Notes From Babel

Socialism: Right Idea, Wrong Species

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Jason Brennan, discussing G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? shares an interesting thought experiment:

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.  


Written by Tim Kowal

March 29, 2011 at 8:14 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Not surprisingly, I see this as a time horizons thing. A socialist camping trip can work for a short-time because everybody is equal in that they’re all their just to enjoy themselves. Indeed, my long-standing theory has been that the end goal of Marxism is a Aristotle’s conception of leisure misunderstood and misapplied.

    But “after a while,” i.e. the long run, it’s not just about having a good time by consuming accumulated wealth, but about producing more wealth. When that happens, capitalism comes into play.

    Fear and Loathing in Gtown

    March 30, 2011 at 4:45 am

    • That reminds me of a post several months ago, I think by Yglesias, who opined on how a state evolves. He mentioned that young states need the centralized stability of a dictatorship; once a system of laws and government institutions have been erected, the maturing state needs capitalism to grow its wealth; finally, once the legally stable state has also become wealthy, it needs to move to socialism or social democracy to achieve economic and social stability.

      That model has been rolling around in my head ever since. It seems superficially plausible, and has the elegance of a three act play. It always seemed too pretty a theory to try to demolish.

      Tim Kowal

      March 30, 2011 at 8:54 am

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