Tag Archives: economic inequality

A tidal wave of beneficent trends

by Martin Bridgstock

(An edited version of this book review was published in The Skeptic magazine, September 2018, Vol 38 No 3)


Some years ago Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (Pinker 2012) made a great impression. In this book – using over a thousand pages of text and 100 diagrams – Pinker supported his case that, over the long run, human beings are becoming less violent toward each other.  There were exceptions to the decline in violence, but Pinker seemed to make a powerful case for his argument. In addition, he presented a list of factors which, in his view, led to this decline in violence.

Since that time, Pinker’s argument has been verified. Johan Norberg (2016), a Swedish writer and Angus Deaton (2013), a Nobel prize-winner in economics, have come to the same conclusion. The key finding, the long-term decline in interpersonal violence, has to be welcome to everyone. Its sheer magnitude sometimes takes an effort to grasp. For example, an Englishman living in the 1300s was twenty times as likely to die violently as an Englishman in the twentieth century (Pinker 2016:73). Overall, Pinker’s case for the trend away from violence seems to be well supported.

Many wonderful trends

Now Pinker has returned with another book, titled Enlightenment Now (Pinker 2018). It is short compared to the other book – only 550-odd pages and 75 diagrams – but far more ambitious. He documents the evidence that the human condition is improving on more than a dozen important measures. And he has a single underlying theory to explain this.

Rather than list all the trends, I will put them in a separate table, with an example or two for each. Cast your eyes over the table. I suggest looking at the examples for Life, Wealth and Knowledge. Let me stress that in the hundreds of pages and dozens of illustrations which make up Pinker’s book, there are far more trends than I can list here. And all point in the same direction: the human condition worldwide is improving. Usually these improvements took place first in Europe and North America. However, the other parts of the world are improving too, and usually catching up with the leaders. 

Table 1. Major trends charted by Pinker, with selected examples

 Life. Life expectancy is increasing Around 1780, world life expectancy for humans was about 30 years. Today it is 71.4 years. (Pinker 2018: 53-4 )   Major diseases are in decline, often because of mass vaccination (Pinker 2018: 64).

Sustenance. The food supply per person is increasing and so childhood stunting and famine deaths are in decline (Pinker 2018: 70-71). The size of families is decreasing, too: apparently once parents are reasonably sure that their children will survive, they stop having large families (Pinker 2018: 125).

Wealth. GDP per capita is increasing worldwide and as a result extreme poverty is falling. In 1820, nearly 90% of the world’s population lived on US$1.90 (2011 dollars) or less. Today only about 10% live on so little (Pinker 2018: 87).

Inequality. Inequality may be increasing, but the general trend is for everyone to become richer (Pinker 2018: 120)

The Environment. Because of advancing technology, the risk of environmental catastrophe is receding, and most environmental indicators are improving (Pinker 2018:132-3).

Peace. The peaceful trends discerned in Pinker’s earlier book are shown to have continued (Pinker 2018: 157-9).

Safety. Steady reduction in vehicle accident deaths, plane crash deaths and most other forms of accidental death (Pinker 2018: 179-182).

Terrorism. Worldwide, deaths by terrorism are dwarfed by those from war and accidents (Pinker 2018: 192)

Democracy. Despite recent hiccups, Pinker cites the Polity Project as showing a steady advance for democracy in the world (http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity1.htm) (Pinker 2018; 207).

Equal rights. A general rise in liberal values in nearly all areas of the world over the last 50 years (Pinker 2018: 227). A decline in racist, sexist and homophobic jokes on the internet (Pinker 2018: 218).

Knowledge. Great rises in literacy worldwide (Pinker 2018: 238). Back in 1475 20% or less of the people in European nations were literate. Today over 90% are, and the rest of the world is improving too.

