Two philosophies defended

Larry’s discussion of the different conceptions of capitalism and stateless society in his tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin reminded me of the discussions of capitalism and utopia in G.A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? and Jason Brennan’s Why Not Capitalism?

Cohen’s tiny book is a classic and an ambitious one. Though it barely clears 80 pages, it sets out to make the case that the utopia that we should wish for—even strive for—is a socialist one. As Brennan points out in his 99-page response, for many years Cohen’s opponents granted his claim that socialism doesn’t and can’t work, but if it could, and if we were good enough, it’s the morally best system to embrace.

Brennan makes it clear—more clear than Cohen does—that this is all Cohen argues for. He grants that the “design problem” of coming up with a workable economic system to replace capitalism might be one that we can’t overcome. All Cohen asks is that we want to overcome it, that we want to do better than capitalism. But this is ground that Brennan refuses to cede.

Why Not Socialism? is frustrating and underwhelming for market liberals looking for good criticism of our worldview. Cohen fails to take seriously defenders of the market order who care about exploitation, dignity, autonomy, and equality. He never does better than talking past us. But it’s worth understanding why it’s compelling to others.

The persuasiveness of Cohen’s case rests on the assumption that capitalists are so obsessed with wealth and markets that they overlook that their system is run on exploitation, that they are so greedy that they think it’s a fair price to pay, or are too afraid to look for something better. Fear is so integral to Cohen’s capitalism that even capitalists who appropriately regret its costs are driven by it, perpetuating and encourage exploitation, inequality, and fear because they believe the alternative is grinding poverty. A labourer is forced to submit to her employer because the alternative is hunger and sickness and the reluctant capitalist is forced to submit to capitalism out of that same fear.

Cohen fails to anticipate that proponents of markets might believe that a free economy is the best tool for conquering the fear of material privation while also pursuing equality, independence, dignity, and care for one another, and so he fails to advance the conversation.

Brennan grasps the problem with Cohen’s work: he is comparing ideal people in an imagined socialist world he advocates with real people in the capitalist world as it actually exists. In the real world, the pursuit of socialist economic system has everywhere and always led to inequality, exploitation, and monstrous cruelty. Perhaps the problem with both real world capitalism and real world attempts at socialism has been fallen people, and all we’ve learned is that in the real world, capitalism is less horrific. The unsatisfying feel of Cohen’s book stems from his failure to confront what socialism looked like with real people or to explore what ideal people in an ideal market society would look like. Brennan calls this the Cohen Fallacy, which is similar to Mike Munger’s Unicorn Governance Fallacy. This insight is devastating to Cohen’s argument. It’s a shame he’s not around to respond.

One criticism of Why Not Capitalism? is that capitalism is an economic system, not a political philosophy, and so Brennan makes a nonsense moral argument about a practical question. If this is a mistake it follows Cohen, who assumes that the economic system we should want follows from the political philosophy we should support.

Capitalism (says Cohen) is a fallen political philosophy that prioritises material wealth and productivity and therefore supports a capitalist economic system, while socialism is a perfect political philosophy that values equality and community and therefore supports a socialist economic system. But it does not follow that good, caring people should abandon markets and the pursuit of material comfort and Cohen errs when he takes it for granted. This is the most important insight in Why Not Capitalism? and one that socialists will have to grapple with using empirical work, if they can.

Both books are well worth reading, especially together. Seldom will you learn more from fewer than 200 pages.


This post is a mashup and expansion of my Goodreads reviews here and here