“Beggar Thy Neighbor,” by Daniel Shuchman (A book review of “On Inequality” by Harry G. Frankfurt). The Wall Street Journal, 10/9/2015. Also discussed in George Will’s syndicated column that appeared in my local newspaper 10/18/2015.
The current emphasis on correcting the obvious economic inequality suffers from logical errors, according to Princeton philosophy professor Frankfurt. The equality theories hold that fairness is determined by one person’s position relative to another’s, not his absolute position. But, Frankfurt points out, those “who are doing considerably worse than others may nonetheless be doing rather well.”
Old Bessy may be living in a declining neighborhood that we would not want, but she has time for her friends, is warm, comfortable, free of hunger, and enjoying benefits unimagined by even the very rich a hundred years ago. On hot summer days, I welcome sweaty visitors to the Peirce–du Pont House at Longwood Gardens by joking “Welcome to Pierre’s air conditioning: open doors and windows. Today’s air conditioning wasn’t invented yet.” Neither was big-screen TV or the Internet. As pleasant as his house is, I would not want to live there without those three modern advantages that are available to even the poorest in our society today. (Cell phones are also a free perk for our society’s poorest, but they are too expensive for the little I would use one.)
The amount of wealth possessed by others does not bear on “what is needed for the kind of life a person would most sensibly and appropriately seek for himself,” says Frankfurt. The equality movement substitutes Bessy’s lifestyle goals for those appropriate for the lifestyles of others. The simplest and most frequent procedure to achieve equality is to reduce everyone’s economic level to Bessy’s. But then ambitions also are reduced to Bessy’s level. Who, then, is going to create new businesses and jobs? Or even go to college? Or do anything to advance themselves and society?
Before the end of apartheid in South Africa, some civic-minded Dutch farmers doubled the wages of their day-laborers, but found they then only showed up for work half the time. They had no need to work for more.
When I read of a corporate executive fired and given a $120 million bonus, I do not begrudge him any of it. I cannot imagine what anyone would do with that much, but it can’t be good. When you already have $120 million, it is hard to take pride in a birdhouse you built in your wood shop—or any other accomplishment, for that matter. The world already has had one Howard Hughes, and that was enough. And don’t leave it to your grandchildren. We don’t need another Paris Hilton, either. You could pour it all into charitable foundations and bask in the fawning of those who owe you their livelihood, but even that must get tiresome. I have been seated at the head table of a large dinner for hundreds, and I assure you, it is a God-awful bore.