Who will speak for the poor?

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Inequality Debate Looks in Wrong Direction

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Most of the talk generated by Tuesday’s Democratic debate is about e-mails or enemies, but far more important were the efforts of the presidential candidates to explain what they would do about achieving another e-word: equality. More to the point, they talked about the problem of “inequality,” a word used eight times by the candidates and once by the moderator. And when they spoke of inequality, it was clear that their concern was the accumulation of wealth and power by the very wealthy.

Inequality is on everybody’s lips these days -- everybody on the left, anyway, and a lot of people in the center and on the right as well. But what if everybody’s wrong?

QuickTake Income Inequality

That’s the contention of “On Inequality,” a small, smart new volume by Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt. At the very beginning, he states a simple but powerful thesis: “Our most fundamental challenge is not the fact that the incomes of Americans are widely unequal. It is, rather, the fact that too many of our people are poor.” Progressives, in other words, are shooting at the wrong target. The moral problem posed by the distribution of wealth isn’t inequality. It’s poverty.

These might seem like the same issue, but Frankfurt shows us with elan that they are not. Suppose, he says, there is a resource that will keep a person alive, but only if that person has five units of it. There are 10 people, and there are 40 units of the resource. If the resource is distributed equally, everybody gets four units -- and everybody dies. To insist on equality in that case, he argues, “would be morally grotesque.”

Fortunately, says Frankfurt, we don’t really try to promote equality. Even among those who worry about inequality, people adjust their consumption to their own assessments of their needs. They don’t reduce their consumption because it’s unfair for them to have money. This instinct he lauds: “A preoccupation with the condition of others ... leads a person away from understanding what he himself truly requires in order effectively to pursue his own most authentic needs, interests, and ambitions.”

Frankfurt suggests that the instinct that leads many to complain about inequality isn’t about equality at all: “What I believe they find intuitively to be morally objectionable ... 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.”

He is on strong ground here. There is a tendency on the left to think of inequality principally as a problem of the rich having too much. Although not indifferent to that concern, Frankfurt contends that this worry is a distraction from the far more important goal of making sure that everyone has enough.

I think Frankfurt is right. He’s pointing to a genuine difficulty in the way the left too often sees the world. When I’ve tried to raise the issue of poverty with progressive acquaintances, I’ve been told repeatedly that there are more important issues to address. Over and over I’m assured that we can get around to poverty once we’ve dealt with, say, climate change or marriage equality. These are worthy causes -- but it’s discomfiting to see how far poverty has fallen on the liberal agenda.

Even when my progressive friends do bemoan inequality, they usually define the problem not as the poor having too little but as the rich having too much. Whereas I was raised to the liberalism of the 1960s, when assisting those worst off was first priority. And if you think the problems are the same, just glance at the income curve and cut off the very tip of the right tail -- that is, eliminate the superrich. The shape of the curve doesn’t change. The poor are just as poor as they were before.

One reason for the progressive obsession with curbing the power of wealth is a concern -- mentioned but not elaborated by Frankfurt -- that the rich can buy more political influence than they deserve. The academic literature has had trouble demonstrating that this effect exists, but let’s assume that it does. My worry is that what’s really going on isn’t a struggle over the outsize influence of the very rich, but a struggle over who should exercise outsize influence. After all, the beneficiaries of a successful taming of the influence of the rich would be not the poor and downtrodden but the educated professional classes who have long dominated the academy and the news media.

Frankfurt himself is interested less in politics than in everyday life, and there he warns us not to measure our circumstances against those of others: “If a person has enough resources to provide for the satisfaction of his needs and interests, his resources are then entirely adequate; their adequacy does not depend in addition on the magnitude of the resources other people possess.” Progressives might shy from this language, but Frankfurt makes a useful point. What people deserve equally, he contends, is not equality in money but equality in respect. This might require making sure that everyone has a particular amount of a particular good, but it does not require making sure that everyone has the same amount of that good.

An example raised most commonly in the literature is health care. We might agree that everyone has the right to a particular standard of care without decreeing that everyone must be able to buy what the rich can buy. Frankfurt doesn’t discuss the example directly, but presumably he would come down in the first camp: that you can buy more health care than I is morally irrelevant as long as I can buy enough.

Before you cringe in horror, bear in mind that the Affordable Care Act is structured exactly on this model, and that even Senator Bernie Sanders, in Tuesday’s debate, referred to people’s right to “the health care that they need” -- not the health care that they want.

Frankfurt’s book is short -- 89 pages, not including the notes -- and his prose, as always, is highly engaging. The volume should be required reading for candidates of both parties, if only to get them to focus on his central point: For all our fine talk about inequality, what’s truly terrible in America is not that so few have so much. It’s that so many have so little.

  1. The two candidates who didn’t use the word, Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb, certainly addressed the subject.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

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Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net