Frankfurt on equality

Notes for Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Main points

Frankfurt argues that equality of money (and presumably other resources) is unimportant. What is important is sufficiency or having enough.

The target

It is important to be clear about how narrow his target is. He is only interested in the inherent value of equality of money, not the value that can be derived from equality for the economy, political system, social relationships, and so on. We talked about whether this made his article so narrowly focused as to leave out the arguments that most people find compelling.

That said, we have seen two authors who take the value of equality for granted: Dworkin and Rawls. Those are reasonably large targets.

Is it an argument against equality?

One of Frankfurt’s chief points is that the pursuit of equality would alienate people from their own desires. The idea is that it is undesirable for people to think of how they are doing relative to others. They would be far better served by thinking about what they want for themselves, without thinking about where they stand relative to others (Frankfurt 1987, 22–23). As Peter noted, he also makes a related point, namely that it is better to think about what is enough to achieve your aims in life rather than seeking to always accumulate more.

I wondered whether this sort of consideration could not be used as part of an argument in favor of greater economic equality. My thought was that people are most obsessed with comparing their standing relative to others in unequal societies. I was thinking about Piketty’s worry that the US and Europe are headed back towards the sort of world depicted in Jane Austen novels. That, it seems to me, is a social world driven by worries about class and status. Scott piled on, adding that economic inequalities lead to class divisions, which is something that Frankfurt leaves out.

Danny was not sure I was right. He wondered if class envy and anxiety is higher when there is more mobility across classes: the rich have to worry about losing their status and the poor are keen to move up in the world. By contrast, if your status might as well be set by the laws of nature, you accept it. Prof. Brown thought that some survey data disputed Danny’s guess, but she wasn’t sure.

How subjective is “enough”

We talked a bit about whether Frankfurt’s idea of having enough is a subjective one or not. Since he mostly talks about being satisfied, he seems to have primarily had a subjective measure of “enough” in mind. But he hedged his bets by adding “reasonably”

To say that a person has enough money means that he is content, or that it is reasonable for him to be content, with having no more money than he has. And to say this is, in turn, to say something like the following: the person does not (or cannot reasonably) regard whatever (if anything) is unsatisfying or distressing about his life as due to his having too little money. (Frankfurt 1987, 37–38)

As Matt noted, Locke has a more objective way of understanding what is enough: you have enough if you can sustain your life.

But neither author really engaged with the question of how subjective or objective their respective ways of spelling out “enough” are.

The declining marginal utility of money

Scott and I liked Frankfurt’s observations about thresholds and the declining marginal utility of money. Scott suggested that there has to be a highest threshold: after a certain point, there just isn’t anything you can buy with more money that you could not already buy. Xiaoyu disputed that. He observed that there is always influence to be bought, people to control, charities to fund, and so on.

Prof. Brown told us that economists refer to what Frankfurt called utility thresholds as indivisibilities. While they are real, economists do not believe they are significant enough to call the assumption that there is a declining marginal utility of money into question.

She explained that economists’ reasons for believing in the declining marginal utility of money are not based on the kind of proofs that Frankfurt considered (and refuted). Rather, they have data about actual behavior that, they believe, is best explained by the assumption that utility functions reflect a declining marginal utility of money. For example, we know that people buy insurance. That means they are risk averse and risk aversion is equivalent to having a utility function with a declining marginal utility of money. We discussed this in our class on Dworkin.

Fading away

And then your loyal PPE note taker, sitting in the warm sunlight streaming through the window of the Metrolink train, began to experience declining consciousness. So he opted to spend the remaining half hour of his journey watching the San Gabriel Valley pass by.

Inequality updates

I’ve been reading stuff on the internet that seems interesting and relevant to our class. This is as good a place to put it as any.

  1. Sweden keeps inequality down with broad, regressive taxes that pay for high social services. (By contrast, the US has highly progressive tax rates and stingy social services.) Compare Piketty’s recommendation of highly progressive taxes as the solution to rising inequality.
  2. This is pretty obvious, but the fact that the unemployment rate is sensitive to interest rates strongly suggests there is such a thing as involuntary unemployment, er, undercompensation. It’s not just people trying to cheat the system.
  3. Speaking of interest rates, here’s John Cassidy on Janet Yellen’s speech on inequality.
  4. The Washington Center on Equitable Growth provides near daily summaries of work in economics on inequality.


Frankfurt, Harry. 1987. “Equality as a Moral Ideal.” Ethics 68 (1): 21–43.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2014. It was posted October 28, 2014 and updated October 29, 2014.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-being