G. A. Cohen’s Anti-Capitalist Egalitarianism

G. A. Cohen was probably the most talented philosophical defender of egalitarian socialism writing in the several decades after the publication of Nozick’s ASU and Hayek’s LLL. Cohen takes Nozick’s most basic contentions to be that each individual has pre-political moral rights over herself and to the fruits of her labor. Liberal egalitarians like Rawls and Nagel readily and confidently reject natural rights forms of libertarianism precisely because these basic contentions had no traction for them. In contrast, Cohen saw that his own Marxist socialism was (or at least seemed to be) implicitly founded on these very contentions. Capitalism was to be condemned because it is based upon depriving workers of the fruits of their labor to which they have just claims in virtue of their rights over themselves and their labor. Only under socialism will the workers enjoy the full fruits of their labor. Thus, Cohen felt that he had to confront and defeat Nozick — preferably without having to deny their shared premises — in order to maintain his own (increasingly less Marxist) commitment to socialism.

The result was a series of powerful critiques of ASU which formed the basis of Cohen’s Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cohen 1995). In that work, Cohen runs through a series of attacks on the doctrine of ASU. He attacks Nozick on initial acquisition and on the thesis that just transformations from just situations must yield just outcomes (1995: 19-66), and on the adequacy of Nozick’s Lockean proviso (1995: 67-90). Finally, he directly confronts self-ownership and argues that it too must be rejected (1995: 229-44) precisely because of the truth of the libertarian claim that, if persons do have basic moral rights over themselves, they also have rights to the usually unequal fruits of their respective labor (1995: 213-23). However, an exposition and critical examination of Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality is beyond the scope of this book.i^ Instead, here I shall consider Cohen’s short book, Why Not Socialism? (Cohen 2009), which was his final attempt to express persuasively his deeply egalitarian and socialist convictions. This will allow us to focus on some important general issues rather than to dwell on specifically Nozickian stances. We will see how Cohen sought to remain more egalitarian and more anti-capitalist than ordinary liberal egalitarians — while, at the same time, more fully embracing the need for market mechanisms!

Why Not Socialism? introduces us to the charms of the camping trip — which is presented as the antithesis of life within a market economy. We see the attractions of this respite from our ordinary capitalist lives of buying and selling and crassly looking after number one. As Cohen depicts it, the camping trip is a bit of egalitarian socialist paradise. All the resources available for the trip are treated as common property. There is none of the repugnant bargaining and haggling that is endemic to market-based societies. Whatever needs to be done on the trip gets done more or less spontaneously because of everyone’s devotion to everyone else’s equal enjoyment. According to Cohen, the camping trip stands in radically sharp contrast to life in a market society which is deeply imbued with fear and greed.

[T]he market motivates productive contribution not on the basis of commitment to one’s fellow human beings and a desire to serve them while being served by them, but on the basis of cash reward. The immediate motive to productive activity in market society is (not always but) typically some mixture of greed and fear … [T]he market posture is greedy and fearful in that one’s opposite-number marketeers are predominantly seen as possible sources of enrichment, and as threats to one’s success. (2009: 39-40)

It seems that it would be marvelous if the ethos of the camping trip could replace the ethos of market society (as Cohen depicts it) as the basis for ongoing, large-scale social order.

According to Cohen, the camping trip realizes and enhances our appreciation for two principles: the principle of socialist equality of opportunity and the principle of community. The former holds that justice requires equality of enjoyment. However, since enjoyment is not so easily titrated, in practice it calls for equality of income. The basic case for this principle is the now familiar and essentially Rawlsian argument that: (i) since no one deserves their nature or nurture, no one can have any just claim to any differences in enjoyment (or income) that arise from her nature or nurture; (ii) since almost all differences in enjoyment (or income) arise from differences among people’s nature or nurture, almost all such differences are not just; (iii) since almost all such differences in enjoyment (or income) are not just, almost all those differences are unjust and justice, therefore, requires their elimination. “When socialist equality of opportunity prevails, differences in outcome reflect nothing but differences of taste and choice, not differences in natural and social capacities and powers” (2009: 18).

