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Equality Is Good—Believe It or Else

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07/10/2020

Samuel Scheffler is one of the most prominent contemporary moral and political philosophers. He is especially well known for his ability to come up with arguments and counterarguments to any position. He is also a committed egalitarian. In a recent column that appeared in the New York Times, Scheffler responds to an argument against equality of wealth, income, and other desirable social goods. He recognizes the strength of the argument and tries to show that it doesn’t undermine the case for equality. I don’t think he succeeds. His defense of equality will convince only those already committed to this view.

The argument he’s trying to answer was raised by another famous philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, in an essay that appeared in 1987. It is an argument that most people who read Mises Institute articles will know already. In brief, the argument is that what matters to someone is how well he himself is doing. So long as a person has enough to lead a satisfying life, why should it matter whether there are other people who have more?

Scheffler states Frankfurt’s argument in this way:

It does not matter whether some people have less than others. What matters is that some people do not have enough. They lack adequate income, have little or no wealth and do not enjoy decent housing, health care or education. If even the worst-off people had enough resources to lead good and fulfilling lives, then the fact that others had still greater resources would not be troubling. When some people don’t have enough and others have vastly more than they need, it is easy to conclude that the problem is one of inequality. But this, according to Professor Frankfurt, is a mistake. The problem isn’t inequality as such. It’s the poverty and deprivation suffered by those who have least.

I must here avert a possible misunderstanding. Frankfurt is by no means a supporter of the free market. He is in most respects a standard welfare-state liberal. But he denies that equality is good for its own sake. When Frankfurt reiterated his contention in a short book that appeared in 2015, he became the object of severe attack. Colleagues shunned this once revered figure.

As Scheffler realizes, if you deny Frankfurt’s claim and maintain that equality has value in itself, you must confront an objection.

And Professor Frankfurt, it seems, has a point. Those in the top 10 percent of America’s economic distribution are in a very comfortable position. Those in the top 1 percent are in an even more comfortable position than those in the other 9 percent. But few people find this kind of inequality troubling. Inequality bothers us most, it seems, only when some are very rich and others are very poor.

Even when the worst-off people are very poor, moreover, it wouldn’t be an improvement to reduce everyone else to their level. Equality would then prevail, but equal misery is hardly an ideal worth striving for.

How does Scheffler answer this point? After making a few suggestions that aim to show that egalitarian measures are instrumentally good, he says:

This brings us to a more fundamental point. The great political philosopher John Rawls thought that a liberal society should conceive of itself as a fair system of cooperation among free and equal people. Often, it seems, we do like to think of ourselves that way. We know that our society has always been blighted by grave injustices, beginning with the great moral catastrophe of slavery, but we aspire to create a society of equals, and we are proud of the steps we have taken toward that ideal.

But extreme inequality makes a mockery of our aspiration. In a society marked by the spectacular inequalities of income and wealth that have emerged in the United States in the past few decades, there is no meaningful sense in which all citizens, rich and poor alike, can nevertheless relate to one another on an equal footing….If extreme economic inequality undermines the ideal of a society of equals, then is that merely one of its bad effects, like its corrupting influence on the political process? Or, instead, is that simply what it is for economic inequality to matter as such?

I don’t think this argument achieves very much. Of course, people cannot regard themselves as a society of equals in the sense that Rawls and Scheffler favor if the society allows “extreme” inequalities. But unless you already regard equality as a good in itself, why should the notion of a society of equals appeal to you? Invoking this ideal doesn’t help the case for equality.

Scheffler might respond in two ways. He might say that if we do accept the value of equality, we will also see that there is a good related to it, that of a society of equals, which has independent value. In that way, we get “two goods for the price of one.” He might also say that someone could first find the notion of a society of equals valuable and in that way come to accept the value of equality.

I don’t think either of these responses gets the egalitarian very far. The fact that a philosopher as skilled as Scheffler fails to come up with anything better should lead us to suspect that there isn’t much of a case for equality. It doesn’t amount to more than “You must believe in equality—because you must!”

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Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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