ago, a philosophy professor at Princeton wrote a book with a provocative, slightly indecent title. It was a surprise bestseller, reaching number one on the New York Times’s list, and university book shops in America still do a roaring trade in copies of Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, along with the usual Vonnegut and Sartre. In 2014, something similar happened when Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century sold 1.5 million copies in English, French, German, Mandarin, Urdu, Norwegian, Choctaw and so on.

Not to be outdone, Princeton University Press has enlisted Frankfurt to produce a response to Piketty. On Inequality comprises two journal articles, ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’ and ‘Equality and Respect’, the former first published nearly three decades ago, plus a 200-word preface that mentions Piketty, an acknowledgements page and some notes. The texts of the articles are very slightly altered.

In the first section Frankfurt argues that inequality of wealth is not inherently immoral. We have a duty, he says, to ensure that no one goes without life’s necessities, a duty that does not entail my earning the same as Taylor Swift. You would, I think, be hard pressed to find someone who disagrees with this. Virtually no one in the United States or Europe today is calling for guillotine-enforced uniformity of wages or salaries across the board, nor would the most recalcitrant Tea Partier or Thatcherite fail to concede that a man who loses his legs while dutifully engaged in the rational pursuit of his self-interest has earned the right to a bit of help. Engels himself referred to ‘the elimination of all social and political inequality’ as ‘a most dubious expression’.


When I say that Frankfurt ‘argues’, though, what I really mean is that he asserts this not very controversial point over and over again, with increasing stylistic flatulence. This book is almost entirely bereft of analogies, illustrations or examples, whether anecdotal or statistical. The only ones that I recall involve food: the excesses of the very rich are compared to ‘the gluttony of those who gobble down considerably more food than they need for either nutritional well-being or a satisfying level of gastronomic enjoyment’. Are there other kinds of gluttony?

Occasionally Frankfurt does get sidetracked. Absent from the version of chapter one published in Ethics is the contention made here that redistributing wealth leads inevitably to inflation: if we give the hard-up more money, they will become greedy and prices will soar. Supply of goods, in this view, is more or less fixed. This is certainly a novel argument, at odds with the well-known alternately accepted theories propounded by Lord Keynes and Milton Friedman. By way of explanation, Frankfurt tells us that: ‘This relationship between redistribution and inflation has been explained to me (in correspondence) by Professor Richard Robb of Columbia University’s Department of Economics.’

Right then. In part two, Frankfurt makes an interesting argument about the nature of respect. He distinguishes between treating people equally, which in his view is not morally necessary, and treating them with respect, which is. By ‘respect’ he means due regard for people in light of their particular qualities, and so on, though he acknowledges that some of these qualities are universal: the need for food, shelter and so on. We all deserve to have enough to eat and to have roofs over heads; we do not all deserve to be treated with solemn pomp.

This book baffled me. I tried for hours to see how ‘satisfied with his current level of satisfaction’, a key phrase from part one, could be interpreted as anything other than a tautology, and I could not figure out what Frankfurt’s copious economically illiterate references to marginal utility had to with the price of tea in China. At one point he assures us that, despite his philosophical claims, he himself supports the taking of certain redistributionary measures ‘to eliminate or alleviate’ income inequality. Which ones? Why? Were his editors not curious?

If it had been expanded and substantially reworked, it might have been a trade title worth selling inexpensively; had it included more of Frankfurt’s uncollected papers, it might have been a nice addition to some monograph line or other. But who, I wonder, is the intended audience for the book in its present form? Stalinists of the broad-minded, forbearing variety? People without access to public libraries and printers? The publicity packet says that the book presents a ‘serious challenge to cherished beliefs on both the political left and right’, which is true enough, I suppose, if the spectrum runs from Lin Bao to Grandfather Smallweed with nothing in between.

I should add that On Inequality has been printed in a clear, attractive typeface on paper of the highest quality.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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  • TJPhoto40

    I heartily concur. Frankfurt’s treatise seems stunningly simple-minded, circular and redundant. Coming from a former professor of philosophy who authored a book “On Bullshit,” it seems ironic that “On Inequality” is a kind of sophistry or, more bluntly, unsophisticated bullshit. I kept waiting for a more profound or just substantial point to be made, but no such depth or wisdom was forthcoming.

    Does Frankfurt really think anyone complaining about inequality is saying that modest income disparities are immoral or corrosive to our society? Of course, it doesn’t matter that much if one person is making $1,000 a week while someone else is earning $500. What matters is extreme inequality, a widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots unprecedented in our democracy. What matters is the fact that millions struggle to provide enough food for their families on a daily basis while a small number of people live in obscene opulence, and that our country can’t seem to moderate the situation so that vast numbers of people are not living in deprivation and despair.