Quality of Life. Decline in working hours in Europe and the USA, decline in housework hours, rise in useful household devices. Increase in leisure time (Pinker 2018: 249-256)

Happiness. Reported life satisfaction is correlated with physical wellbeing, and seems to be improving (Pinker 2018: 269-279)

Existential Threats. The worldwide stock of nuclear weapons is diminishing (Pinker 2018: 318), and doom-laden predictions have repeatedly been proved wrong  (Pinker 2018: 309)

The Cause of It All

However, Pinker is not simply a Pollyanna, exclaiming at how wonderful everything is. He has a theory as to what underlies all these wonderful trends, and he also thinks that there is a threat to the entire process. As the title of his book suggests, he regards the Enlightenment as being a key cause of all this human improvement.

What do we mean by the Enlightenment? Pinker concedes that, unlike the Olympics, there was no opening and closing ceremony: you can argue about it endlessly (Pinker 2018: 7-8). However, he distinguishes some features of Enlightenment thinking.  One theme is the use of reason, which leads to doubt and questioning. Another is the refinement of reason to understand the world. (Personally I regard this as an extension of reason, or using it in a special way.) Part of this understanding involves knowing ourselves, and how our minds and bodies work. A third attribute is humanism, involving a morality which privileges human welfare. Finally there is a belief in progress. Pinker stresses that these basic themes are not absolute: people are not completely reasonable, nor is progress guaranteed.

As he works through all the trends operating in the world today, Pinker tries to link them back to Enlightenment influences. For example, Enlightenment thinking values commerce because it involves free exchange and economic improvement. Although commerce can be tough at times, it creates wealth and is far, far better than war, destruction and murder. Again, Enlightenment thought leads to the questioning of cruel judicial punishments.

In my view, the least convincing of Pinker’s arguments is the one over inequality. His chapter on this is largely a response to the French economist Thomas Piketty (2013). Using massive amounts of evidence, Piketty argued that western nations are becoming less equal. Capital, for several decades, has grown faster than wages, and this means that the top few per cent of the population are accumulating more and more wealth, while the bottom half are making almost no progress at all. Pinker’s counter-argument is that, in absolute terms, even the poorest people are better off than they used to be (Pinker 2018: 97-120). My personal view is that if some people are becoming poorer relative to everyone else, it is little comfort to learn that they are better off than previous generations. I suspect that events like the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit are at least in part an outburst against adverse economic trends.

Unlike the earlier book, Enlightenment Now has attracted a great deal of criticism. One reason is that Pinker focuses a good deal of scorn on western liberal intellectuals, who are overwhelmingly gloomy about society and the way it is going.  As Pinker points out, this gloom is not based on evidence, and again and again has been shown to be unjustified (Pinker 2018: 39-52). He has a series of explanations as to why intellectuals argue — wrongly – that things are getting worse. One explanation is the relentless focus of the popular media on violence: no matter what the overall crime rate, if there is a drug-crazed shooting or an atrocity, the media will focus upon it. This distorts our understanding because we use the ‘Availability heuristic’ (Pinker 2018: 41-2). When we readily remember an event, we assume things generally are like that event. So we may be disgusted by what has happened in Syria or the Yemen, or what was done to the Rohingya and regard these as characterising our age. As Pinker argues, however, in previous ages there were far more such atrocities, and they were accepted almost without comment. In addition, gloomy pessimism is often regarded as being far more profound than optimism – even when the optimism is supported by evidence and the pessimism isn’t.

Another reason why Pinker’s book has attracted criticism is because of what he calls ‘counter-Enlightenments’ (Pinker 2018: 29-35). The Enlightenment has suffered a series of reactions from religious and nationalist groups, and also from ideologies of the right and left. These movements do not accept evidence-based arguments and so are uncomfortable with the optimistic message of Pinker’s book. He makes this explicit when, partway through, he writes:

In writing the chapters on progress, I resisted pressure from readers of earlier drafts to end each one by warning, “But all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way.” Threatened it certainly is (Pinker 2018: 334)

Then he reviews the progress achieved in various fields, and points out that President Trump’s actions and words appear to oppose nearly all of it. In addition, the various nationalist outbursts in Europe could also threaten further progress. There is, Pinker stresses, nothing certain about continued improvements, and so the Enlightenment is well worth defending.

