Thursday, October 22, 2015

C'mon, let's not be obtuse

Suppose I went with a friend to a restaurant that had bad food, and that also was way too loud, so we couldn't hear each other speak.

Then suppose I told someone else about the experience and that, when I complained about the din, she said: "That's not the problem - the problem is that the place has bad food."

I would be nonplussed by such obtuse repartee.  Well, yes, I'd think, of course I didn't like going to a restaurant with bad food, but I also didn't like being in a place that's too loud.  If there are two problems, why exactly is the fact that one of them is real supposed to imply that the other one can't also be real?

How much respect for the insight and perspicacity of this individual would I have, after experiencing this conversation? Probably, not much.

I am reminded of this by Harry Frankfurt's lamentable new book, called "On Inequality." I had thought of commenting about this book earlier, but it slipped my mind what with the press of events. But it was brought back to my attention by a link on the Tax Prof blog to a Stephen Carter piece on Bloomberg View.

Herewith Carter, quoting and commenting on Frankfurt:

"Inequality is on everybody's lips these days - everybody on the left, anyway, and a lot of people in the center and on the right as well. But what if everybody's wrong?

"That's the contention of 'On Inequality,' a small, smart new volume by Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt. At the very beginning, he states a simple but powerful thesis: '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." Progressives, in other words, are shooting at the wrong target. The moral problem posed by the distribution of wealth isn't inequality. It's poverty."

I fail to see the difference between Harry Frankfurt and Stephen Carter, on the one hand, and my imaginary interlocutor regarding the restaurant experience on the other hand. The moral problem? There can't be more than one?

As I have said many a time, including on this blog (such as here) but also, for example, here, low-end inequality and high-end inequality raise fundamentally different issues. The problems associated with poverty may be more important, and are certainly more clearly, less contestably important. But that doesn't rule out the possibility that both sets of problems are important - and indeed, that they might (e.g., as a matter of political economy) be mutually reinforcing.

Of course we should want to make people who are suffering better-off. And I am too committed to beneficence to endorse making well-off people worse-off as an end in itself. But what if high-end inequality has ill effects on everyone else, or indeed on everyone? It is not seriously disputable that there are grounds on which this can seriously be argued (whatever one's own ultimate bottom line conclusion).

Frankfurt and Carter are simply embarrassing themselves by saying that "the" problem is just low-end inequality, and thus that high-end inequality ostensibly can't (apparently as a logical matter?) be a problem. It would behoove them to be more thoughtful, even if they ultimately were to remain on the anti-anti-plutocratic side.

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