Cohen offers no general statement of the principle of community. Instead, he describes two different aspects of this principle. One aspect is the value of being in community with others. According to Cohen, the rich individual who usually drives her expensive car to work cannot be in community with the working stiffs who regularly ride the bus to work. When the rich individual rides the bus one day because her car is in the shop, she cannot commune with the regular riders about how uncomfortable the ride is. Not surprisingly, for Cohen, the fundamental obstacle to being in community with others is inequality of income. “We cannot enjoy full community, you and I, if you make, and keep, say, ten times as much money as I do, because my life will then labor under challenges that you will never face” (2009: 35). Substantial inequality of income leads to some people being regular bus passengers and to other people being drivers of (or being driven in) luxury cars. Such inequalities of income need to be eliminated for the sake of community.

This appeal to community enables Cohen to be more egalitarian than liberal egalitarians who subscribe to ‘Tuck egalitarianism.” Luck egalitarians say that the reason that differential outcomes that result from the natural and social lotteries are unjust and must be negated is that these lotteries are not entered into voluntarily. In contrast, if an individual does voluntarily buy a regular lottery ticket (or engages in some other voluntary gamble) and wins, that increment to her income is not unjust; and, if she loses, that deduction from her income is not unjust. So, according to luck egalitarianism, it will not be just to seize the winnings of a voluntary lottery player even if she intends to buy a luxury car with them, and justice does not demand redress for those who do not win. Cohen agrees with luck egalitarians that the inequalities that arise from voluntary gambling “are not condemned by justice.” Nevertheless, “they are repugnant to socialists when they obtain on a sufficient scale, because they contradict community” (2009: 34); and, thus, they must be annulled.

The second aspect of community that Cohen presents involves a contrast between “market reciprocity” and “communal reciprocity.” “If I am a marketer, then I am willing to serve, but only in order to be served: I would not serve if doing so were not a means to get service” (2009: 41-2). In contrast, in communal reciprocity,

what I want, as a non-marketeer, is that we serve each other … To be sure, I serve you in the expectation that (if you are able to) you will also serve me. My commitment to socialist community does not require me to be a sucker … I nevertheless find value in both parts of the conjunction — I serve you and you serve me.— (2009: 43)

According to Cohen, “A nonmarket cooperator relishes cooperation itself” whereas the market cooperator “does not value cooperation with others for its own sake” (2009: 42).

Let us consider whether it is feasible for a large-scale, ongoing society to be governed by the ethos that Cohen believes to govern the camping trip. One crucial problem is that the camping trip is about 99.6 percent consumption activity. All the gear, all the food likely to be consumed, all the first aid equipment, all the maps, and so on are just there — like manna from heaven. There are no problems of production to be solved on the camping trip. Yet a camping trip can be a respite from the task of solving such problems only because those problems are solved within the larger ongoing society. Cohen is at least implicitly aware of this. For, when he turns to the feasibility question, he focuses on how production might be effectively organized in a non-capitalist society. Strikingly, his first observation is that problems of production will not be solved by socialist central planning. For he has come to accept the fundamental contention of Mises and Hayek that the only way to have a rational allocation of resources to valued ends is to have genuine market prices for those resources and ends. Nevertheless, this does not lead Cohen to abandon all hope for a society that is socialist, at least in the sense of being radically egalitarian and being populated by people who are not mere marketeers.

Cohen pins his hopes largely on a scheme developed by Joseph Carens (1981). Carens notes that, within a capitalist system, market prices have both an informational and a motivational function.— Within his scheme, market prices are supposed to fulfill their informational function but not what Cohen takes to be their repugnant motivational function. Within Carens’ proposal, individuals and firms will act like marketeers seeking to buy low and sell high and will take their cue for their profit- and wage-maximizing conduct from the signals provided by the resulting market prices. CEOs will aggressively maximize profits — because this maximizes the value of what is produced over the cost of producing it. Investors will maximize profits — because this moves capital toward its most productive uses. Workers will pursue the highest available return for their labor — because this moves labor to its most economically valued employment. And so on. The result will be capitalist economic efficiency but without the horrors of fearful and greedy marketeer motivation. For, everyone’s motivation behind this show of capitalist selfishness will be the resources and ends. Nevertheless, this does not lead Cohen to abandon all hope for a society that is socialist, at least in the sense of being radically egalitarian and being populated by people who are not mere marketeers.

