Freedom causes inequality, but not poverty

A new book, On Inequality, by Harry Frankfurt, is getting a lot of attention. George Will has talked about it quite favorably. So has Roger Kimball.  Mr. Frankfurt is reputed to be “one of the most influential moral philosophers in the world,” on the book’s Amazon page. George Will echoes Frankfurt when he says we all have different aptitudes and attitudes and thus inequality is the natural result. It is the freedom we have to be ourselves that creates inequality. I take it that Frankfurt would agree with something I wrote here back in December, 2009 when this blog was first created:

The American Way is equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of result because we are a collection of individuals with separate identities and not a dissolved whole. It is how we differ from one another in our goals, aspirations and abilities that make us the most dynamic force on planet earth. It is this that makes others from around the whole world want to come here and become a part of the American Way.

The “American Way” is the short version of “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” I took that from my childhood fascination and devotion to DC Comics’ Superman, made it a personal credo throughout my career as a lawyer, and made it the motto of this blog, thus “TeeJaw.”

Having read Frankfurt’s book [I have not], both Will and Kimball agree that Frankfurt counsels what is stated at the books’ Amazon page:

[The book] argues that we are morally obligated to eliminate poverty—not achieve equality or reduce inequality. Our focus should be on making sure everyone has a sufficient amount to live a decent life. To focus instead on inequality is distracting and alienating.

At the same time, Frankfurt argues that the conjunction of vast wealth and poverty is offensive. If we dedicate ourselves to making sure everyone has enough, we may reduce inequality as a side effect. But it’s essential to see that the ultimate goal of justice is to end poverty, not inequality.

I agree, that sounds pretty good. Problem is, the book is advocating something that is simply not possible.  There is no moral imperative to do what cannot be done. If Frankfurt were arguing that it is a moral obligation to reduce poverty to the lowest level humanly possible, it would be easier to agree.  Eliminating poverty is not even a worthy goal since it cannot ever be done and the resulting failure to ever reach that goal is likely to make people cynical about the whole idea, and ultimately give it up.

The simple reason poverty can never be eliminated is that a certain amount of poverty is solely the result of the destructive behavior of the person so stricken with it.  Drug addicts, habitual criminals, mentally ill or substance addicted homeless, women who have children without husbands or good job prospects, and those who are simply lazy are going to be poor no matter what.  They and not we are the only ones who can change that. It is now beyond argument that giving them generous welfare does not change their condition until they themselves decide to do something about it.

It is magical thinking that we can eliminate poverty and you would think “one of the most influential moral philosophers in the world” could figure that out.

America may have already reduced poverty to the lowest level possible. We do have the most well off poor people in the world. Nearly all so-called poor in America have automobiles, roofs over their heads, flat screen TVs, microwaves, indoor plumbing, access to health care, and most other creature comforts necessary to live well. Being grossly overweight is mainly a problem of the poor in America.

The one area where we could do more would be with the mentally ill homeless, but it’s liberals that won’t allow us to put these people in institutions where they could get the help they need.



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