Science and Skepticism

Now the Enlightenment is the basis for two other important features of modern society. One is science, the other skepticism. Pinker (2018: 392-3) points out that science rests on two key ideals. One is that the world is comprehensible to our minds. This is borne out by the success of science. The other assumption is that we should allow the world to tell us what it is like. The traditional sources of belief, and the traditional authorities, are generators of error. Only by carefully formulating theories, and being willing to accept that the evidence may show them to be wrong, can we make scientific progress.

Skepticism, of course, stems from a similar set of ideals. Skeptics examine certain types of belief and question whether they are supported by evidence. It does not matter to skeptics who holds certain beliefs, or whether they stem from one ideology or another. The key question is, does the world tell us that they are true?

Is Pinker right?

Broadly, there are two different ways in which Pinker’s argument can be questioned. Is his evidence for massive, worldwide progress in a whole range of fields justified? And is his stress upon the Enlightenment as a key element in this progress justified? The answer to the first question is almost certainly yes. Pinker makes his sources of information clear, and it is easy to check them. He gets his facts right. The second question is more complex. Norberg (2016) for example, uses the same evidence as Pinker, but traces the improvements to free enterprise rather than the Enlightenment. My personal judgment is that the Enlightenment is a key feature in current progress, but not the only one: If we discard Enlightenment thought, we will suffer in the long run.

As a retiree, I have often worried about what kind of a world we are leaving our children and grandchildren. The short answer appears to be: with some exceptions, a lot better than the world we found. Provided we don’t lose sight of Enlightenment values, the future promises to be much better than the past.


Deaton, Angus (2013) The Great Escape. Health, wealth and the origins of inequality. Oxford and Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Norberg, J. (2016) Progress: Ten reasons to look forward to the future. London, Oneworld.

Piketty, Thomas (2013) Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Pinker, Steven (2018) Enlightenment Now.  The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. London, Allen Lane.

Pinker, Steven (2012) The Better Angels of our Nature. London, Penguin.

(Reblogged with the permission of both the author and the Editor of The Skeptic).

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Philosophies of redistribution

By James Fodor

      The key to understanding the difference between progressives and conservatives is their attitude to wealth sharing.

Key points

  • Debates over wealth redistribution are key to understanding the difference between progressives and conservatives.
  • Progressives see it as reducing inequality, conservatives see it as theft.
  • The difference can be analysed by looking at the interpretation of the pre-tax situation.
  • There are key differences in the way each side evaluates social institutions and individual effort.

     Income redistribution is the practice of using revenue gained from taxation of relatively wealthy persons to fund social programs and welfare benefits aimed to help poorer persons. It is commonly associated with, though not identical to, the practice of progressive taxation, in which the marginal rate of income tax increases with higher income levels.

     Redistribution is a subject that has long polarised progressive (“left wing”) and conservative (“right wing”) political groups.

     Debates concerning income redistribution tend to focus on two main categories of issues: moral considerations related to the justification of redistribution in principle, and practical considerations concerning its efficacy when put into practice.

     In this short essay I will focus exclusively on moral questions surrounding redistribution, and shall not attempt to present any firm conclusions, instead confining myself to presenting a brief overview of some of the critical philosophical issues at stake, and key points of disagreement between progressives and conservatives.

     Conservatives tend to be relatively hostile to, or at least sceptical of, income redistribution.

     Progressives are more likely to favour the practice. Progressives argue that redistributive taxation ameliorates economic inequality and helps poor and marginalised groups meet their needs, and therefore is morally justified, indeed imperative, in a just society.

     Conservatives, on the other hand, argue that redistributive taxation is a form of coercion in which the state forcibly expropriates the property of some in order to give it to others. Even if the state puts the expropriated property to good use, they argue that such actions are illegitimate. As Robert Nozick has said: “The state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others.

     Too often debates concerning redistribution proceed no further than this: progressives argue that it reduces inequality, while conservatives argue that it is morally little better than theft.

     In order to advance the discussion, it is helpful to realise that which of these two characterisations one finds most convincing depends on how we evaluate the moral status of the income distribution that would prevail before any redistributive taxes. Conservatives tend to think that this “pre-tax” distribution has considerable moral importance, regarding it as sort of a “coercion-free” baseline from which redistribution increasingly departs. Progressives, on the other hand, typically do not regard the pre-tax state as having any particular moral importance. Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, for example, argue that: “taxes do not take away from taxpayers what is antecedently theirs; pre-tax income has no status as a moral baseline for the purpose of evaluating the justice of the tax system.”

