Frankfurt, Harry G., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 102p. $14.95.
by David Lay Williams, DePaul University
After lurking in the background for decades of steady and nearly unnoticed growth, economic inequality has come to demand wide attention. Some politicians, such as Bernie Sanders, have defined their campaigns by addressing this as the age’s foremost challenge. And even those who established their campaigns on different terms have acknowledged the creeping issue and have tapped into it to promote their particular platforms. Similarly, after decades of relative inattention, scholars have become considerably more attentive to economic inequality’s sources and various social implications. Most notably, Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century (2014) has come to dominate this discussion. Piketty argues that the relative economic equality of the middle twentieth century was more an anomaly than the necessary outcome of more than a century of Western capitalism. In fact, his bold thesis is that without serious intervention, unchecked market economies will necessarily distribute resources even more unequally than during the “Gilded Age.”
In On Inequality, Harry G. Frankfurt acknowledges Piketty’s research and certainly the fact that many regard the aforementioned trends as “deplorable” (p. ix). His type of book, however, is very different from Piketty’s. While Piketty himself does not hesitate to repeatedly condemn economic inequality as “excessive,” “shameful,” “beyond all reasonable limits,” and “terrifying” the French economist does not seek to explain why inequality might be understood as such. Rather, in Frankfurt’s view, such condemnations reflect a kind of “elementary common sense” (p. 81). This is pardonable in Piketty, as he is not a philosopher. But if one is to take seriously the problem of economic inequality in the twenty-first century, then surely this calls for a prominent philosopher to take up the challenge of outlining the moral and political difficulties that economic inequality introduces.