Socialism: Right Idea, Wrong Species
Cohen’s book proceeds as follows. First, he has us imagine a camping trip among friends. Food and goods are shared freely. Everyone abides by (purportedly) socialist principles of community and equality. Everyone does his part. No one takes advantage of anyone else. No one free rides. Everyone contributes. Everyone shares.
After a while, people begin to act like capitalists (as Cohen understands realistic capitalistic behavior). Harry demands extra food because he is especially good at fishing. Sylvia demands payment when she finds a good fishing spot. Leslie demands payment for her special knowledge of how to crack nuts. Harry, Sylvia, and Leslie refuse to share without extra payment. Morgan, whose father left him a well-stocked pond 30 years ago, gloats over having better food than the others.
Cohen concludes that the camping trip was better when the campers acted like socialists. When the campers act like capitalists, the trip becomes stifling and repulsive.
. . . .
We tolerate capitalism only because we think we must. Perhaps, given our moral and cognitive failings, capitalism delivers the goods. But socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were better. On Cohen’s view, capitalism promotes the common good by relying upon greed, fear, and people’s limited knowledge.
As I posted in the comments to that post, the problem with socialism, and specifically with Cohen’s camping trip, is that equality is a lie. Even by the terms of Cohen’s thought experiment, each camper has unequal abilities. Worse, they know they have unequal abilities. Because of this, they naturally chafe against a system that provides no recourse for realizing the advantage of their unique skills and efforts, and instead forces the identical outcomes on non-identical individuals.
Again, the difference comes down to one between procedural and substantive justice: the ideal of substantive justice (i.e., equality) cannot withstand the natural human urge to see procedural justice done (i.e., a proper respect to each’s special, individualized talents and efforts). The idea that "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were better" might be more accurately stated: "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings didn’t care about procedural justice." But they do. So socialism has a rough time mustering any intellectual force as a workable political theory.
Alternatively, it might be said that "socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were truly equal." Again, they’re not, and basing a theory on a fundamental untruth results in a fundamentally untrue theory. True reality is socialism’s worst enemy.
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