Reducing Alcoholism

Mark Thornton's first few pages in Economics of Prohibition suggest that one way to lower alcohol consumption is to introduce "new and greater quantities of recreational and leisure activities as substitutes for alcohol." (28) If, via economic progress, life is so much fun for an average worker that the pleasures of drunkenness pale in comparison with other, less dangerous, enjoyments, then heavy drinking is sure to decline.

Rescuing: Conclusion

I leave Cohen with the following thought. I have suggested that man is a capitalist by naturally being in control of his human capital -- inborn talents, nurseries of virtue, and suchlike; and an entrepreneur who by himself directs his management of that capital.

Capital, including human capital, does not beget profit; capital, left to itself, decays and begets only loss; the greater the amount of capital, the greater the loss. Again, the greater the human potential unrealized or even perverted toward evil, the greater the loss and shame.

I have likened one's developing his talents to capital gains and the happiness from converting the use of that capital through labor into pleasure to dividends.

Now justification implies some sort of merit for which a reward is due. Can one merit a proportionally greater reward for shepherding his relatively greater talents toward a successful career? The greater the initial endowments, the higher the potential for both joy and sorrow; both the higher and the lower one can go. Thomas Morris even asserts that "the smarter you are, the more you can suffer." (Philosophy for Dummies, 342)

The human capital one finds himself with is morally arbitrary, but non-arbitrary merit is obtained for entrepreneurial victory over adversity in which this capital plays a role.

The reward is not anything external: success and the happiness achieved are their own rewards. And yet they are justly one's own, and it would unjust for "society" to take or tax them away.

Ethos of Family vs. Economy

Cohen can babble all he wants about how one ought to treat fellow citizens in a communist society like relatives. (225)

But none of the problems plaguing socialist egalitarianism afflict the family.

The incentive problem is overcome, because the husband and wife love each other with intense, personal, and intelligent charity-love. Their wills are intertwined: such love is marked, as St. Thomas teaches, by union, mutual indwelling (of souls), ecstasy, and zeal (in acting for the sake of the beloved). Each spouse considers, nay, feels the welfare of the other to be as important as their own. They have no general duty to sacrifice for each other, because they are to a great extent one heart not just one flesh.

The computation problem is overcome, because a typical household economy is technologically exceedingly simple.

I will even grant to him that if one could treat citizens like relatives, then it would have to be done. Imagine a society of paradise, a communion of saints in which "there is no loss of individuality, yet such an interdependence that the saints are 'members one of another,' not only sharing the same blessings and exchanging good offices and prayers, but also partaking of the same corporate life..." Imagine further that the omniscient Jesus is the chief central planner for whom the computation problem is not an obstacle. Then, if there is any sort of production going on in paradise, it could well be perfectly efficient socialism.

(It's a rather grotesque example, though, and I don't actually think that's how the heaven / paradise system works.)

Cohen may regret that earth is not heaven; he may even insist that "justice" calls for earth to be heaven; but as he himself fully realizes, reality and facts of life can make justice unattainable.

Hoffer on the Cohenian Ethos

"Hitler dressed eighty million Germans in costumes and made them perform in a grandiose, heroic, and bloody opera.

In Russia, where even the building of a latrine involves some self-sacrifice, life has been an uninterrupted soul-stirring drama going on for thirty years, and its end is not yet.

The people of London acted heroically under a hail of bombs because Churchill cast them in the role of heroes. They played their heroic role before a vast audience -- ancestors, contemporaries, and posterity -- and on a stage lighted by a burning world city and to the music of barking guns and screaming bombs.

It is doubtful whether in our contemporary world, with its widespread individual differentiation, any measure of general self-sacrifice can be realized without theatrical hocus-pocus and fireworks." (The True Believer, §47)

No wonder Cohen's only real example of his egalitarian ethos in practice is World War 2.

Ethos of Madness

Cohen gives an example of people during a war sacrificing for the sake of the war effort, to "shoulder their just share." (353) But since it is impossible to keep constant tabs on everybody, it is left to individual discretion who will sacrifice how much.

There are too many details in each person's life that affect what the required sacrifice should be: Max has a bad back, Sally has a difficult child, George has just inherited $20,000, and so on. "Yes, Jack only goes out once a week, not, like most of us, twice, on guard duty, but then Jack has to take care of his mother."

But only rough-and-ready calculation can be made; there is no precision.

Here then is the repulsive vision Cohen incredibly endorses: a society in which everybody watches each other jealously in order to prevent anybody from enjoying himself more than his so-called "comrades," rejoices at the pitifulness of another's life, and spitefully pulls each other down whenever opportunity presents itself.

Cohen affirms that "justice can be mean and spiteful." (318) Moreover, he is hardcore about it: "egalitarian justice disallows an insistence on retaining enjoyments way beyond the norm" (368), and by that he clearly means even psychic enjoyments, that literally no one's life shall be any more fun that anyone else's, however fun is being had.

Pure justice for Cohen generates a demand for equalization of happy feelings.

