The limits of equality

The problem isn't that some people are rich — it's that many people are poor

March 16, 2014 7:00AM ET
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, leads a march against poverty demanding action to halve poverty worldwide by 2015 on July 24, 2008 in London, England
Cate Gillon/Getty Images

The conspicuous inequality of incomes in our society has recently come in for very considerable public discussion and concern. In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama went so far as to declare that income inequality is ”the defining challenge of our time.” 

It seems to me, however, that our challenge is not fundamentally that the incomes of Americans are widely unequal. It is, rather, that too many of our people are poor. 

Inequality of incomes might be entirely eliminated, after all, by arranging that all incomes be equally below the poverty line. That way of achieving equality of incomes — by making everyone equally poor — clearly has very little to be said for it, and it has never been recommended. Income inequality is not in itself, accordingly, our real challenge. In 1987 I published an essay in which I maintained that economic equality is not, as such, a genuine or suitable moral ideal. Although the extent of income inequality in this country has grown very considerably since that time, this development has not led me to alter the conceptual and theoretical views I argued in that essay.

Deprivations and anxieties

The trouble with being poor is not that some people are rich. Rather, the trouble consists essentially in having too little to be able to avoid the deprivations and anxieties that are characteristically suffered by people who live in poverty. Those deprivations and anxieties would continue to beset the poor even if no one were any better off than they. If the less affluent had enough to protect them from the sufferings of poverty, and were actually able to lead comfortable and satisfying lives, the fact that their incomes were significantly lower than those of others would surely be of considerably less interest.  

One part of the problem, then, is that many people have too little. The other part is that some people have too much. On the one hand, there is unacceptable poverty; on the other hand, there is excessive affluence. As a matter of fact, it may be that the people who are excessively affluent have some responsibility for the poverty. It is possible that the magnitude of their incomes is achieved, at least in part, at the expense of the poor. 

The contemporary American display of widespread poverty together with manifest economic gluttony is both socially and morally offensive.

For instance, the industrial and commercial profits from which their affluence is drawn may depend upon keeping the wages of their employees low, or upon conducting their businesses out of the country so that American workers do not need to be paid at all. Moreover, people with very large incomes are inclined to spend comparatively little in the kind of consumption that supports a thriving retail economy — the sort of economy that would tend to enable ordinary people to avoid or overcome poverty. The rich generally allocate much of their incomes to domestic and foreign investment, from which the consumption-oriented American economy derives little benefit.  

It surely goes without saying that the rich have considerably more than they need for the comfortable and productive enjoyment of their lives. From their own point of view, then, this excess — however prestigious or enjoyable — is not truly necessary. In obtaining considerably more than they require in order to support good lives, those who are excessively affluent are guilty of a kind of economic gluttony, which resembles the gluttony of those who eat far more than what is necessary for supporting either their nutritional well-being or their level of gastronomic pleasure. 

Economic gluttony

The spectacle of large amounts of money being allocated to what is not genuinely needed, while many people have less than is necessary to satisfy modestly reasonable needs and aspirations, is naturally disturbing. The contemporary American display of widespread poverty together with manifest economic gluttony is, indeed, both socially and morally offensive. 

However, to focus on inequality, which is not in itself objectionable, is to misconstrue the challenge we actually face. Our focus should be on reducing both poverty and excessive affluence. This may well entail a reduction of inequality. But this reduction is not properly our essential goal. Our primary goal must be to repair a society in which many have far too little while others have far too much.

Harry Frankfurt is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. His books include "Demons, dreamers, and madmen: The defense of reason in Descartes's Meditations”; "The Importance of What We Care About; Necessity, Volition, and Love"; "The Reasons of Love"; "On Bullshit"; and "On Truth".

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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