     Instead, progressives tend to believe that the state of affairs with most moral relevance is that which would prevail in a just society in which everyone received what is necessary to meet essential needs, or in which everyone received what they justly deserve.

     John Rawls famously argued that the morally relevant state of affairs is that which we would regard as just if we were placed behind a “veil of ignorance” where we did not know which position in the society we ourselves would occupy. While differing as to exactly what the ideal comparative state is, progressives generally agree in rejecting the conservative view that the pre-tax distribution of incomes in itself necessarily has any special moral standing. As such, attempts to move away from this state of affairs via progressive taxation are not regarded as necessarily suspect or problematic, since there was nothing special about the initial state of affairs to begin with.

     In response to these views, conservatives typically attempt to provide some reason as to why the initial pre-tax distribution of income should be given some special moral standing. As noted previously, the notion of coercion or use of force is often central to such accounts. Thus, conservatives argue that the pre-tax distribution is the only one that can be obtained without use of coercion, force, or the threat of force, to take income from some people and give it to others.

     They argue that if, for example, many individuals freely choose to buy the music of a particular popular singer, causing that singer to become very wealthy, all that has occurred are voluntary transactions which both parties believe made themselves better off. The resulting distribution of incomes, therefore, is privileged in that it alone corresponds to the product of free choices of individuals, rather than the use of coercion or force. (This, of course, is assuming the absence of private forms of theft, extortion, fraud, etc, which progressives and conservatives alike generally regard as immoral.)

     A second form of reasoning used by conservatives appeals to the idea that it is appropriate and just for people to enjoy the fruits of their own labour. Thus, if one person through their labour and skills earns a large income, it is unjust to deprive them of this income, even if we wish to use it for worthy ends.

     Just as it would be wrong for private charities to rob the rich in order to obtain funds, so do conservatives believe it is wrong for governments to forcibly extract some portion of their earnings for redistributive taxation.


     There are two main progressive lines of response to such arguments. The first is to argue that, even if redistributive taxation is to some degree a moral bad on account of the sorts of reasons conservatives outline, it is nevertheless justified by the much greater goods achieved by the practice, such as reduced poverty and inequality. The second response is to counter that taxation can only count as unjust expropriation if individuals originally had a just claim on the entirety of their pre-tax income. In actual fact, it is argued, no one ever rightfully has such a claim, since one is only ever able to receive income as a result of a complex web of practices, institutions, and public goods that make one’s economic activities possible, including the court system, public roads, police force, past investments made by others, publicly funded education, etc.

     Since it would not be possible to earn much of any income without these things, and since these are not the result of one’s own actions or skills, it is therefore concluded that one never has a morally justified claim to the entirety of one’s pre-tax income, and thus government taxation for redistributive purposes does not constitute any sort of unjust violation of rights.

     A stronger form of this argument contends that the wealthy are actually complicit in perpetuating an economic and political system in which they benefit at the expense of others, and as such the wealthy have little or no morally valid claim to any of their income at all.

     Note that both of these responses appeal to the causal mechanisms by which the pre-tax income distribution comes about, and thus are sensitive to one’s beliefs about the functioning of the economy and polity.

     It is beyond the scope of this essay to attempt to adjudicate such views, so I will simply note that conservatives tend to emphasise the role of individual choices, talents, hard work, and initiative in bringing about a given distribution of income, while progressives emphasise the importance of social institutions, social class, luck, and unjust practices.

     There is one final aspect of the income redistribution debate which I believe deserves some attention: namely the degree to which the wealthy have moral obligations to help the poor.

     Many people believe that the giving of alms to the poor, or making charitable donations to alleviate suffering, is a morally good thing to do.

     Where people differ is in whether or not this is regarded as supererogatory (something that is morally praiseworthy but not required), or whether it is something that all those with the means have a moral obligation to do.

