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They Say: “No Inequality D-Rule”

Frankfurt is wrong and doesn’t apply.


Hirschman 16 — Daniel Hirschman, Lecturer in Economic Sociology at the University of Michigan, holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Michigan, 2016 (“Enough Is Not Enough: On Harry Frankfurt’s ‘On Inequality’,” Los Angeles Review of Books, February 5th, Available Online at https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/enough-is-not-enough-on-harry-frankfurts-on-inequality/, Accessed 06-19-2017)

Frankfurt’s book is a philosophical treatise on how complete economic equality fails as a moral compass. I can imagine a world in which such an argument would be an important intervention. I do not believe we live in that world. Who exactly is Frankfurt arguing against? As a sociologist who studies the history of debates over income inequality, I admit to significant confusion. Frankfurt never really cites examples of the argument he is criticizing; he seemingly takes for granted that proponents of radical equality are everywhere. Perhaps they are, in some corner of American philosophy. In the public debate over economic inequality, I have not seen any. Even communists argue “to each according to his need,” which is not exactly a call for complete equality: it is, instead, rooted in the concern for having “enough” that Frankfurt thinks should be paramount.

Instead, as Frankfurt admits, that public debate focuses on inequality because of its pernicious effects. We care about inequality not because we believe that everyone should have the exact same economic resources but because contemporary inequality has grown to a level that is recognized to have terrible consequences. Research by academics across the social sciences has shown how increased inequality — and especially the growing affluence of the very rich, documented by economists Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and colleagues — produces harmful effects for our politics, our health, and our economy itself. The political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argue that the opinions of economic elites have far more influence on policy outcomes than the opinions of average Americans. In turn, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that this outsized policy influence helps create inequality, as economic elites use their control of policy to weaken unions and lower taxes. Beyond politics, the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett document, in their book The Spirit Level, how unequal societies fare worse across various measures of population health including life expectancy, obesity, and more. And a new literature in economics has begun to find evidence that more equal economies experience faster economic growth, contrary to conventional wisdom about a tradeoff between equality and efficiency.



Frankfurt agrees that there are compelling reasons to care about real-world inequality, but he argues that we should not hold the principle of economic equality sacred. Instead, we should focus on fighting inequality to the extent that such inequalities produce negative effects. To my eye, that seems to be an accurate characterization of political debates on the left. So what’s the problem?

Frankfurt does attempt to motivate his argument around one negative consequence of holding economic equality as an independent moral imperative. He claims that valuing economic equality (rather than the elimination of poverty) leads to a form of “alienation.” By this he means not alienation in the Marxist sense, but rather a jealous materialism where individuals care more about what others have than whether they have enough and thus contribute to “the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.” On reading these lines, I admit to experiencing a bit of moral disorientation myself. From the vantage point of 2015, the current mobilization for economic justice seems to be a very healthy political response to the worsening inequality of the past 30 years and the attendant negative consequences. Frankfurt looks at calls for economic equality and somehow sees a reinforcement of crass materialism. I don’t get it.

Perhaps Frankfurt’s case could have been strengthened if he’d included any examples of actual egalitarian discourse. His discussions of economic egalitarianism largely take the form of attacking a doctrine, not presenting any examples of its deployment in political debates. I suppose that’s to be expected from a philosopher, but it makes understanding and substantiating a claim about the supposed alienating effects of egalitarian discourse very difficult. Put another way: Frankfurt makes an empirical claim that egalitarian doctrines produce alienation, but offers no evidence for that claim.