    Despite his claim that poverty is the bigger issue, Frankfurt can’t even give a plain statement of what constitutes a satisfactory standard of living, or what it means to “have enough”. To have enough is not simply to be “content” with the amount of money one has, but to have the means to acquire the most basic human needs without fear of wanting from day to day. Starting with equality in those terms would give everyone in our society a chance to achieve higher goals, aspiring to more than material goods and social standing.

    • DanV

      Sorry, but what’s your logical/ethical basis for arguing that ‘extreme inequality’ is what matters ? When we’re talking about the fates of the very, very poorest people – individuals on the point of death because they are unable to get their most basic needs met, surely ‘what matters’ is getting those needs met in the immediate future ? What somebody else 10,000 miles away does or doesn’t have is just completely irrelevant to the immediate problem that the poor person is facing. In my opinion, the obsession with ‘massive inequality’ is a smokescreen – it is an opportunity for people who are not in any real way suffering or in poverty, and yet who still feel the whole spectrum of hard done by, ‘it isn’t fair’-ish feelings that we are all vulnerable to from time to time, to project their own bitterness and sense of injustice onto the world around them. The assertion that billionaires eating off gold plates while some people die of starvation is ‘obscene’ has absolutely nothing to do with genuinely wanting to help the starving, and everything to do with wanting to: (a) register one’s own virtue (b) relieve one’s own feelings of jealousy at what the billionaires have and (c) hide the ‘dirty little secret’ of this envy from one’s self….

      • TJPhoto40

        A democratic society is built upon a principle of equality, which to a large extent is based on a broad notion of fairness applied across various layers of that society. To the extent that this principle of equality is undermined, in reality or in perception, that causes a breakdown in the social fabric. Economic inequality by itself is not destructive, especially in a society in which capitalism is more and more imperfect as the dominant economic model at work (there being no such thing as a truly “free market” in the real world). People aspire to being well-off beyond simply having liberty, so they work hard in an attempt to achieve that goal. Some even feel envious of the rich, though this isn’t a key factor, as you suggest. But the feeling that this economy is “rigged,” and that society goes along with that unfairness with its own rigging of status or class, becomes pervasive and erodes the belief in equality when in fact such equality has been an illusion for decades. The poorest among us are the ones most at the mercy of inequality, and the more extreme that inequality becomes the more difficult it is for them to achieve a decent standard of living.

        As economic inequality becomes more pronounced, it invariably calls into question the fairness of the socio-economic system, since it demonstrates the inherent favoritism and dynamics of crony capitalism at work, and government looks more and more like an oligarchy rather than a true democracy. In addition, the rewards supposedly commensurate with hard work too often fail to materialize. The rich often gain inordinate financial rewards for merely playing the economy, while many of the poor work at two or three jobs to make ends meet. The rich are not seen as gaining by virtue of greater intelligence, education, creativity or productivity. They advance by leveraging monetary resources for more monetary resources. As the old saying goes, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. But more recently, those in the middle class also see themselves losing ground; the center cannot hold. The great middle class is shrinking, with many slipping closer to or into poverty, while others simply grind to a halt due to stagnating wages, mechanization, globalization and other factors.

        There are three main areas in which fairness is essential to keep the playing field level and the nation in a somewhat harmonious state: societal, ethical (narrowly, moral), and economic. If a society is out of balance–as the US is now–it means a small number of citizens are benefiting most, have the most wealth and influence, and achieve this status unfairly. Meanwhile, the majority of citizens are seriously disadvantaged despite their best efforts. The economy and the society as a whole tilt in favor of the wealthy, whether they’ve truly earned that standing or not. (E.g., some are born into a wealthy family, inherit a successful business, get a better education thanks to money, or cash in on an investment which amounts to the gambling of the affluent financial class.)

        The fact that economic growth in the US has gone almost entirely to the top 1% in the “recovery” following the Great Recession, while the rest of the population has seen stagnant or diminished earnings is strong evidence of this pernicious trend. Inequality is exacerbated as the unfairness of this becomes more evident: the reckless banks, financial sector and corporate interests that were largely responsible for the 2008 financial collapse are seen to be not only “bailed out” and free of penalty for their wrongdoing, they actually benefit from the repercussions of that crash while the rest of the country suffers despite having no responsibility for the calamity.

        All of this creates the conditions for increasing inequality and prevents the poorest members of society from clawing their way out of poverty. Capitalism is not effectively “protected” from its worst tendencies–that is, unregulated capitalism tends toward mindless exhaustion of resources, despoiling of the environment and creation of greater inequities within the society that harbors it. So the major problem is not that the poor lack the ability to pay for basic necessities, though that is certainly horrific in itself. They cannot pull themselves out of that privation, because the society and its economic system are now most devoted to worsening their condition rather than helping them overcome it. Some of that is intentional, some of it inadvertent. But the net effect is the same–increasing levels of inequality leading to greater disparities and hardships for those who are least able to handle such disadvantage and misery.

