Luca della Robbia Plato and Aristotle

Luca della Robbia, “Plato and Aristotle” (c. 1437–1439), Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. Sailko / Creative Commons 3.0

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen has suggested that concerns about economic inequality are greatly overblown.

“The real challenge” Cowen insists, “isn’t how to reduce the difference in wealth between the rich and the poor. It’s how to reduce poverty.” Although Cowen does not spell this out in his short essay, this doctrine is known to contemporary philosophers and economists as “sufficientarianism”—the conviction that inequality is itself morally irrelevant, whereas concerns about absolute poverty merit moral concern.

This doctrine was spelled out perhaps most succinctly by the Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt in his book On Inequality, where he argues that “economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance. With respect to the distribution of economic assets, what is important from the point of view of morality is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough.” Cowen’s essay echoes Frankfurt’s doctrine.

Although Cowen doesn’t explore how we might alleviate poverty, it is easy enough to be sympathetic to pleas to aid the desperately poor. But what Cowen doesn’t acknowledge or address is that economic inequality and concentrated wealth—despite the claims of Frankfurt—has troubled a number of important thinkers for a variety of good reasons that are worth remembering.

Since Cowen has taken the trouble of sharing some of his favorite authors on his website, I want to draw attention to what two of them have to say about the matter: Plato and John Stuart Mill.

Take for example the Laws, Plato’s longest dialogue. In answer to the question “What is the purpose of the laws?”, the dialogue’s central character, the Athenian Stranger, replies, “to bring harmony to the city,” to promote “friendship” and “reconciliation.” This raises the question of what most threatens harmony, friendship, and reconciliation? His answer: “We assert that if (as we presume) the city must avoid the greatest of all plagues, which has been more correctly termed ‘civil war’ than ‘faction,’ that neither harsh poverty nor wealth should exist among any of its citizens. For both these conditions breed both civil war and faction.” In other words: where there is great inequality that tolerates extremes of wealth, there cannot be the harmony and friendship required of thriving republics. We should, rather, expect to confront strife, faction, and eventually civil war.

Plato knew of what he spoke, as his economically stratified Athens suffered no less than three class-based revolutions in the first two decades of his life. As Socrates would insist in Plato’s more-famous dialogue, the Republic, an economically unequal city is not even a single city. It is rather two: “a city of the poor and one of the rich.”

Cowen also cites John Stuart Mill as an inspiration—a “brilliant thinker and writer,” someone who “got me thinking about how one’s ideas change, and should change, over the course of a lifetime.” In particular, he cites Mill’s celebrated Autobiography. Yet he fails to acknowledge what Mill has to say about the concentration of wealth and economic inequality, both in the Autobiography and beyond.

In the Autobiography, he criticized the very rich for being guilty of “gross immorality,” as they inevitably tried to leverage their fortunes for the “predominance of [their] private over public interests in the State.” Cowen asserts that “the influence of money on politics was overrated in the first place,” but fails to substantially address Mill’s concern in his Considerations on Representative Government about “the danger of class legislation, of government intended for … the immediate benefit of the dominant class, to the last detriment of the whole.”

For Mill, so long as there are exceedingly wealthy citizens, they will dominate legislative institutions in order “to swell the estates of the rich.” This is why, for Mill, per his Principles of Political Economy, there is scarcely a higher legislative priority than equalizing the wealth of citizens, such that “the diffusion of wealth, and not its concentration, is desirable, and that the more wholesome state of society is not that in which immense fortunes are possessed by a few and coveted by all.”

These brief paragraphs represent, of course, a very small sampling of much more extensive arguments against economic inequality in both Plato and Mill, both of whom repeatedly sound the alarm about this problem in ways that cannot help but resonate with contemporary readers.

Plato and Mill respectively propose a variety of measures to achieve their desired degree of economic equality (not precise equality in either case), though both agree (1) that inheritance taxes should play a significant role, and (2) that this equality should be achieved incrementally, rather than all at once, to avoid the fate of upsetting the civic harmony that both Plato and Mill value. Finally, they both agree that achieving this equality incrementally requires a reformation of the political culture through education—that citizens must be taught that selfishness and greed are toxic to the social fabric.

Of course, I can’t expect that Professor Cowen would agree with either Plato or Mill on these matters. But it seems to me that a persuasive accounting by academics on a matter of pressing public interest, such as inequality, demands that we take into account the wisdom of the ages.

Why should we assume that Professor Cowen or Frankfurt know better than Plato or Mill? Without expressly engaging the long history of opposition to economic inequality, we have little reason to believe their arguments are any more or less credible than their forebearers.

David Lay Williams is Professor of Political Science at DePaul University and is the author of the forthcoming “The Greatest of All Plagues”: Economic Inequality in Western Political Thought.

2 thoughts on “Why We Should Worry about Inequality

  1. Maybe this is knee-jerk on my part. It just seems to me the foundations of utilitarianism promote inequality, a priori.

    1. Of course, some utilitarians seem to confirm what you suggest (e.g., Frankfurt). But you just have to read Mill (beyond On Liberty and Utilitarianism) to know that’s not necessarily true.

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