[Why Not Socialism? • By G.A. Cohen • Princeton University Press, 2009 • 83 pages]
G.A. Cohen (1941–2009) grew up as a Marxist, but he abandoned a key belief of that doctrine. Marx taught that the coming of socialism was inevitable. The key to history was the development of the forces of production, which tended continually to grow. As they did so, new relations of production, and political and social arrangements appropriate to those relations, became necessary. History has thus proceeded through several stages, from primitive communism, to ancient slavery, onwards to feudalism, and then capitalism. In each case, the new social system was best fitted to develop the forces of production contemporary with it. Though capitalism permitted vastly greater productivity than any previous system, its day had passed. Socialism would enable previously unheard of prodigies of production.
On this view, it was not necessary to argue for the moral merits of socialism. To do so was superfluous; socialism would arrive, with the inexorability of a law of nature. G.A. Cohen, in Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence, provided the most analytically precise account ever written of the historical basis on which Marx expected socialism to arrive. But Cohen himself ceased to find convincing the theory he had so carefully explained. By no means did he abandon socialism, but his arguments for it became purely ethical: we should institute socialism because this is a morally better system than capitalism.
In Why Not Socialism? Cohen explains in a clear and accessible way why he thinks that socialism is morally desirable. In doing so, though, he leaves himself open to a challenge, and of this he is fully aware. Even if he could demonstrate that socialism is a morally superior system to capitalism, it might turn ought that socialism is impossible to establish. He endeavors to meet the difficulty but, as we shall see, he fails adequately to confront the principal reason that would derail a socialist economy.
First, though, why does he think that socialism is morally desirable? He asks us to consider a group of friends going on a camping trip. Would we not think it better that the people in the group shared their provisions than that each person on the trip selfishly tried to appropriate as much as he could for himself?
You and I and a whole bunch of other people go on a camping trip … We have facilities to carry out our enterprise: we have, for example, pots and pans, oil, coffee, fishing rods, canoes, a soccer ball, decks of cards, and so forth. And, as is usual on camping trips, we avail ourselves of those facilities collectively: even if they are privately owned things, they are under collective control for the duration of the trip, and we have shared understandings about who is going to use them when, and under what circumstances, and why … There are plenty of differences, but our mutual understandings, and the spirit of the enterprise, ensure that there are no inequalities to which anyone could make a principled objection. (pp. 3–4)
Cohen's parable illustrates, he thinks, virtues of equality and community that ought to be extended to society as a whole. The equality that he recommends, he is anxious to assure us, entails no drab uniformity. Quite the contrary, it allows for diversity based on individuals' tastes and preferences. But, as one would expect from Cohen's previous work, inequalities that result from the "luck" of having superior ability are ruled out.
Cohen does not go so far as John Rawls, who considers the fact that some people act more responsibly than others as also due to superior luck. As Cohen rightly says, this view contradicts our ordinary attitudes, in which we do hold people responsible for the results of their free choices.
I [Cohen] said that believing no inequality could truly reflect real freedom of choice would contradict your reactions to people in day-to-day life, and that I lack that belief. I lack that belief because I am not convinced that it is true both that all choices are causally determined and that causal determination obliterates responsibility. If you are indeed so convinced, then do not blame me for thinking otherwise … do not, indeed, blame, or praise, anyone for choosing to do anything, and therefore live your life, henceforth, differently from the way that we both know that you have lived it up to now. (pp. 29–30)
This is Cohen at his best.
Although he thus allows differences of outcome that stem from free choices, he thinks that a problem arises when these inequalities are combined with another type of inequality that also seems fair. He has in mind option luck: as an example, suppose someone voluntarily gambles and wins a large some of money. Surely someone who chose not to risk his money cannot complain at the good fortune of someone who did.
Though Cohen allows this form of inequality as well, he confines it, along with inequality generally, within strict limits. Too much inequality, even of a justifiable sort, can interfere with the good of community.
Although inequalities [of the sort just mentioned] are not condemned by justice, they are nevertheless repugnant to socialists when they obtain on a sufficiently large scale, because they contradict community: community is put under strain when large inequalities obtain … We cannot enjoy full community, you and I, if you make, and keep, ten times as much money as I do, because my life will then labor under challenges that you will never face, challenges that you could help me to cope with but do not, because you keep your money. (pp. 34–35)
The camping story was designed to bring out the good of community.
Cohen's argument for socialism must confront a difficulty that at first sight seems fatal. Even if his account of the camping trip is right, how did he get from an account of what is desirable in a very special setting to the arrangements of a whole society? In a camping trip, people are "roughing it" and are usually not concerned with luxury. Cohen has chosen an example with special features and treated it as the general case. Should we view society as a giant camping trip, in which material goods rank far below the benefits of friendly and equal relations between everyone? That question remains open, whatever one thinks of the camping trip.