The one example provided of contemporary political discourse is an unsourced quote from President Obama calling inequality “the defining challenge of our time.” Frankfurt then chides him for overemphasizing inequality instead of poverty: “It seems to me, however, that 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.” Frankfurt misreads the president, and this example suggests how he misreads the entire contemporary debate on inequality. President Obama’s quote comes from a speech titled “Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility” in which he identifies mobility combined with inequality as the “defining challenge.” The tone of the speech is very much in line with Frankfurt’s idea of emphasizing having enough. President Obama frames the challenge of mobility around the problem of middle class families no longer feeling like they are getting by: “Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles — to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement.” In other words, we have defined enough in a way that many people can no longer meet it, because the gaps between the haves and have-nots have grown, and fewer and fewer people can achieve the status of “haves.” Obama’s quote is not an example of valuing equality for its own sake, but a measured response rooted in an understanding of the negative consequences that have flowed from increases in inequality and declines in mobility.

Frankfurt’s On Inequality ultimately disappoints. If you happen upon a philosophical debate about the merits of complete economic equality — perhaps conducted during those long empty hours on your desert island — Frankfurt’s book will prove invaluable. Alas, for the rest of us, an argument against equality tells us next to nothing about inequality.

They Say: “No Inequality-Based Mortality Gap”

Yes, mortality gap — strong statistical evidence.


Pickett and Wilkinson 15 — Kate E. Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, former Research Career Scientist at the National Institute for Health, and Richard G. Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, 2015(“Income Inequality and Health: A Causal Review,” Social Science & Medicine, Volume 128, March, Available Online at https://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/education/curriculum-tools/population-health/pickett.html, Accessed 06-20-2017)

Discussion and Conclusions



The body of evidence on income inequality and health points strongly to a causal connection. The major criteria of temporality, biological plausibility, consistency, and lack of alternative explanations are well supported. Of the small minority of studies that find no association, most can be explained by income inequality being measured at an inappropriate scale, the inclusion of mediating variables as controls, the use of subjective rather than objective measures of health, or followup periods that are too short.

Suicides seem to stand as an important exception to the general pattern: they tend to be more common in more equal societies, despite the evidence that depression is more common in more unequal societies.39,132 A possible explanation is that social gradients in suicides are not always consistent internationally.133 Another possibility is that there may be some truth in the view that violence can be directed either outwards or inwards against oneself. If suicide is, like homicide, often a response to adversity, we think it likely that greater equality increases a tendency to blame oneself rather than others for what goes wrong.

Epidemiological causal criteria are not exhaustive. A good test of the validity of a scientific theory is its ability to make successful, testable predictions. The theory that more equal societies are healthier arose from one international study17 and has now been tested in many different contexts. The search for a mechanism led to the discovery that social relationships (social cohesion, trust, involvement in community life, and low levels of violence) are better in more equal societies, suggesting that inequality and health are linked through psychosocial processes related to social differentiation and relative deprivation.61 That inequality does have powerful psychosocial effects is now amply confirmed.

We suggest that the most parsimonious explanation for the effects of income inequality is that larger income differences increase social distances, accentuating social class or status differences. This would explain why income inequality is most closely related to health when measured across whole societies coterminous with social class hierarchies.13,134 Rather than income inequality being a new and independent determinant of health, it is likely to act by strengthening the many causal processes (known and unknown) through which social class imprints itself on people throughout life. This would suggest why, not only health, but a wide range of other outcomes with social gradients are also related to inequality. It also suggests that if class and status are to become a less powerful influence both on individual lives and on whole societies, it will be necessary to reduce the material differences that so often constitute the cultural markers of social differentiation.



As whole populations are exposed to societal income inequality, estimates of the population attributable risk will be high even if, for some outcomes, the causal effect on some outcomes is modest. Kondo and colleagues67 estimated that upwards of 1.5 million deaths (9.6 percent of total adult mortality for the 15-60 age group) could be averted in 30 OECD countries if each country reduced its Gini coefficient below 0.30. If individual income is also related to health partly through psychosocial mechanisms involving relative deprivation, then multilevel models that control out its effects may substantially underestimate the effects of inequality.135 It has been estimated that if the United Kingdom reduced its inequality to the average in other OECD countries, the expenditure savings on physical and mental illness, violence, and imprisonment alone would amount to £39 billion per year.136



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