In Equality as a Moral Ideal, Harry Frankfurt argues that the value of equality is not valued for itself. Rather than viewing equality as an intrinsic good, Frankfurt suspects that the actual intuitive appeal of equality derives from our moral intuition that everyone should have enough. We will first investigate the concept of “enough” on Frankfurt’s account. Then, we will analyze the moral import of making sure everyone has enough under the framework of the “strong sufficiency view.” While we will see that sufficiency for others is indeed a vital moral value, there is still reason to regard equality as good in itself as well. The latter view we will refer to as the “weak sufficiency view,” which I seek to sketch out and defend.
The view of Frankfurt’s we wish to analyze is concisely put forward by Frankfurt when he writes, “[W]hat 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” (Frankfurt 21). We will refer to this view as the “strong sufficiency view.” On this view, equality is regarded as entirely lacking intrinsic moral import. For Frankfurt it simply does not matter how the distribution of resources turns out to be in terms of some or other measure of equality—at least as long as everyone has enough. But what is enough?
We must be clear that for Frankfurt the extension of the word “enough” is broadly encompassing. We do not mean here enough to barely survive, or enough to hardly live comfortably. Rather, with “enough” we mean enough to flourish. Not only does sufficiency include the basic necessities of life such as food, water, and housing, but also what people need in order to live a meaningful life as they see it. For example, in order for the musically talented to flourish he needs instruments and leisure time to develop his skills. Alternatively, the nuclear physicist needs lab equipment, textbooks, and raw materials to do the work that makes her life feel meaningful to her. The conception of sufficiency on this view is wide-ranging, but the main point is that it is the amount of resources (social, material, and beyond) that someone needs in order to fulfill their potential as they see it. In this way, we see a strong parallel with John Rawls’s ideal of society promoting the ability of each individual to have genuine self-respect (Rawls, A Theory of Justice 386). While they strongly differ in their views on egalitarianism as a whole, both of their views are at least partly motivated by an impulse to preserve the cherished values of autonomy and self-determination that underpin modern liberal democracies.
To anyone on the political left, the idea that everyone should have enough to flourish is unlikely to garner much criticism. What about a libertarian? Someone like Robert Nozick would disagree strongly with the idea that morality demands that we be concerned with everyone having sufficient resources. Rather, from the strict libertarian perspective, what is morally relevant is consent. For the libertarian, it doesn’t really matter if almost an entire society lived in poverty while some live in lavish conditions with more resources than they could use in a thousand lifetimes. As long as those conditions arose out of voluntary transactions between individuals, there is no moral claim to be made against such a distribution.
What the libertarian fails to understand is that without enough to live well people are not in a position to genuinely consent in a free-market system. Given the inevitable concentration of resources into the hands of a few in modern global society (see Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, etc.) a large portion of a free-market society must engage in menial labor in order to survive. In a free market system, there is no real choice. Is it genuine consent if failing to engage in menial labor will result in your children starving to death? Is it genuine consent if failing to engage in menial labor will result in your mother dying from diabetes because she can’t afford her insulin? There is no consent where one does not have a legitimate chance of survival if she says “no.”
What if we provide everyone with enough? It seems then that no one would be forced into menial labor—one could say “no” to those jobs and still be perfectly able to survive and live a meaningful life. While one may say that’s far-fetched—we will always need menial laborers—I would urge him to look at the rapid development of technology. Far from far-fetched, it seems inevitable that large portions of the simple, menial jobs of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty first centuries will vanish within the next ten years. The dreaded decline of the trucking industry, one of the largest employers in the United States as of this writing in 2020, is a particularly poignant example. What are they to do when all the trucks drive themselves? What will their “consent” in the “free” market look like then?
We can see now that providing people with sufficient resources to live their best life (as they see it) actually enables consent!
By securing sufficient economic resources for everyone, people’s freedom will grow exponentially. Let us picture our level of freedom as some rough estimate of our available choices. It is simply undeniable that a society in which everyone unconditionally had enough to live well would result in those people have more choices available to them to design their conception of the good life. How many poor kids in the United States long to become doctors, lawyers, professors, or nurses, who will never be able to do so because their family has never had enough to invest in their education? It is an insidious falsehood that the only motivator for human behavior is profit. While this is an empirical claim we cannot verify here, I truly believe that there are millions who would pursue these things for their own sakes. The free market profit motive is not necessary for the perpetuation of our society. Everyone should have enough.