     The important point to understand is that conservatives and progressives do not necessarily hold common views with respect to this issue. Thus, progressives may regard redistributive taxation as just and appropriate, but not necessarily think we have any moral obligation to aid the poor beyond this. Conversely, conservatives may regard redistributive taxation as unjust, but think that we are personally morally obliged to aid the poor through private charitable donations.

     There is arguably a tendency for progressives to prefer government-based welfare entitlements and institutional reforms over private charitable work, but this again is a subject that goes beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that it is important to understand that one’s position on the moral obligation of the rich towards the poor is not reducible to one’s views on redistributive taxation.

     The differences in the attitude of conservatives and progressives to the practice of redistributive taxation are the result of a diverse range of philosophical differences on a variety of issues.

     Progressives place more weight on the importance of a just distribution of income in society, while conservatives place a greater weight on the importance of preserving freedom of individual choices and action. Furthermore, progressives tend to believe that the pre-tax distribution of income is largely the result of social and structural forces and only minimally due to the effort or talents of individuals.

     Conservatives are likely regard these individual factors as more important and the social factors as correspondingly less important.

     There is, of course, much more to say about this complex and multifaceted issue, and a variety of other viewpoints that I have not considered in this short piece. Nevertheless, it is my hope that the ideas raised here will help readers to understanding perspectives outside their own, and facilitate a better informed, more constructive discourse on this most important and longstanding issue.

     James Fodor is author of the blog The Godless Theist.

     From the Australian Rationalist (Melbourne), v. 107, Summer [Dec.] 2017: 34 & 35. (Reblogged with permission of the author). 


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Economic efficiency and social justice

by Tim Harding

At first sight, the concepts of economic efficiency and social justice might seem unrelated or even counterposed.  Some people intuitively feel that in the economic sense, efficiency works against fairness and therefore equality. Economic inequality just seems unfair and wrong.

In this essay, I propose to argue that the concept of economic efficiency can be used as part of a case that social justice does not require economic equality.  My case is primarily based on the works of Frankfurt; but Rawls’ Difference Principle is also of assistance.  I also intend to consider some objections to this case, and to either provide counter-arguments against them, or to suggest that the objections are not sufficiently important to outweigh the case I am putting forward.

Economic efficiency is typically defined as a Pareto optimum – a state of affairs in which it is impossible to make anybody better-off without making somebody worse-off.  Economists often describe a Pareto improvement as a change that makes some people better off without making anyone worse off (Hausman and McPherson 2006, 65).

An example of such Pareto optimality is where a farmer produces a crop that he does not consume himself, and either sells all of the produce or gives it away.  There is no wastage of the produce: somebody is better off as a result of the transaction and nobody is worse off.  Transactions of this nature are called ‘positive sum’ and the outcome is classified as economically efficient.  In contrast, an example of economic inefficiency would be where instead of selling the produce or giving it away, the farmer disposes of some or all of the produce as waste.  Depending on the amount of produce involved, the farmer may incur some costs in disposing of the waste, at least in terms of his time if not monetary costs.  So under this scenario, the farmer would be worse off and nobody would be better off.

The following diagram illustrates illustrates that Pareto efficiency can be at any point on the curve (e.g. B, D or C). Points not on this curve, such as A and X, are Pareto inefficient.

Thus there are multiple states of affairs that can be Pareto optimal or economically efficient.  So on its own, Pareto optimality will not necessarily guarantee a moral outcome; and thus economic efficiency cannot serve alone as a conception of social justice – it must be supplemented in some way (Rawls 1971, 71).  For example, if there are millions of people starving, Pareto optimality will not allow one affluent person to be worse-off (through say, increased taxation) to make others better-off (Hausman and McPherson 2006, 65).

What is needed are complementary theories that build on the concept of economic efficiency to provide a better moral basis for economic inequality.  In my view, these other theories are provided by the works of Rawls and Frankfurt.