He goes on to say that justice is not supposed to involve exact measurements of who owes what to whom; "that would make a life a nightmare." But why? Under capitalism, people tend to keep excellent track of their obligations. I know exactly how much I've charged to my credit card this month. Precisely because the envious hatred made inevitable by the egalitarian "ethos" thereby unleashed to the max would make society unlivable.

The fundamental principle of justice for Cohen is self-abasement, and if one fails to abase himself, then others, imbued with Cohenism, will do it for him, perhaps through to the state.

But isn't there a sense of community that arises out of shared danger? You protect my back, and I'll protect yours; only by working together will we survive. The sense of brotherhood felt by soldiers is commonplace, wherein peaceful employees feel little of the kind.

Psychologists say couples bond when experiencing something fearful, even a roller coaster, together.

No doubt that's all true, but that's the kind of bond that is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Human life cannot be focused solely on survival. It's the enjoyments of peaceful civilized life that make life worth living. Furthermore, war is not a natural condition of human beings; peace, not war, is the father of all things. War is hell, and this is still earth.

The warriors' bond, though useful in mobilizing society's defenses, cannot be permanent. It's preposterous to live one's life in fear. Security from imminent dangers, including foreign aggressors, may be one of the first things people seek, but it is hardly the last.

Justice and Constructivism: A Silver Lining

Cohen's insight that the deliverances of pure justice can be combined with other variables to yield "rules of regulation" or a vision of a good society is applicable to liberalism.

Take Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism as laid out in his Ethics of Liberty, for example. Anarchists have been rebuked with queries like, without government: "How will crime be deterred?" "How will road building be financed?" or "How will air pollution be managed?"

Some of these are less easily answered than others. For example, anarchists have argued that a "monopoly" government will, as per the economic analysis of legal monopolies, tend to degenerate by providing increasingly worse services at increasingly higher prices. But the monopoly of force is not some accidental bug of government, to be fixed with "protection agencies"; it is its absolutely essential feature. The executive branch of the state must be powerful enough to crush with ease any identifiable criminal subgroup within a community, yet itself be small enough to be amenable to control via the legislature and courts. In order to make the state so powerful within its jurisdiction, all potential competitors to it must be thoroughly outlawed and, if one happened to arise, hunted down.

The job of the state is to dissolve social bonds, to isolate and neutralize criminals. This acid is of course highly dangerous and has been used extremely poorly. History is littered with remains of intermediate institutions beloved by conservatives that were destroyed by the all-powerful state. Nevertheless, this hazardous substance cannot be done without.

Let me suggest, however sketchily, that crime and road building are decidedly local affairs. It proves at the most the usefulness of cities, not of empires or nation-states. Air pollution is not much of an issue, I think; the solution to it is simply better technology, so that higher production can be paired with lower pollution.

In any case, it is probably true that pure anarcho-capitalism is unattainable in practice.

But so what? Justice still demands it. We care for things other than justice, such as deterrence of crimes and punishment of criminals, production of certain special public goods like intercity roads, control of externalities such as through basic sanitation legislation, and suchlike. Combining all these still yields a libertarian laissez-faire economy with, however, a minimal government to take care of such matters.

Consider, for example, the problem of (local) taxes. Some people say they are "proud" to pay them. Anarchists shower them with contempt for this attitude. Why, if you are so proud, don't you pay more? You are proud; but why do you coerce others into paying, as well? Etc. But consider how Hume characterized government: "Thus bridges are built; harbors opened; ramparts raised; canals formed; fleets equipped; and armies disciplined everywhere, by the care of government, which, though composed of men subject to all human infirmities, becomes, by one of the finest and most subtle inventions imaginable, a composition, which is, in some measure, exempted from all these infirmities." (Treatise, 3.2.7) A person is proud that he has successfully cooperated with his fellow citizens to implement this "subtle invention," this uniquely important technology.

To argue against anarcho-capitalism, one must show not that it is somewhat impractical, for I grant that, but that it is unjust, and no one has ever done this successfully.

Anarcho-capitalism as it stands is unachievable, but if it were, it'd have to be put into practice as per the recommendation of justice.

I agree with Cohen that the teachings of justice stand or fall on their own, regardless of other considerations. I disagree with him regarding what is just: he prefers his egalitarian socialism; I, my Rothbardian anarchy. Again I agree that both are pipe dreams.

Far be it from me, however, to concede any other parity between these theories of justice. Perfectly just yet a little impractical anarcho-capitalism is very close to a slightly less just but fully workable libertarian minarchism; Cohen's vision is light years away from anything resembling a sane economic and social system.

Justice and Constructivism: Critique

I have three things to say in response to Cohen's contrast between justice and rules of regulation.

