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G.A. Cohen, the Rothbardian-Hoppean Marxist?

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In Jan Narveson's thought-provoking and elegantly-written The Libertarian Idea (1990), he discusses an admission by a Marxist, G.A. Cohen, of a serious problem with communal ownership of property. As Narveson notes (p. 68): "The problem for socialists, as Cohen observes, is how to have both the right of self-ownership ... and yet a right of equality, getting us the socialism they are so morally enamored of. That there is a problem here is suggested by" the following comment by Cohen (found on p. 93-94 of his book Self-ownership, Freedom, and Equality (originally from G.A. Cohen, "Self-Ownership, World-Ownership and Equality," in F. Lucash, ed., Justice and Equality, Here and Now (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 113-114):

people can do (virtually) nothing without using parts of the external world. If, then, they require the leave of the community to use it, then, effectively ..., they do not own themselves, since they can do nothing without communal authorization."

Narveson comments: "It is testimony to the strength of our position that even someone so ideologically opposed gives it clear recognition as an argument that must be confronted."

Does Cohen's reasoning sound familiar? It should, to Rothbardians and Hoppeans. See below --

In Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty he argues in favor of self-ownership because the only logical alternatives are "(1) the 'communist' one of Universal and Equal Other-ownership, or (2) Partial Ownership of One Group by Another--a system of rule by one class over another." However, "in practice, if there are more than a very few people in the society," the first

alternative must break down and reduce to Alternative (2), partial rule by some over others. For it is physically impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal share of partial ownership over every other man. In practice, then, this concept of universal and equal other-ownership is Utopian and impossible, and supervision and therefore ownership of others necessarily becomes a specialized activity of a ruling class. Hence, no society which does not have full self-ownership for everyone can enjoy a universal ethic. For this reason alone, 100 percent self-ownership for every man is the only viable political ethic for mankind.

Rothbard goes on,

But suppose for the sake of argument that this Utopia could be sustained. What then? In the first place, it is surely absurd to hold that no man is entitled to own himself, and yet to hold that each of these very men is entitled to own a part of all other men! But more than that, would our Utopia be desirable? Can we picture a world in which no man is free to take any action whatsoever without prior approval by everyone else in society? Clearly no man would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish. [emphasis added]

(See also Rothbard's comments in Man, Economy, and State, where he refutes the idea that the free market robs future generations by wasting natural resources, since "[s]uch reasoning would lead to the paradoxical conclusion that none of the resource be consumed at all.")

Hans-Hermann Hoppe makes some related points as well. In Hoppe's The Ethics and Economics of Private Property, Hoppe argues that the libertarian principle of original appropriation--"Everyone is the proper owner of his own physical body as well as of all places and nature-given goods that he occupies and puts to use by means of his body, provided that no one else has already occupied or used the same places and goods before him" is not only intuitive and obvious to most people (even "children and primitives"), it is also provable. Hoppe argues that there are only two alternatives to this rule: "Either another person, B, must be recognized as the owner of A's body as well as the places and goods appropriated, produced or acquired by A, or both persons, A and B, must be considered equal co-owners of all bodies, places and goods." However, the first rule reduces A to the rank of B's slave, and is therefore not universalizable. As for the "second case of universal and equal co-ownership,"

this alternative would suffer from an even more severe deficiency, because if it were applied, all of mankind would instantly perish. (Since every human ethic must permit the survival of mankind, this alternative must also be rejected.) Every action of a person requires the use of some scarce means (at least of the person's body and its standing room), but if all goods were co-owned by everyone, then no one, at no time and no place, would be allowed to do anything unless he had previously secured every other co-owner's consent to do so.

Thus, "universal communism," as Rothbard referred to it, is a "praxeological impossibility."

For similar comments, see A Theory of Socialism of Capitalism (1989), pp. 142-143.

Hoppe also criticizes the notion that aggression can be viewed as "an invasion of the value or psychic integrity of" others' property, as opposed to the libertarian view under which aggression is "defined as an invasion of the physical integrity of another person's property." Hoppe critiques this alternative conception of aggression because

While a person has control over whether or not his actions will change the physical properties of another's property, he has no control over whether or not his actions affect the value (or price) of another's property. This is determined by other individuals and their evaluations. Consequently, it would be impossible to know in advance whether or not one's planned actions were legitimate. The entire population would have to be interrogated to assure that one's actions would not damage the value of someone else's property, and one could not begin to act until a universal consensus had been reached. Mankind would die out long before this assumption could ever be fulfilled.

See similar arguments by Hoppe in his 1988 Austrian Economic Newsletter article, The Justice of Economic Efficiency (p. 3). Interestingly, in the ensuing exchange between the late David Osterfeld and Hoppe, they use language eerily similar to Cohen's: Osterfeld (p. 9): "Hoppe argues that socialism is 'argumentatively indefensible' because if private property is not recognized, then one would have to come to an agreement with the 'entire world population' prior to committing oneself to a course of action, a requirement that would paralyze all human action, and thus all life. It is not clear that the only alternative to individual ownership is ownership by the 'world community'." (I cannot find the exact phrases "entire world population" or "world community" in the Hoppe piece Osterfeld is critquing, however.) In Hoppe's response (p. 239), he notes: "Osterfeld claims that I construct an altemative between either individual ownership or but that such an altemative is not exhaustive. This is a misrepresentation. Nowhere do I say anything like this." (emphasis added)


Stephan Kinsella

Stephan Kinsella is an attorney in Houston, director of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom, and editor of Libertarian Papers.