As part of his Theory of Justice, John Rawls has proposed what he calls the Difference Principle.  This principle ‘removes the indeterminateness of the principle of efficiency by singling out a particular position from which the social and economic inequalities of the basic structure are to be judged’ (Rawls 1971, 75).[1]  The Difference Principle is that social and economic inequalities can be justified if they work as part of a scheme which benefits the worst-off members of society (Rawls 1971, 75).[2]  In this way, Rawls establishes a connection between the seemingly unrelated concepts of economic efficiency and social justice.  But more importantly, he also uncouples social justice from economic equality.  Economic inequality can be justified if it meets certain criteria and conditions related to economic efficiency.

A very simple example, illustrating the Difference Principle.
Screencast by Dr. Toby Handfield

Frankfurt takes this idea further and argues against the notion that economic equality is of significant importance.  He proposes his ‘doctrine of sufficiency’ as an alternative to the doctrine of economic egalitarianism (Frankfurt uses the terms equality and egalitarianism interchangeably):

Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance. With respect to the distribution of economic assets, what is important from the point of view of morality is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others.  I shall refer to this alternative to egalitarianism – namely, that what is morally important with respect to money is for everyone to have enough – as the ‘doctrine of sufficiency (Frankfurt 1987, 21).

Frankfurt defines ‘enough’ or sufficient in terms of meeting a subjective personal standard rather than reaching an objective limit.  This standard is when a person is content with what he has: ‘A contented person regards having more money as inessential to his being satisfied with his life.’ This is not to say that the person would not prefer more money – it means that he lacks an active interest in seeking it by, for example, changing careers (Frankfurt 1987, 37-40).

Frankfurt argues that economic equality can be actually harmful on several grounds. One of these grounds is that measuring their financial circumstances against others distracts people from focusing on their own real needs in terms of how much is ‘enough’ for them (Frankfurt 1987, 22).  Another ground is that economic equality tends to divert attention from considerations of greater moral importance (Frankfurt 1987, 23). In this way the doctrine of equality contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.

Frankfurt provides an example to show that under conditions of scarcity, an egalitarian distribution may be morally unacceptable.  Suppose there is only enough of a vital resource such as food or medicine to enable some but not all members of a population to survive.  An equal distribution would result in all members of the population dying, but an unequal distribution would enable some of the population to live.  In this way, an egalitarian distribution would produce a net loss of aggregate utility (Frankfurt 1987, 30).

Frankfurt thus argues that ‘it is a mistake to maintain that where some people have less than enough, no one should have more than anyone else’ (Frankfurt 1987, 31).  He argues that this conclusion leads to a logical separation between egalitarianism and sufficiency (Frankfurt 1987, 33).

In a more recent work, Frankfurt identifies some objections to his doctrine of sufficiency.  Firstly, the excessively affluent could be guilty of a kind of economic gluttony, resembling gobbling down more food than they need (Frankfurt 2015, 4).  My view is that this objection is based at least partly on aesthetics – conspicuous over-consumption may appear to be distasteful or unpleasant to observe.  This objection can be dismissed on the ground that aesthetics are matters of subjective personal taste rather than objective standards of social importance.  However, if this gluttony is perceived as wanton waste, it could also constitute an instance of the zero-sum fallacy; that is, the mistaken view that people can only become richer by making others poorer, or vice versa.  Viewed through the prism of this fallacy, waste by the rich can be perceived as throwing money away, resulting in less money being available for the poor.  Common textbook economic theory tells us situations like these are not necessarily zero-sum, because economic value can be created, destroyed, or altered in a number of ways, thus creating a net gain or loss of value to various stakeholders.

Secondly, highly conspicuous disparities wealth in close spatial proximity could cause a lack of social cohesion, which may be associated with frustration, envy and resentment experienced by those lower down the scale, which can damage overall social welfare in a variety of ways (Parkinson et al 2006, 109).  In extreme cases, economic inequality where people do not have ‘enough’ has led to riots or even revolutions in the past.


Paris women marching on Versailles, 1789

It is sometimes argued that cooperative relationships among members of society are beneficial and that economic inequality is not conducive to such relationships (Frankfurt 2015, 16).  My own view is that adverse consequences of such lack of social cohesion can be managed at least to some extent by government intervention (for example by the establishment of social safety nets) and that the disadvantage of economic inequality where people have more than ‘enough’ does not outweigh the advantages of Frankfurt’s approach.