        • DanV

          Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful reply – quite a lot to respond to in this format, but there are a couple of issues I’d raise with what you have written: “A democratic society is built upon a principle of equality, which to a large extent is based on a broad notion of fairness applied across various layers of that society” – There’s a lot of quite vague and sweeping assertions here – are you saying that the principle of equality is the only basis for a democratic society ? Or that a society cannot be democratic if it is not also equal ? And what precisely is ‘a principle of equality’ ? Is this some kind of meta-ethical rule that all human activity should result in the most equal outcome, or that equal outcomes are always inherently superior to unequal ones ?

          ‘To the extent that this principle of equality is undermined, in reality or in perception, that causes a breakdown in the social fabric.’ – the ‘in perception’ is interesting here – are you seriously arguing that if someone simply ‘feels’ that their society is unequal, this entitles them to ignore the social contract that binds the society they live in ? Surely there must be some attempt to establish, as rationally as possible (in a full acceptance of the fact that there is no ‘pure’ rationality) an objective, commonly accepted view of what ‘equal’ means ? If even someone’s ‘perception’ that they have been unfairly treated justifies them in attacking the social fabric, then ultimately your approach here can only lead to constant, bitter social conflict.

          ‘especially in a society in which capitalism is more and more imperfect as the dominant economic model at work’ – who ever claimed that capitalism was ‘perfect’ ? And perfect according to what standard or value anyway ? Well yes, by the standard of absolute economic equality between all citizens, capitalism is obviously far from perfect – but what human society in the whole of history has ever achieved this ‘perfection’ ? Also, isn’t the definition of capitalism as a ‘model’ a bit inaccurate – from my understanding, capitalism is not a ‘model’ or ‘system’ dreamt up by a theorist and written down in a book somewhere – it is simply the emergent, evolved result of undirected, spontaneous social interactions based around the trading of goods. None of which is to say that because it’s ‘natural’ it’s good – but it is certainly not a ‘system’ in the sense that one individual or individuals ‘designed’ it as a solution and then enforced it’s use as a ‘system.’

          • John Hutchinson

            Mr DanV:

            I would recommend an intensive study of ancient Greece and Republican Rome on these matters. Also the Hebrew state. Republican Rome is especially pertinent to America because of the parallels.

            It is not economic inequality that is the issue; as everybody agrees but claims the other does not. It is the degree of economic inequality. For there are a couple of psycho-social laws that come into play when such inequality reaches a tipping point. First, if there is a moderate level of inequality, there is sufficient power by the less haves to place checks on the more haves. This is what happened in Republican Rome until the 2nd Punic War and in America until recently (and would have happened to America if the Great Depression didn’t punish the inequality). When it reaches beyond a tipping point, merit succumbs to deep pockets and all the other socioeconomic advantages that the far too rich have. To give an anecdotal example, the patrician classes were proud to raise one of the peasant class with conservative mores like they had into the fore (novus homo – i.e. Cato the Elder). But into the late Republic, those occasions became very rare with Cicero being the last one. There are reasons for the late rarity which are too extensive to discuss here.

            Secondly, extreme economic disparity invariably oozes into civic, political, social spheres and most importantly into judicial inequality. Because of the deep pockets, the rich can hire lawyers that tie up the courts in motions and win by financial attrition. The ridiculous fines that blacks had to pay in Ferguson Missouri which caused those riots were consequence of a municipality who needs the funds, but a well funded, well connected middle upper class, many who live behind gated communities, didn’t want their property taxes raised. Got to get the funds somewhere.

            The economic system itself matters less with regard to this social dynamic, since it is universal and ahistorical. Marx had it wrong by blaming capitalism. Capitalism is simply a every efficient conduit of the consequences of a combination of bad fortune, the ethical turpitude that leads to penury and the ethical turpitude that exploits the poor, amongst other reasons.

            Immoderate economic inequality also leads to civil wars and destruction of free civic institutions. We all understand the French Revolution aspect. But there is another aspect that the rich do not understand and therefore do not fear. If the plutocrat and corporatist turns their back on their poorer neighbours, often in conservative and capitalist Pharisaism, they leave themselves vulnerable to the rapacious tyrant and bureaucrat. The poor will sit on their hands in schadenfreude glee without lifting a finger to protect a republic / democrat that no longer works for their benefit. he anecdotal evidence in the difference between Roman reactions with the Rape of Lucretia (509 BC) and the rise of the Augustan principate.

    • John Hutchinson

      “Frankfurt’s treatise seems stunningly simple-minded, circular and redundant.”

      That’s because its geared for the American intelligentsia, of both wings of the political spectrum.

  • Robert T. Eddison

    “Are there other kinds of gluttony?”

    Yes, according to Pope Gregory I (later reiterated by Aquinas), the gluttony of excess is just one of five ways of being a glutton. The other four are starting to eat before the proper time, fastidiously seeking delicacies, excessive longing for seasonings, and eating over-eagerly. See also the discussion in chapter 17 of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, in which it’s claimed that the gluttony of fastidiousness (rather than that of excess) is in fact the dominant form in the present age.

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