Inequality is on everybody’s lips these days -- everybody on the left, anyway, and a lot of people in the center and on the right as well. But what if everybody’s wrong?
That’s the contention of On Inequality, a small, smart new volume by Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt. At the very beginning, he states a simple but powerful thesis: “Our most fundamental challenge is not the fact that the incomes of Americans are widely unequal. It is, rather, the fact that too many of our people are poor.” Progressives, in other words, are shooting at the wrong target. The moral problem posed by the distribution of wealth isn’t inequality. It’s poverty.
These might seem like the same issue, but Frankfurt shows us with elan that they are not. Suppose, he says, there is a resource that will keep a person alive, but only if that person has five units of it. There are 10 people, and there are 40 units of the resource. If the resource is distributed equally, everybody gets four units -- and everybody dies. To insist on equality in that case, he argues, “would be morally grotesque.” ...
Frankfurt suggests that the instinct that leads many to complain about inequality isn’t about equality at all: “What I believe they find intuitively to be morally objectionable ... is not that some of the individuals in those circumstances have less money than others. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too little.”
He is on strong ground here. There is a tendency on the left to think of inequality principally as a problem of the rich having too much. Although not indifferent to that concern, Frankfurt contends that this worry is a distraction from the far more important goal of making sure that everyone has enough.
This reminds me of two of my favorite posts on "fairness":