Income Inequality and Poverty Aren’t the Same Thing

Income Inequality and Poverty Aren’t the Same Thing

There is very considerable discussion nowadays about the increas­ingly conspicuous discrepancy between the incomes of wealthier Americans and the incomes of those Americans who are less wealthy. President Barack Obama has declared that income in­equality is the greatest political challenge of our time.

But just what is so awful about economic inequality?

Why should we have this great concern, urged upon us by so many politicians and public figures, about the growing gap between the in­comes of the richest people in our country and the incomes of those who are less affluent?

The first thing to notice is that economic inequal­ity, however undesirable it may be for various reasons, is not in­herently a bad thing. Think about it: We could arrange for the members of a society to be economically equal by ensuring that the economic resources available to each member of the society put everyone equally below the poverty line. To make everyone equally poor is, obviously, not a very intelligent social ambition.

Insofar as people aim for equality (i.e., having the same as others), they are distracted from measur­ing the specific economic needs that are implied by their own particular in­terests, ambitions and capacities. The trouble with adopting equality as a social goal, then, is that it is alienating. It diverts people from being guided, in assessing their personal economic circumstances, by the most pertinent features of their own lives; and it leads them instead to measure their economic needs according to the significantly less pertinent circumstances of others.

It isn’t especially desirable that each have the same as others. What is bad is not inequality; it is poverty. We should want each person to have enough that is, enough to support the pursuit of a life in which his or her own reasonable ambitions and needs may be comfortably satisfied. This individually measured sufficiency, which by definition precludes the bur­dens and deprivations of poverty, is clearly a more sensible goal than the achievement of an impersonally calibrated equality.

There is, of course, an evil other than poverty which it is import­ant to avoid. The social undesirability of wide economic inequality does not lie only in a concurrent incidence of poverty. It lies also in the superior political influence, and other competitive advant­ages, enjoyed by those who are especially well-off. These advant­ages, when they are deliberately exploited, tend to undermine a fundamental requirement of our constitutionally mandated social order. Accordingly, such anti-democratic misuses of the compet­itive advantages provided by exceptional wealth must be discour­aged by suitable legislative, regulatory and judicial oversight.

It is not inequality itself that is to be decried; nor is it equality it­self that is to be applauded. We must try to eliminate poverty, not because the poor have less than others but be­cause being poor is full of hardship and suffering. We must con­trol inequality, not because the rich have much more than the poor but because of the tendency of inequality to generate unac­ceptable discrepancies in social and political influence. Inequality is not in itself objectionable and neither is equality in itself a morally required ideal.

H. Frankfurt, FORBES

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