Another problem with using the camping-trip analogy does not escape Cohen's attention. Camping trips normally involve family or friends. Why should what is appropriate in this situation apply to society, in which each person knows only a few other people? Cohen answers in this way:
I do not think that the cooperation and unselfishness that the trip displays are appropriate only among friends, or within a small community. In the mutual provisioning of a market society, I am essentially indifferent to the fate of the farmer whose food I eat: there is little or no community between us.… But it does seem to me that all people of goodwill would welcome the news that it had become possible to proceed otherwise, perhaps, for example, because some economists had invented clever ways of harnessing and organizing our capacity for generosity to others. (pp. 50–51)
Here, I suggest, Cohen has misconceived the nature of a market society. Nothing prevents people from being as generous as they wish to others. If you want to donate all your wealth to the poor beyond what you need to survive, you are at perfect liberty to do so. The issue between the socialist and the supporter of the free market then becomes whether you should be forced to regard everyone else as your "friend," with a claim on your resources, even if you do not value so extended and demanding a community.
The same issue, by the way, arises in the camping trip. If people did not behave in the way Cohen urges on us, would they not be within their rights? Suppose that, on the trip, you bring with you some caviar, which you do not agree to share with your companions. Maybe they will consider you selfish; but, after all, it is your caviar.
As usual with Cohen, he has anticipated the objection.
The opponents [of the camping trip ethos] do not say that there should be more inequality and treating of people as a means on a camping trip, but just that people have a right to make personal choices, even if the result is inequality… (p. 47)
Cohen's answer takes us to the heart of the difference between a libertarian, natural-rights view and socialism. Cohen says that, although you cannot make "selfish" choices if you accept the ethos of camping, you retain a wide freedom of choice within those limits. Further, in a market society, the freedom to amass wealth restricts the choices available to others.
A particular person in a market society may face a choice of being a building laborer or a carer or starving, his set of choices being a consequence of everybody else's choices. (p. 48)
Cohen has fundamentally misconceived what is at stake. If you prevent me from stealing your car, you have restricted my freedom of choice; and if I am free to take your car, your freedom of choice over that object is restricted. We cannot assess what choices people should have available to them without knowing what rights people have. Any assignment of rights will restrict choice: Cohen's invocation of that tautology does not advance progress.
Both in his camping-trip story and in the general case, he averts his eyes from the most basic issue. How are property rights acquired? Cohen refers to the "voluntarily accepted constraint" of those on the camping trip; but surely he does not envision a purely voluntary socialism for society. (If he does, then the libertarian has no quarrel with him.) Cohen has elsewhere explained in detail his rejection of Lockean property rights, at least in the variant defended by Robert Nozick; but unless one agrees with him in this rejection, his case for socialism does not succeed.
But let us put this to one side. Suppose that, however improbable for readers of this journal, one is attracted to his vision of socialism. Could it be put into practice? As mentioned before, Cohen is well aware that he needs to confront this question; but he fails to grasp the key issue.
As he sees matters, the fundamental problem for socialism is how to achieve the efficiency of the market without relying on the "base motives" on which the market depends. He does not know how to do this, but he hopes technology will be able to supply an answer:
[W]e do not know how to honor personal choice, consistently with equality and community, on a large social scale. But I do not think that we will never know how to do these things: I am agnostic on that score. The technology for using base motives to productive economic effect is reasonably well understood.… But we should never forget that greed and fear are repugnant motives. (pp. 76–77)
Cohen's mistake is two-fold. First, as mentioned before, he wrongly thinks that the free market depends on base motives. His error is all the more surprising as he himself refers to the work of Joseph Carens. In an effort to cope with Mises's calculation argument, Carens proposed that a socialist society should reproduce exactly the firms and price structures of the free market. Once people received their market incomes, people would agree to redistribute them, following egalitarian requirements.
Here, then, producers aim, in an immediate sense, at cash results, but they do not keep (or otherwise benefit from) the money that accrues, and they seek it out of a desire to contribute to society: a market mechanism is used to solve the social technology problem, in the service of equality and community. (p. 64)
If Cohen here recognizes that the market need not be motivated by greed, why does he insist elsewhere that the market depends on bad motives and, on account of that, seek institutions to modify the market? He is even suspicious of market socialism as conceding too much to the hated market. The lesson of Mises and Hayek is clear: there is no substitute for the private ownership. Without it, economic calculation in a modern economy cannot take place. If Cohen were to accept this, his socialism would reduce to a plea to people to accept the egalitarian values he favors. If he does not, his socialism is doomed on economic grounds to fail. It is unfortunate that one of the foremost political philosophers of our time remained throughout his life in the grip of economic error.
 For the most detailed presentation of Cohen's arguments against libertarian property rights, see his Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge, 1995).
 Carens's book is Equality, Moral Incentives, and the Market (University of Chicago, 1981). For a critical analysis, see David Ramsay Steele, From Marx to Mises (Open Court, 1999).