Defending socialism is a tall order these days, so it is a bit surprising to see an unabashed attempt. The late G. Cohen was a distinguished political philosopher at All Souls College, Oxford, and an important critic of libertarianism. His book Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality , for example, is a challenging and searching Marxist criticism of Nozickean libertarianism.

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Cohen begins his argument by asking us to consider the kind of morality that naturally prevails on a camping trip among friends.

He finds this morality to be highly consonant with, and maybe even equivalent to, a socialist morality: It entails sharing, treating property in common, and showing an equal concern for all members of the group. Everyone looks out for everyone else, and no one counts the costs. As a direct result, everyone has the best time that they could reasonably have.

Cohen then contrasts this, the purportedly socialist camping trip, with a purportedly capitalist camping trip. Each tries to make sure that they, and they alone, get as much as they possibly can.

The trip is miserable. If we are inclined to be convinced, we must ask ourselves very carefully: How useful are these micro-level analogies for drawing inferences about society at large? To be fair, Cohen asks the same. And also: Are capitalist acts among friends always as offensive as Cohen claims?

And what can our reactions to these cases tell us about creating a good society? One possible objection to Cohen is that many capitalist acts seem wholly innocuous, even when they are conducted among friends.

Meanwhile, their socialist counterparts are apt to strike nearly all of us as morally ugly. But if capitalist acts do survive moral scrutiny even among friends, then they can survive moral scrutiny anywhere.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me about a bike that he won in a raffle. You should give me one of them. My imaginary response offers a picture of socialism that will probably satisfy very few socialists. In this they are not alone. I suspect that both capitalists and socialists must think something is amiss here, and it is. In both cases, one gets the sense that only the empty forms of these systems are being deployed.

Whatever substance they may have had is not. The micro-level analogies seem to fail all around. Acts of reciprocity, of expecting value for value, are everywhere in friendship: If I dog-sit for you, I will probably call on you first for a similar favor. When I do, people will think you act wrongly if you decline without a valid excuse. If you invite me to a gathering, I ought to reply in kind.

And so on. No one ever finds friends blameworthy for acting this way. Rather, friends are held blameworthy if they are unwilling to repay a kindness: Almost imperceptibly, acts of reciprocity shade into gift exchanges, coupon swaps, bike sales, yard sales, and increasingly market-like transactions. None of it arouses the slightest indignation. They are friends. It is only by very carefully avoiding any consideration of intuitively appropriate market-ish reciprocity among friends that Cohen is able to make communal reciprocity seem like our only genuine way of being friendly.

Cohen must also, and does, carefully avoid the limits to sharing , limits that even friends would intuitively recognize among themselves: If my friend runs a store, I would hesitate to ask him for free items from it, my willingness to ask on a camping trip notwithstanding. The difference between them is easily explained: My friend runs the store so that he can make a living. He could not do so if he were genuinely obliged at every similar request to give away his merchandise for free.

The principle of free sharing needs to give way sometimes, so that making a living — and thereby having stuff to share, say, on camping trips — can become possible.

Acting on the principle of free sharing all the time would paradoxically destroy sharing itself: It would destroy the plenty that makes sharing possible. Some things honestly stump me. Consider that my bike-selling example is very similar to one that Cohen himself employed.

Yet selling the apples does seem revolting, while selling the bike does not. At some still higher price point, some people may find such profits intuitively inappropriate again; consider the many ethical objections to, say, star athletes profiting from inborn talent!

I suspect that 3 and 4 are the strongest reasons, though not without qualifications and many further possible objections. Generalizing from behavior among friends to social policy is much more difficult and complicated than Cohen seems willing to admit.

But the fact that capitalist acts are commonly a part of what people accept as friendly morality casts doubt on his entire project. Kuznicki earned a Ph. This is part of a series 1 2. Jun 11, Friendly Morality in G. Kuznicki offers an objection to G. Nearly everyone would act along these lines, Cohen suggests. I know I would. Except maybe for moon rocks, I guess. Does this counterexample invalidate the theory altogether?

And we all know it: The apple tree legally belongs to someone else already. Perhaps it even belongs to someone else who is actually on the trip. The owners of the apples, whoever they are, did not. But a high-end bike is expensive, so we readily excuse my friend, who stands to make or forego several hundred dollars on it.


G. A. Cohen: Why Not Socialism?

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Mises Review

Cohen, Why not Socialism? Gerald A. It was published the same year that its author, the political philosopher, G. Cohen, died. It takes a relatively informal approach to many ideas that Cohen has explored elsewhere in serious and rigorous depth. But what the book lacks in bulk and rigor, it more than makes up for in sincerity. Cohen, like Einstein, looks forward to moving beyond that long history.

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