Cohen pins his hopes largely on a scheme developed by Joseph Carens (1981). Carens notes that, within a capitalist system, market prices have both an informational and a motivational function.— Within his scheme, market prices are supposed to fulfill their informational function but not what Cohen takes to be their repugnant motivational function. Within Carens’ proposal, individuals and firms will act like marketeers seeking to buy low and sell high and will take their cue for their profit- and wage-maximizing conduct from the signals provided by the resulting market prices. CEOs will aggressively maximize profits — because this maximizes the value of what is produced over the cost of producing it. Investors will maximize profits — because this moves capital toward its most productive uses. Workers will pursue the highest available return for their labor — because this moves labor to its most economically valued employment. And so on. The result will be capitalist economic efficiency but without the horrors of fearful and greedy marketeer motivation. For, everyone’s motivation behind this show of capitalist selfishness will be the enhancement of societal income for the sake of its equal division. On tax-and- transfer— day, those who have garnered more than equal incomes will attain their underlying egalitarian purpose by surrendering their surplus income, while those who have fallen short will receive their equalizing recompense. As Cohen sees it, the deeply anti-capitalist egalitarian can appropriate the capitalist social technology of market prices for egalitarian purposes. All that is necessary is a substantial — albeit not total — transformation of human motivation. As J. S. Mill presciently put it, the proposal is to carry on “the whole round of the operations of social life without the motive power which has always hitherto worked the social machinery” (2006: 737).

Here we can note only some serious weak points within Cohen’s final challenge to the libertarian vision of a society of diverse individuals with commitments and purposes of their own who are, nevertheless, able to live at peace with one another to mutual advantage by respecting one another’s basic rights as they have taken more fine-grained form. Let us start with Cohen’s picture of life on camping trips and his picture of life within (non- Carensian) market societies. There are camping trips and camping trips and Cohen does not tell us much about the one he envisions. It sounds like it involves a score or so people who seem to know one another in advance and voluntarily join in the trip in part because of their knowledge of their trip partners. Trips of that size, for example multiple day rafting trips, often are organized by commercial outfitters. The core equipment — rafts, cooking gear, chemical toilets — belong to the outfitter while individuals bring their own tents, sleeping bags, cameras, hiking gear, and so on. On such commercial trips, the rafting guides have a good deal of authority about, for example, what campsites to stop at and which particular hikes to do along the way. I have never seen anyone feel oppressed by this type of authority, nor feel that the relationship between the guides and the customers was one of cold mutual exploitation. But let us put aside guided commercial trips. People engage in self-organized rafting or kayaking or backpacking trips that may include as many as fifteen or so — although that’s an awfully big size for a backpacking venture. These almost always involve friends or friends of friends or people who are vouched for by friends. People bring their own gear and, although no one spends time putting “Private Property” stickers on their gear, the gear is definitely not treated as public property to be used for the sake of equal enjoyment. Neither collective life nor equal enjoyment motivates people on the trip. Contrary to Cohen, no one goes on a camping trip with the goal of relaxing “on condition that she contributes appropriately to her capacities to the flourishing and relaxing of others” (2009: 4-5).

