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Colin Bird

on 7 February 2016

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Transcript of WHY NOT SOCIALISM? 2

G. A. Cohen

Unrepentant Canadian socialist.

Spent most of his career teaching in the UK, at University College, London and at the University of Oxford

NB. Do a google video search on his name and you will find numerous satirical monologs by Cohen. Particularly recommended is ‘The German Idea of Freedom’

According to Cohen, Socialism requires:

REAL EQUAL OPPORTUNITY: opportunities to succeed in life would be truly equal under socialism: unfair social or economic privileges would be eliminated as a matter of basic justice

‘COMMUNAL RECIPROCITY’: Social and economic co-operation would be guided an ideal of ‘serve and be served’. Agents would be motivated to serve their fellows’ needs for its own sake and trust that their needs will be served by others (for the same reason).

Cohen contrasts his recommended principles with those he thinks reign in contemporary capitalist societies:

FALSE EQUAL OPPORTUNITY: opportunities to succeed in life are supposed to be equal under capitalism but in fact are not; privilege persists despite formal freedom

‘MARKET RECIPROCITY’: cooperation with and service to others are not valued for their own sakes, but only as means by which agents benefit themselves: ‘serve others only if the price is right for me’.
The Camping Trip

Cohen's camping trip example is intended to show the perversity of cooperation under market reciprocity.

Cohen asks us to imagine a camping trip in which (unlike
camping trips) market reciprocity is the ruling ethos.

This would allow individuals to exploit unearned advantages to extort favors from their fellow campers.
So the nightmare Camping Trip is supposed to model what we actually observe under capitalism:

a system of rights that gives people both the power and the authority to exploit unearned good fortune, talents, inheritance, resources to take advantage of those less well-favored.

Cohen: this power exemplifies
, not essentially different from that enjoyed by the
ancien regime

This concern with privilege is, I think, a defining theme of the socialist movement, and its historical impetus.
"Socialism for camping, Capitalism for modern society"

These attitudes are consistent only if we think that going camping with friends and interacting in a modern economy should be seen as fundamentally different.

Should they be?

On the face of it, they're both forms of human cooperation. So shouldn't they be governed by the same principles?

That is Cohen's question.
Cohen places so much weight on EOP for two connected reasons:

1. EOP carries enormous intuitive appeal (‘level playing field’)

2. Socialism’s major opponents themselves claim to endorse and honor EOP as a matter of justice. Here, Cohen has in mind two historically powerful modern traditions of thought:
a. ‘Classical' or 'Bourgeois Liberalism’
b. ‘Left Liberalism’
Cohen's Socialist EOP:

Don't read this as: 'equalize opportunities', as if 'opportunities' were a clearly definable set of goods or resources that can be doled out in exactly equal tranches. Rather:

Here, 'Opportunity' = access to a good life

If so, Cohen's principle can be reformulated as:
No one should lack access to a good life as a result of unchosen bad luck.
Notice that Cohen's view amounts to a claim about how responsibility for achieving good lives should be apportioned. Under Cohen-style socialism:

SOCIETY is responsible for ensuring that your chances of a good life are not restricted by unchosen disadvantage

YOU are responsible for making the best of that opportunity
Cohen's point is NOT that no-one should ever fare better (economically or otherwise) than anyone else. It is that these different outcomes should only reflect

1. different needs and preferences
2. different levels of hard work (ant and grasshopper)
3. genuinely voluntary assumption of greater and lesser levels of risk
Cohen's position is certainly not without its flaws, but don't underestimate the challenge it poses.

Why should access to a good life depend on unchosen advantages and disadvantages?
You might respond: 'life is tough, some are lucky, some aren't. Deal with it.'
Fair enough, but Cohen could ask: do you take the same view of e.g.:

Monopoly power on the market?
The grotesque inequality of opportunity of Ancien Regime aristocracy?
Accommodations for the disabled?
Race discrimination? Glass ceilings?
So, Cohen's strategy is to confront us with a dilemma:

Reject EOP, in which case we must also abandon (e.g.) the case for a genuinely free and open market, where access to commercial opportunities is genuinely equal, or our aversion to Downton Abbey, racial, gender, religious discrimination etc.

