In this delightfully short book, Frankfurt argues against the doctrine of economic egalitarianism i.e. what is morally important in the evaluation of a state of affairs is whether everyone has equal amounts of wealth. He admits to caring about the equal distribution of wealth, but only to the extent that it leads to other outcomes that he cares about (such political or social equality). By itself, whether everyone has equal amount is morally unimportant.
Are people wrong to be outraged by economic inequality then? Frankfurt points out that what offends people about economic inequality often is that some people have very little. In other words what bothers people about unequal distribution is the poverty that is often co-existent with inequality. But poverty is distinct from inequality. Mere unequal wealth does not bother us–we are after all not bothered by the fact that the very rich do not have a much money as the very very rich. A person subscribing to the doctrine of economic egalitarianism would be bothered by the fact that the very rich do not have as much as the very very rich. And his concerns would be somewhat assuaged if everyone’s incomes were leveled, even if the level was below the poverty line.
Other philosophers have chipped away at the doctrine of economic egalitarianism before. Rawls said that it was ok to deviate from an equal distribution of wealth if it made the worst off among us better off. Hayek and other libertarians have always balked at any talk about making us more equal because it may conflict with our liberties.
Now Frankfurt’s criticizes the doctrine by claiming that it makes us shallow and materialistic. He believes that in one’s decision about how much wealth should one be satisfied with, the focus on economic equality leads one away from the consideration of one’s own needs, interests, and abilities to the consideration of how much others happen to have. In this way, Frankfurt believes, the focus on economic equality alienates one from one’s true authentic self, and contributes to the “moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.” (p.14)
Frankfurt is making an empirical claim and so I wish he had presented some evidence supporting it. Are the people who subscribe to economic egalitarianism unduly acquisitive? Do people not make a distinction between political and personal ideals? It would be interesting to find out.