Eco­nomic in­equal­ity is not im­moral

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Harry G. Frank­furt

The false belief that eco­nomic equal­ity is morally im­por­tant leads peo­ple to take too se­ri­ously a ques­tion that is in­her­ently rather in­signif­i­cant -namely, the ques­tion of how their eco­nomic sta­tus com­pares with the eco­nomic sta­tus of oth­ers. In this way the doc­trine of equal­ity con­trib­utes to the moral dis­ori­en­ta­tion and shal­low­ness of our time.

Ad­vo­cacy of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism is of­ten based less on an ar­gu­ment than on a pur­ported moral in­tu­ition: Eco­nomic in­equal­ity just seems wrong. It strikes many peo­ple as al­to­gether ap­par­ent that, taken sim­ply in its own right, the pos­ses­sion by some of more money than oth­ers is morally of­fen­sive. I sus­pect that peo­ple who pro­fess to have this in­tu­ition are ac­tu­ally not re­spond­ing to the in­equal­ity they per­ceive but to another fea­ture of the sit­u­a­tion they are ob­serv­ing. What I be­lieve they find in­tu­itively to be morally ob­jec­tion­able in cir­cum­stances of eco­nomic in­equal­ity is not that some of the in­di­vid­u­als in those cir­cum­stances have less money than oth­ers. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too lit­tle.

When we con­sider peo­ple who are sub­stan­tially worse off than our­selves, we very com­monly find that we are morally dis­turbed by their cir­cum­stances. What di­rectly moves us in cases of that kind, how­ever, is not a rel­a­tive quan­ti­ta­tive dis­crep­ancy but an ab­so­lute qual­i­ta­tive de­fi­ciency. It is not the fact that the eco­nomic re­sources of those who are worse off are smaller than ours. It is the quite dif­fer- ent fact that their re­sources are too lit­tle.

Mere dif­fer­ences in the amounts of money peo­ple have are not in them­selves dis­tress­ing. We tend to be quite un­moved, af­ter all, by in­equal­i­ties be­tween those who are very well- to- do and those who are ex­tremely rich. The fact that some peo­ple have much less than oth­ers is not at all morally dis­turb­ing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty. The fun­da­men­tal er­ror of eco­nomic egal­i­tar­i­an­ism lies in sup­pos­ing that it is morally im­por­tant whether one per­son has less than another, re­gard­less of how much ei­ther of them has and re­gard­less also of how much util­ity each de­rives from what he has. Whether one per­son has a larger in­come than another is an en­tirely ex­trin­sic mat­ter. It has to do with a re­la­tion­ship be­tween the in­comes of the two peo­ple. It is in­de­pen­dent both of the ac­tual sizes of their re­spec­tive in­comes and, more im­por­tantly, of the amounts of sat­is­fac­tion they are able to de­rive from them.

A pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the con­di­tion of oth­ers in­ter­feres, more­over, with the most ba­sic task on which a per­son's se­lec­tion of mon­e­tary goals for him­self most de­ci­sively de­pends. It leads a per­son away from un­der­stand­ing what he him­self truly re­quires in or­der to pur­sue his own most au­then­tic needs, in­ter­ests, and am­bi­tions.

Ex­ag­ger­at­ing the moral im­por­tance of eco­nomic equal­ity is harm­ful, in other words, be­cause it is alien­at­ing.

It sep­a­rates a per­son from his own in­di­vid­ual re­al­ity, and leads him to fo­cus his at­ten­tion upon de­sires and needs that are not most au­then­ti­cally his own.

When some­one is eval­u­at­ing his well­be­ing -- his sat­is­fac­tion with the re­sources at his dis­posal -- what is it im­por­tant for him to take into ac­count? The assess­ments he has to make are per­sonal. What he must do is to make assess­ments on the ba­sis of a re­al­is­tic es­ti­mate of how closely the course of his life suits his in­di­vid­ual ca­pac­i­ties, meets his par­tic­u­lar needs, ful­fills his best po­ten­tial­i­ties, and pro­vides him with what he him­self cares about.

If a per­son has enough re­sources to pro­vide for the sat­is­fac­tion of his needs and his in­ter­ests, his re­sources are then en­tirely ad­e­quate; their ad­e­quacy does not de­pend in ad­di­tion on the mag­ni­tude of the re­sources other peo­ple pos­sess. The same goes for rights, for re­spect, for con­sid­er­a­tion, and for con­cern. Ev­ery per­son is en­ti­tled to these things by virtue of what he is and what he has done. The ex­tent of his en­ti­tle­ment to them does not de­pend on whether or not other peo­ple are en­ti­tled to them as well.

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