Accept EOP, in which case there is no reason to stop short of socialism: for then why is anything less than eliminating ALL unchosen disadvantage adequate?
Some critical questions for Cohen:

Is there a slippery slope from EOP to Socialist EOP? (Especially: aren’t there very important differences between artificially caused inequalities and others? Why should citizens assume responsibility for the latter?)

Relatedly, why think that bad luck (of any sort) is an injustice? The fact that I’ve been unlucky may not mean that anyone has wronged me or treated me unjustly.
Another tempting objection targets Cohen's brute/option luck distinction: what about inborn dispositions to be lazy/hardworking?
This objection is weaker than it looks.

For (A) "laziness" might quite genuinely be the result of an unchosen condition like (say) depression or ADHD; or (B) laziness might be the real thing -- a free choice not to work.

In (A), wouldn't it seem unjust not to help or make accommodations? In (B) Cohen is quite happy to accept that a lazy person should fare less well.
Is it clear that Harry, et al., on the nightmare camping trip behave unjustly as opposed to merely shittily? Perhaps justice includes rights to be shitty. (cohen himself seems aware of this issue e.g. p.37).

Caricature of market relations? Is it true that ‘greed’ and ‘fear’ are essential to market interaction (even if they are sometimes present)?
maybe, but:
a. capitalist apologists sometimes admit this
b. employer/employee relationship is one of dependence
Even if we accept that the camping trip ethos is desirable, is it feasible to realize it, to institutionalize it, at a large scale?

Cohen’s response distinguishes two different questions about feasibility:

Human Nature problem: Isn’t human nature too selfish to allow socialism to succeed?

Institutional Design problem: Do we have any idea how to organize political and economic institutions so as to realize camping trip ideals across a whole complex economy?
Cohen: the human nature problem is a red herring. I think he's right about that.

The real worry, he thinks, is the Institutional Design problem. We have yet to devise institutional hardware capable of running the socialist software.

Cohen considers, tentatively, various 'market socialist' possibilities.

He might have added discussion of today popular proposals for an 'unconditional basic income'.

But he's honest enough to admit that none of these solve the institutional design problem.
So, if Cohen's argument works, it purports to show that
the ideal of a socialist society is clearly desirable

we currently don't know how to realize it at a macro level

but that is no reason to change our verdict about the relative desirability of capitalism and socialism

we should stop congratulating ourselves that we have a good system and think seriously about the problem of institutional design

Experiments are worth trying even if they come at some cost to economic efficiency. Efficiency is not the only value, and we should accept at least some economic inefficiency if this is necessary to make society more just
Why not....
A Common View

1. There is a clear, stable, precise distinction between matters of ‘subjective opinion’ (e.g. art, beauty, etc.), and matters of ‘objective inquiry’ (science, math etc.)

2. Peoples’ beliefs about political values like justice, freedom, equality, etc. are paradigm examples of ‘subjective opinions’

3. That’s why people disagree all the time in politics

4. These disagreements are irresolvable because they represent clashes of ‘subjective values’

5. Academic inquiry into political values is therefore a waste of time because there is no way to make ‘objective’ progress
That view is in two senses an Orwellian illusion:

1. It is completely indiscriminate, smudging important distinctions through lazy and imprecise language.

2. Accepting it will have determinate effects on peoples’ behavior: esp., the following familiar combination

a. apathy and withdrawal (no point in thinking political questions through, nothing ever gets settled, I’d rather play golf)

b. incorrigible partisanship (I have my “subjective” opinion and nothing you say could possibly shake it)

The key to getting beyond 2a. and 2b. is to become more sophisticated about 1, by refusing to accept the ultimatum: objective or subjective?
Note the relations among these claims in Cohen’s view:

Real Equal Opportunity doesn't guarantee Communal Reciprocity (but he does seem to think that it's necessary)

However, Market Reciprocity undermines Real Equal Opportunity and instead leads to the False Equal Opportunity Cohen associates with capitalism

This is the lesson Cohen draws from his camping trip example
How is progress possible?

As in other fields, the best we can do is to offer and analyze arguments.

An argument: just an effort to put someone through an experience intended to reveal reasons for drawing a particular conclusion.

The question is whether such arguments succeed or fail.

All inquiry, including experimental science, depends on argument in this sense.
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