How Not to Argue Against Inequality

Like his previous work, Robert Frank’s new book Falling Behind makes much of “happiness surveys” to demonstrate that once a country reaches a certain level of prosperity, one’s relative position in the economic hierarchy may do more to determine one’s happiness than one’s absolute level of buying power. As he stated in a 2001 piece coauthored with Cass Sunstein,

Such surveys have found that happiness levels within a country at a given moment are strongly positively correlated with relative position in the country’s income distribution. But the same studies find only weak long-term trends in average reported happiness levels, even for countries whose incomes have been growing steadily over time.

Sunstein and Frank argue that such studies demonstrate the importance of equality, or at least of collective action designed to prevent “arms races” for relative position.

This is perhaps the most controversial of Frank’s arguments for equality, and for good reason. As Gregory Besharov has argued, the most important question here is “what is the relevant group to which people compare themselves?” Certainly I might resent my neighbor’s purchase of a $10,000 gas grill when I can only afford an aluminum charcoal plate on a tripod. But should I really be comparing myself to him? Why not just be grateful that I have a BBQ apparatus at all?

Gregg Easterbrook’s book The Progress Paradox makes that point compellingly:

Our forebears, who worked and sacrificed tirelessly in the hopes their descendants would someday be free, comfortable, healthy and educated, might be dismayed to observe how acidly we deny we now are these things.

In short, mere subjective feelings of resentment oughtn’t count for much in the social calculus–a point Rawls made foundational in his treatment of the original position in A Theory of Justice. Many spiritual traditions counsel against resentment. Though Frank is often at pains to discuss the objective bases of the dismay of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, those objective problems (such as suffering a higher likelihood of injury in a car crash when they can’t afford the larger cars driven by wealthier drivers) are what really matters. As I have argued elsewhere, the reverse finding–that “happy slaves” are perfectly satisfied with preventable injustices done to them–should not count in favor of a social system.

Ultimately, Frank’s subjectivism is part of a larger, and disturbing, trend in philosophy: an emphasis on brute feelings where our true concern is with the rightness, the appropriateness, of such feelings.

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