People are on the trip to enjoy the excitement of the whitewater, the beauty of the surroundings, the challenge of the hikes — all leavened with just the right degree of effort and danger. People enjoy all these things and they enjoy being with others who are enjoying these things; and the others enjoy people enjoying their enjoyment. Each person’s enjoyment is experienced as a confirmation of each other person’s enjoyment. When campers say to one another — as they frequently do — “what a great view, what an exciting stretch of whitewater,” they are not conveying information about their surroundings that otherwise would be unnoticed. Rather, they are saying, “I know you too find this beautiful or exciting and I know that you are pleased that I too find it beautiful or exciting.” There is a deeply valuable type of community here. But it has nothing to do with collective control of resources or the belief that everyone on the trip is or should be aiming at equality of enjoyment. Everyone — well, almost everyone — is delighted when someone has an even more wonderful time than everyone else. They are delighted in the wonderfulness and they don’t begrudge the difference.

What about Cohen’s picture of life within a (non-Carensian) market order? Interestingly, Cohen does not depict huge corporations crushing little guys. Cohen locates the repugnance of (non-Carensian) market interaction in the much more homey exchanges between the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. The core of Cohen’s depiction of market exchange is expressed when he says, “the market posture is greedy and fearful in that one’s opposite-number marketeers are predominantly seen as possible sources of enrichment, and as threats to one’s success” (2009: 40). Of course, market participants see their trading partners as sources of enrichment. They see prospective trading partners as sources of opportunity, not as enemies. But Cohen’s addition of “and as threats to one’s success” summons up a view of market exchange that Cohen himself knows to be false, viz., that market exchange is zero-sum; either I enrich myself by threatening the success of the party I transact with or that party enriches herself by undercutting my success. Ordinarily Cohen acknowledges that each trading party wants the other to gain; each wants the other to see a benefit for herself in the exchange (that exceeds her cost) and thereby be induced to enter the exchange. But Cohen takes it to be awful that the benefit provided to his trading partner is not the marketeer’s ultimate purpose. Indeed, Cohen’s thought seems to be that, since that benefit is not the marketeer’s ultimate purpose, the marketeer does not at all aim at benefiting his trading partner. Yet that aim is real enough to guide the marketeer toward the production of goods or services that will be valued by his intended customers. Moreover, I think many butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers do care about producing and offering goods that are worthy of being desired by their customers. Perhaps they have only acquired this concern because it’s good policy; but, again that does not mean that the concern is not real.

In addition, and contrary to Cohen, it is entirely open to marketeers to relish market cooperation, that is, to have both an abstract appreciation for the trading relationship of people giving and receiving value for value and a personal enjoyment in participating in such relationships. Furthermore, Cohen treats market interactions as though they are nakedly self-interested encounters rather than deeply rule-governed activities. Market society is utterly dependent on the general expectation of (almost) all of its members of (almost) everyone’s reciprocal compliance with the Humean-Hayekian norms that make cooperation to mutual advantage possible. Although marketeers largely strive to attain their own personal ends, the moral ecology that makes successful striving likely obtains only because of their mutual internalization of the rules of just conduct. Market society operates through and because of trust.

We need not pause to examine Cohen’s principle of socialist equality of opportunity except to note that it is not a principle of equality of opportunity but, rather, of equality of outcome. However, we must attend a bit to Cohen’s much more distinctive principle of community. Cohen’s notion of community is flawed in two important ways. The first is his presumption that community requires at least rough equality. Community among individuals requires that each sees himself as belonging to or being a non-eliminable part of the same social association. Perhaps that association involves a basic similarity of roles, like being daily bus riders. But, very often, that community will be tiered and distinctly non-egalitarian. Think of the community that sometimes exists for members of all sorts of hierarchical religious, fraternal, academic, athletic, or commercial associations. Conservative writers may be correct when they assert that community is more readily realized in traditional and hierarchical social structures than in new-molded egalitarian structures. The second is Cohen’s presumption that, if the value of being in community is to be realized for everyone, everyone has to be in community with everyone else. But why can’t bus riders attain the value of community by being in community with other bus riders while luxury car owners attain the value of community by being in community with other luxury car owners (who get together to grumble about the cost of repairs)? An individual who does not have the good of sociality in her life needs something with much more particular content than becoming a member of the universal community. And part of that more particular content may well be defining herself in contrast to members of some other non-universal community. “We are mountain bikers, not road bikers.” “We pray to the real God.”