Thirdly, wealthy people have may have a competitive advantage or economic power that gives them an unequal opportunity to accumulate more wealth and to exert more political influence than those starting with less wealth (Frankfurt 2015, 5-6).  My view is that this problem can be mitigated at least to some extent by the regulation of excessive political influence, for example via limits on political donations.  Again, this disadvantage does not outweigh the advantages of Frankfurt’s approach and to the extent it cannot be mitigated it is probably something we may just have to live with.

Finally, I would like to consider Elizabeth Anderson’s theory of ‘democratic equality’ based on equal respect of law-abiding citizens (Anderson 1999, 287-337) as a principled objection to the case I have outlined.  Anderson does not directly respond to the arguments of Rawls and Frankfurt that I have summarised in this essay.  Instead, she approaches the debate from a different direction and initially argues against the notion that the motive behind egalitarian policies is mere envy (Anderson 1999, 287-288).  She also argues against the idea of social justice as equality of fortune or ‘luck egalitarianism’ – compensating individuals for undeserved misfortunes in their lives such as being born poor (Anderson 1999, 289-309).  One of her main arguments is that equality of fortune interferes with citizens’ privacy and liberty (Anderson 1999, 310).  She thinks that such an approach gives individuals an incentive to deny personal responsibility for their problems.  ‘It is easier to construct a sob story recounting one’s undeserved misfortunes that it is to engage in productive work that is valued by others’ she argues (Anderson 1999, 311).

From these criticisms of the equality of fortune, Anderson moves towards a positive principle of the equal moral worth of persons, or ‘universal moral equality’ (Anderson 1999, 313).  She believes that ‘the basis for people’s claims to distributed goods is that they are equals, not inferiors, to others’ (Anderson 1999, 314); and that ‘citizenship involves functioning not only as a political agent…but participating as an equal in civil society (Anderson 1999, 317).  In other words, Anderson extends the concept of the political equality of citizens to their economic equality – she thinks that you can’t have one without the other.

In contrast, Frankfurt categorically rejects ‘the presumption that egalitarianism, of whatever variety, is an ideal of any intrinsic moral importance’ (Frankfurt 2015, 65).  He argues that ‘whenever it is morally important to strive for equality, it is always because doing so will promote some other value rather than because equality itself is morally desirable’ (Frankfurt 2015, 68).  Frankfurt believes that the widespread tendency to exaggerate the moral importance of egalitarianism is due, at least in part, to a mistaken conflation of the ideas of treating people with respect and treating them equally (Frankfurt 2015, 77).

Building on the theories of Rawls and Frankfurt that economic inequality is not necessarily unjust, I think that a case can be made that there can be even some advantages in having an inequality of wealth.  An example I would like to propose lies in the social benefits of philanthropy, where almost by definition generous donations are made to worthy causes in the arts and sciences that governments do not see sufficient short-term political advantage in funding.  These donations are often highly beneficial to medical science and treatment, especially in underdeveloped countries.  For instance, it is on the public record that the multi-billionaire Bill Gates has made a major financial contribution towards eradicating the dreadful disease of poliomyelitis from the world.


In conclusion, I have shown that social justice, as defined in terms of either Rawls’ Difference Principle or Frankfurt’s doctrine of sufficiency, does not entail economic equality; and that the undesirable consequences of economic inequality can to some extent be managed by government intervention.  Where such consequences are unavoidable, their disadvantages do not outweigh the advantages of Frankfurt’s approach, and in the case of philanthropy an inequality of wealth can even be socially beneficial.


[1] Rawls’ basic structure is a foundational component of his larger Theory of Justice that need not be discussed here.

[2] The application of this principle is subject to other principles of justice that take priority under specified circumstances that also need not be discussed here.


Anderson, Elizabeth S. 1999. ‘What is the Point of Equality?’ Ethics 109: 287-337.

Hausman, Daniel M. and Michael S. McPherson 2006 Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy and Public Policy Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 1987 ‘Equality as a Moral Ideal’ Ethics 98: 21-43.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 2015. On Inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Parkinson, Michael et al. 2006 State of the English Cities Volume 1. London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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