A small book has just arrived,, by Harry G Frankfurt of On Bullshit fame. On first glance it looks like a provocative argument that inequality shouldn’t bother us, the moral challenge is the reduction of poverty. On a closer read, the essay argues: “Our basic focus should be on reducing both poverty and excessive affluence. But the reduction of inequality cannot itself be our most essential ambition.”
[amazon_image id=”0691167141″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]On Inequality[/amazon_image]
Well, I agree, but think this takes the argument for “reducing inequality” too literally – surely most people use it as a short-hand for addressing the extremes of the distribution, poverty because a civilized society cares about its weakest members, wealth because its excess has anti-democratic political consequences and undermines cohesion. I think arguing for a stronger version of equalising than this is not so often advocated.
Meanwhile, the best arguments about why strong version equality of incomes is unattainable and undesirable remain Milton Friedman’s in chapter 10 of.
Frankfurt concludes: “The pursuit of egalitarian goals often has very substantial utility in promoting a variety of compelling political and social ideals. But the widespread conviction that equality itself and as such has some basic value as an independently important moral ideal is not only mistaken; it is an impediment to the identification of what is truly of fundamental moral and social worth.” That thing being respect. Well yes, but the argument underplays our strong fairness instinct, perhaps.
I like the essay format, so althoughisn’t really as provocative a book as it seems, it’s a lively – and a short – read.