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Harry G. Frankfurt: On Inequality. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. ixv, 102.)



Harry G.Frankfurt: On Inequality. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. ixv, 102.) - Volume 78 Issue 3 - Michael J. Illuzzi
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Harry G. Frankfurt: On Inequality. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Pp. ixv, 102.)
Harry Frankfurt has written a very accessible text addressing an extremely
important contemporary problem. It provides a good critique of loose argu-
ments about the evils of economic inequality you might nd in the popular
press. It provides a provocative critique of a widely accepted tenet of econom-
icsthe declining marginal utility of money. Ultimately, however, the text
ignores the literature on inequality and egalitarianism for the sake of
making its argument clear and simple.
Frankfurt calls egalitariansout for misplacing the focus of their moral ar-
guments. Economic inequality, he argues, is not in itself objectionable(5).
Rather, our basic focus should be on reducing both poverty and excessive af-
uence(5). Frankfurt proposes the doctrine of sufciency that what is
morally important with regard to money is that everyone should have
enoughas the appropriate alternative to economic egalitarianism (which
he denes as the doctrine that it is desirable for everyone to have the
same amounts of income and of wealth)(67). Frankfurt believes this confu-
sion not only muddles debates but also distracts people from considering
their own personal circumstances and needsand encourages them to
aim, misguidedly, at a level of afuence measured by a calculation in which
the specic features of their own lives play no part(1011). Thus, a
pursuit of egalitarianism diverts the individual from trying to discover
what he truly desires or needs, and what will actually satisfy him,and
focuses attention on his position in relation to others (11). This results in
alienationas it leads him to focus his attention upon desires and needs
that are not most authentically his ownand ultimately to moral disorienta-
tion and shallowness(12, 13).
In the strongest and most thought-provoking part of the book, Frankfurt
refutes what he considers to be the strongest moral argument for greater eco-
nomic equality, namely, Abba Lerners diminishing marginal utility argument
that an equal distribution of money maximizes aggregate utility(17).
Lerners analysis fails to account for inationary effects that would result
from redistribution, as while the poor would increase marginal utility
members of an intermediate class”—below the rich but still above the for-
merly poor—“will be unable to maintain their accustomed level of consump-
tion in the face of higher prices,which would offset the gain by the formerly
poor(1920). Second, Lerners theory is based on two assumptions that
Frankfurt argues are false: (a) for each individual, the utility of money invari-
ably diminishes at the margin; and (b) with respect to money, or the things it
can buy, the utility functions of all individuals are the same(18). Frankfurt
argues (a) is false because some goods have a warming up period”—
people can derive more utility after sustained consumption than at rst
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(23). Other goods may have utility thresholds so that an incremental or mar-
ginal dollar may have conspicuously greater utility than dollars that do not
enable a threshold to be crossed(27). Frankfurt gives an example of a ten-
person society with conditions of scarcity where a person would need ve
units of healthcare to survive and there are only forty total. It would be less
rational (and morally grotesque) to distribute units equally as everyone
would die since they would not reach the threshold needed for enough
healthcare (35). Frankfurt dismisses assumption (b) because the utility func-
tions for money of different individuals are not even approximately alike
Ultimately, the text utilizes an overly narrow denition of egalitarianism.
Rather than engaging with egalitarian ideas, Frankfurt resolves the questions
that literature raises by recourse to a theoretical construct that erases them. By
dening egalitarianism as the doctrine that it is desirable for everyone to
have the same amounts of income and of wealth(67), Frankfurt excludes
virtually the whole scholarship on egalitarianism as gures like John
Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, and Amartya Sen would not qualify as egalitarians.
The second part of the book aims to recover one way in which economic
equality may indeed be of some moral signicance,by which Frankfurt
refers to the moral importance of respect, and hence of impartiality, rather
than any supposedly prior or preemptive moral importance of equality
(xi, 82). This part becomes more a wholesale refutation of the premise that
egalitarianism, of whatever variety, is an ideal of any intrinsic moral impor-
tancerather than a defense of the moral importance of respect (65). Frankfurt
provides two problematic lines of argumentation to support his contention
that morality demands sufciency and not any version of egalitarianism.
First, Frankfurt argues that sufciency has intrinsic moral importance
because it is based on respect and partiality, while equality lacks intrinsic mo-
rality. His explanation hinges on a differentiation between respect and equal-
ity: equality is merely a matter of each person having the same as others
while respect means dealing with him exclusively on the basis of those
aspects of his particular character or circumstances that are actually relevant
to the issue at hand(7778). I found this characterization of egalitarianism
befuddling. For example, Dworkins resource auction famously distinguishes
equal treatment from treatment as equals, with treatment as equals requiring
that persons are not treated equally, but rather treated in accordance with
their rights, legitimate claims, and desert (Taking Rights Seriously, 1977). The
application of Frankfurts critique to Sens capability approach would be
even more problematic as Sens whole point is to take better account of the
differences among people, as the conversion of primary goods into the capa-
bility to do various things that a person may value can vary enormously with
differing inborn characteristics. Sens equality of capabilities is just one
example of how egalitarians have advanced theories that embrace aspects
of a persons particular character or circumstances that are relevant to the
issue at hand.
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Frankfurts second and related argument is that sufciency is intrinsically
morally valuable while egalitarianism of whatever variety is derivative. By
this he means that equality of welfare, equality of resources, equality of capa-
bilities, is not morally required as even if a lack of welfare or resources would
lead to deprivations that would be immoral, this would be because of the dep-
rivations (i.e., the poverty or lack of sufciency) not because of the lack of an
equality of welfare, resources, or capabilities. What is moral ought to depend
only on ones own situation rather than some external comparison to others.
Frankfurtsowndenition of sufciency, however, would not divorce the
moral criteria from comparisons to others. According to him, To say that a
person has enough money meansmore or lessthat he is content, or that
it is reasonable for him to be content, with having no more money than he ac-
tually has(48). Whether it is reasonable to be content will (as T. H. Marshall
reminded us in Citizenship and Social Class, 1949) depend upon the relative
availability of resources and the level of development of his environment,
so sufciency in 2016 will entail a different bundle of resources than it
would have in 1816. Furthermore, Dworkins, Rawlss, and Sens projects (to
provide just a few examples) aim to give us a sophisticated way to gure
out what is the level of resources with which it is reasonable for a person in
a liberal democracy to be content.
In the end, the chief virtue of Frankfurts text, its brevity and freedom from
the vast literature on egalitarianisms, becomes its chief albatross as it stub-
bornly refuses to address any of the strongest arguments and concerns egal-
itarianism offers.
Michael J. Illuzzi
Lesley University
Liisi Keedus: The Crisis of German Historicism: The Early Political Thought of Hannah
Arendt and Leo Strauss. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 222.)
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in her landmark 1982 biography of Hannah Arendt,
suggested that part of the background to the tense relationship between
Arendt and Leo Strauss had to do with failed romantic ambitions on the
part of Strauss. Admittedly, this was a quite minor revelation relative to
Young-Bruehls real bombshell: that Arendt had been Martin Heideggers
teenage mistress. Still, it cannot be of no interest to theorists that one of the
twentieth centurys leading political philosophers wooed, and was spurned
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