Finally, let’s turn to what seems to be Cohen’s best hope, viz., the socioeconomic scheme proposed by Carens. How are we supposed to understand the motivation of the individuals functioning within this regime? Presumably they are not moved by actual greed and fear. For, if they are, their daily lives will be the horrible lives of all those trapped within a repugnant capitalist order. In addition, if participants in the scheme genuinely expect equalization at the end of the tax year, it is hard to see how during the year they could be motivated by actual greed and fear. Why get excited about a prospective gain if you know it is going to be dissipated or be fearful of a particular loss if you know it is going to be redressed? So, it seems that participants in the scheme will have to spend their economic lives mimicking the lives of people who, on the participants’ own theory, live horrible, greedy, and fearful lives. Yet it is doubtful that the participants could pull off this mimicry. It is difficult to see how people who reject the motivational structure that Cohen ascribes to marketeers will be able to figure out how people with that motivational structure would act and will be able to get themselves to act in those ways.

Even if these participants do manage to conduct themselves as though they are marketeers and manage on tax-and- transfer day to equalize the proceeds of their mock capitalist order, it seems they must forego the all-inclusive community that is a crucial value for Cohen. An advanced market order will call for significant role and status differentiation. CEOs have to be driven to work in their Mercedes-Benzes — so they can conduct conference calls and not be subject to the contingencies of bus travel. Managers have to manage and employees must to some extent be managed — and hired and fired. Surely this would be a major barrier to all persons being in community with one another. In addition, the reciprocity within people’s transactions would be ugly market reciprocity in which I serve you only (it is said) in order to get you to serve me rather than the beautiful non-instrumental reciprocity in which I serve you for the sake of serving you while you reciprocate in kind. The more successfully participants in the scheme conduct themselves as marketeers, the more they cut themselves off from the type of community that Cohen takes to distinguish his position from mere liberal egalitarianism.

What is, perhaps, most disturbing from a libertarian perspective about Cohen’s proposal to appropriate the market social technology is that it proposes to utilize that technology while rejecting that technology’s crucial function and virtue. That function and virtue is to enable people with their own distinct and separate systems of ends to engage in mutually beneficial cooperative interaction. The prospect of market reciprocity explains why people with deeply different ultimate values need not be enemies but, instead, can live at peace with one another to their mutual advantage. That prospect shows that people do not have to be remolded into devotees of some common «higher” end in order to live well with one another. It shows how a deeply pluralistic and tolerant social order is feasible. Hayek especially emphasizes the significance of the discovery that men can live together in peace and mutually benefiting each other without agreeing on the particular aims which they severally pursue…. [This discovery] made it possible to extend the order of peace beyond the small groups pursuing the same ends, because it enabled each individual to gain from the skill and knowledge of others whom he need not even know and whose aims could be wholly different from his own. (1976: 109)

Although some trading partners may also become friends with shared ends, to recognize the great value of the market’s function is to recognize that, for any real flesh-and-blood individual who retains her separate life-defining goals, projects, and commitments, the circle of friendship and love will extend to only a tiny percentage of the human beings who may enter into the circle of her direct or indirect trading partners. The crucial move is the conversion of prospective enemies, whom one must defeat or subordinate to advance one’s good, to prospective trading partners with whom one can enjoy mutually beneficial cooperation.

For many political theorists like Cohen, this is not enough because the fundamental goal of political inquiry is taken to be the identification and articulation of a supreme common good — or hierarchy of goods — to which everyone is supposed to be devoted. For such theorists, any coordination that is not coordination for the sake of such a common purpose is denigrated as selfish, conflictual, and “predatory” (2009: 82). However, from a libertarian perspective, a social order that protects each individual’s freedom to pursue her own conception of a valuable life through voluntary interaction and community with other equally free individuals is not merely an accommodation to human nature; it is the due recognition of the separate importance of each of us.

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