Harry Frankfurt

The American philosopher should be lauded for his crisp counterblast to the politics of envy

Economy Philosophy UK Politics Underrated
Harry Frankfurt: His books are short and punchy (illustration by Michael Daley)

Among his fellow philosophers, Harry Frankfurt has a reputation for never wasting words. His best-known book is entitled On Bullshit. Its title speaks for itself. So does its brevity. His new volume, On Inequality (Princeton, £10.95), gets to the heart of his matter with similar economy of means: just 100 duodecimo pages. Frankfurt argues that the present obsession with inequality misses the point. The real problem we have to address is not inequality, but poverty. Everything is what it is and not another thing, so the politicians and others will fail to help the poor if they aim at the wrong target.

Frankfurt is not an apologist for inequality — far from it. He is not what Joseph Stiglitz would call a “market fundamentalist”; indeed, he is a liberal rather than a libertarian. Nor is he a cynic: he has written influential works defending free will and truth, while suggesting that the purpose of life is love.

Yet Frankfurt’s case against egalitarianism is compelling. He has two main lines of argument in On Inequality. The first is that inequality, unlike poverty, has no intrinsic moral significance; the second is that it is wrong to make one’s self-worth depend on equality, rather than on respect. Frankfurt contrasts the doctrine of economic egalitarianism with the “doctrine of sufficiency”. Egalitarians believe that equality is good in itself. Frankfurt’s doctrine of sufficiency, however, states that what matters from a moral point of view is not that people should have the same amount of money, but that each should have enough.

What, though, is “enough”? For Frankfurt, it means that a person is content with what he has. Only the individual can decide “what is needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself”. The chief objection to egalitarianism is that it alienates people from the pursuit of their own personal ambitions. What matters — or should matter — to anybody trying to lead a good life is not how their prosperity compares with others, but whether it is conducive to achieving their own aims, not satisfying the irrelevant desires of other, more affluent people.

Without using jargon, Frankfurt refutes the argument put forward by the American economist Abba Lerner: namely, that the marginal utility of money is greater under an egalitarian system — the richer you are, the less it is worth. Frankfurt persuasively shows both that Lerner’s premises are false and that his conclusions do not follow.

Frankfurt addresses the common experience of feeling disturbed by the sight of someone much worse off than oneself, but suggests that what disturbs us in such cases is not the fact that we are richer, but that they are so poor. Egalitarians claim to have demonstrated that inequality is offensive, when in fact they are trading on our compassion. Inequality offends us only if it violates the doctrine of sufficiency. Globally, the proportion of those living in poverty has actually fallen to below 10 per cent, yet egalitarians ignore this good news, being much more interested in the fact that the top one per cent is even richer.

Respect is a far better measure of moral worth than equality, even though the two are sometimes confused. When David Cameron said in his party conference speech that “real equality” should be the Conservative goal, he meant equality of respect — before the law and in everyday life — not economic equality. Injustice causes authentic outrage; that caused by inequality is merely synthetic.

Inequality is not an evil in itself. It cannot be, because human beings are born unequal. Even in a utopian society, with all wealth held in common, unequal abilities would still result in a hierarchy. Indeed, strict meritocracy may be even more unequal than the less predictable society we have, the randomness of which at least enables many people to compensate for their inadequacies. Inequality of outcome may be all the more painful when it cannot be blamed on inequality of opportunity.

Most middle-aged or older people probably feel, at least occasionally, that their lives have not fulfilled all the hopes and dreams of their youth. If they judge themselves by comparison with their peers, some of whom are likely to have been more successful or at least wealthier, they will almost certainly make themselves miserable. Only those who have been true to themselves are proof against such misery.

Although Frankfurt does not deal with the so-called celebrity culture, his doctrine of sufficiency clearly has implications for the millions of people who measure their self-worth by comparison with the rich and famous, rather than by their own standards — more modest, perhaps, but surely more authentic. Those who succumb to the siren call of celebrity are doomed to spend their lives in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction that may well simmer until it boils over. The celebrity culture becomes the victim culture. At the age of 86, Harry Frankfurt has given us a much-needed prophylactic against the politics of envy. What a pity he is so underrated by the politicians.