Let us now introduce an amendment to Frankfurt’s strong sufficiency view. We have established that everyone having enough is vitally important for the legitimacy of a liberal democracy and market system. But that does not mean sufficiency is all that matters.
Imagine a society in which everyone had sufficient resources. Every single person has enough to fulfill their conception of the good life, whatever it may be. To be clear, there has not been a single society in the history of the world that has achieved this. But as philosophers we get to imagine.
In this society, we will say that a unit of $1/day covers the vast majority of people’s needs. However, there is still a market in society, and some people amass much more wealth than others. We will structure it like this: 90% of the people have a net worth of $36,500 (which would cover $1/day for 100 years); 5% of the people have a net worth of $1,000,000 ($1/day for 2,740 years); and the top 5% have a net worth of $10,000,000,000 ($1/day for 27,397,260 years).
Is it really of no moral consequence that these vast inequalities exist? Keep in mind everyone has enough to thrive. There is not a single person in deprivation in this society. For the sake of further clarity, we can imagine this as a worldwide government. Every single human being has enough. However, even in those conditions, there is still a massive power inequality between the three groups. The psychological effects of wealth have been discussed by intellectual revolutionaries from the ancient prophets Buddha and Jesus Christ, to the economists of the nineteenth century and the psychologists of today. It seems extremely unlikely that in any society in which money still exists there would not be people motivated by greed. While, as stated above, the profit motive is not the only motive human beings have for behavior, we know from time immemorial that there are people in every generation who are primarily motivated by this. In short, in a society in which money exists money is a primary vehicle of power.
The moral consequence of our inequality here has nothing to do with sufficiency. Sufficiency has been met in this society, and that is certainly a necessary condition for a just society. Ironically, sufficiency is not a sufficient condition for a just society. Any society in which there are massive imbalances of power cannot be considered properly just. To appeal again to our liberal ideals of autonomy and self-determination, a relatively equal distribution of social power is necessary for the genuine expression of these values. Money is the ultimate social influencer in societies in which it exists. If one group of people enjoy far more access to social power than another, those people are much more likely and able to exert their control over the society as a whole to a much greater degree than those without that social power. To have one’s interests, desires, and beliefs manufactured intentionally is a barrier to true autonomy—but even in this society of sufficiency such exertion of control through money would likely be inevitable.
We will then call our adapted view the “weak sufficiency view.” On this view, sufficiency is vitally important. No society can be just even if a single person under its sovereignty does not have enough in Frankfurt’s fullest sense. However, we have seen that the distribution of power is also vitally important, and the guarantee of such a just distribution of power cannot be achieved by application of the principle of sufficiency alone.
One might wish to object at this point that this defense of egalitarianism is simply a defense of equality as an instrumental good for the sake of maintaining just power structures. However, the value of equality simply is the value of a just power structure between persons. Frankfurt has shown us that it is not the equal distribution of material resources themselves that is important with respect to equality. What is left for us then is the most basic sense of equality between persons, and that is equality between the power of persons. As Rawls says, the value of autonomy is sustained by our regard for all individuals as free and equal persons. The value of equality of power between people underpins even the social value of personal autonomy for all persons.
On our weak sufficiency view, we assert that sufficiency is necessary. However, this sufficiency must be accompanied by a reasonably equal distribution of overall resources in order to retain the value of equality of power between persons. We have seen that maintaining a reasonably equal distribution is itself necessary to retain the very principles that constitute the backbone of modern liberal democracies. The long and bitter struggle between the priority of liberty and the priority of equality may never see a practical end in human society, but I believe that a proper analysis of the concept shows that they are mutually intertwined. Liberty without equality of resources cannot be liberty because there is not genuine consent and autonomy between citizens where there are great imbalances of material power. Equality of resources without liberty cannot be equality because there would be great imbalances of power between citizen and state. While liberty and equality are not reducible to each other fully, they are mutually affirming, and one cannot be properly understood without some reference to the other.
About the Author:
Jared Yackley is an undergraduate student of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His primary focuses are in epistemology, history, and political philosophy. Yackley hopes to apply the principles of dialectical materialism to contemporary issues, both philosophical and political.