First, I have argued that egalitarian socialism, facing as it does two problems, of computation and of incentives, is impossible; and egalitarian capitalism, facing only the problem of incentives, is for all that still extremely implausible and silly. But, Cohen says, all this is irrelevant in regard to the question of whether egalitarianism is just. If equality is indeed demanded by justice, then equality would be just even if it cannot possibly be implemented in practice. Cohen indeed explicitly argues that "justice is an unachievable (although a nevertheless governing) ideal." (254)

But surely, people act justly every day. They abstain from murder and theft, etc. Why is the specifically Cohenian justice such an evil virtue that attempting to implement it would result in social disintegration? Could Cohen perhaps be mistaken in his understanding of a just social order? For virtues are supposed to guide powers into beneficial acts. Now since society has no identity but is rather a process of multi-faceted social cooperation, it is solely a means which serves its members, namely, the human beings composing the society. Since no one will benefit from suicidal communism, egalitarianism can scarcely be called a virtue.

Second, Cohen nowhere proves that egalitarianism is the essence of distributive justice. Best I can tell, he believes it because the Rawlsian original position seems to demand equality as the first step in its constructive process. But we have seen that Cohen denies that this peculiar procedure outputs justice, instead of a more or less comprehensive proposal for a good society on the whole. Cohen does not even think the Rawlsian machine is good for the latter: he "happens not to believe" that "Rawls' original position, or some variant of it, might be the right procedure for generating rules of regulation," anyway. (284) For example, he wonders why the design of the choosers in the original position "should enjoy authority over flesh-and-blood human beings, such as us." (290)

Rawls proclaims that "among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities." (ToJ, 11) Hoppe comments that "Rawls' imaginary parties had no resemblance whatsoever with human beings but were epistemological somnambulists; accordingly, his socialist-egalitarian theory of justice does not qualify as a human ethic, but something else entirely." (EoL, xv) Cohen does them one better by arguing that Rawls' original position, by focusing on overall policy and not strictly on justice, "endows the legislators with cognitive resources that are redundant from the point of view of specifying what justice it." (284) Redundant!? Then do the legislators know anything at all? Is there any truth they are not stripped of? Cohen's wraiths have become full-fledged mindless placeholders; that equal distribution among them is supposedly required has zero influence on any real-world ethics or "ethos." For some reason, then, Cohen has picked on a fairly insubstantial piece of Rawls' reasoning, namely the initial equality, and elevated it into the core argument for his egalitarian "justice."

Third, we must honor not only our bold ruminations on what ought to be but also, in the humble Hayekian manner, what is, if what is has arisen as a result of a long social evolution and is so subtle and complex as to be hard fully to understand. Notions of justice that are as radical and sweeping as Cohen's are a sign of a certain fatal conceit.

Justice and Constructivism

Cohen's critique of Rawls and other "constructivists" consists in arguing that their reasoning is contaminated with concerns other than "fundamental" justice.

Rawls, perhaps unbeknownst to himself, is interested not in justice per se but in what kind of society we want to live in, what Cohen calls "rules of regulation" or principles that will regulate the citizens' common life. This question he proposes to settle by means of deliberation in the original position, wherein the deliberators are supplied with certain information (more in some formulations, less in others), etc. By this method, this machine of producing the output of social legislation, whatever it will actually churn out, will not be justice as such: "the influence of other values means that the principles in the output of the procedure are not principles of justice, and the influence of factual contingencies means that they are not fundamental principles of anything." (283)

Chapter 6 endeavors to rescue justice from "facts": "facts of human nature and human society of course (1) make a difference to what justice tells us to do in specific terms; they also (2) tell us how much justice we can get; and they (3) bear on how much we should compromise with justice, but... they make no difference to the very nature of justice." (285) Cohen is convinced that justice = equality of distribution, and the fact that equality is unnatural or unachievable is simply irrelevant: "it is so often the facts that make equality ineligible (as opposed to not identical with justice)." (300)

Chapter 7 proposes that the difference principle, concerns about Pareto efficiency, stability, publicity, and so on are things with which justice is supplemented and which are used to compromise pure justice's demands. Design of society requires us to take into account lots of things which are not justice-related. Rawls' project therefore is not a theory of justice but an attempt at system building. It calls "justice" what is in fact a agglomeration of numerous virtues including but certainly not limited to pure justice. Again, "sound rules of social regulation must satisfy virtues other than justice, and must defer to factual constraints that do not affect justice itself." (291)

For example, distribution (5, 5) is more just than (7, 6), but the latter "is preferable on grounds of human flourishing and might therefore reasonably be chosen." (319) Cohen thus believes that taking into account matters other than "justice" (for him identical with equality) in constructing overall social policy is fully legitimate, even mandatory: "it is... crazy, a piece of fetishism..., to care only about justice." (307)

Nevertheless, justice proper must be separated from those things and given its due.

Cohen: Laws vs. Duties

Here's his thing: oughts that imply can obey the following conditional: if it were possible, then it would have to be done. The "can't" applies to the antecedent not to the consequent. Something remains by essence a duty despite the fact that reality by accident makes it impossible to carry it out. We may even interpret it as follows: one must have the habit or virtue of justice even if one cannot for whatever reason act justly in a given situation.

The ought part for Cohen can remain a valid moral principle even if circumstances intervene to make one unable to follow that principle.

Fish got to swim, and birds got to fly, right? Suppose we say, humans ought to fly by flapping their arms about, imitating birds. It is objected that humans cannot fly like this. This observation, however, is no counter to the moral principle that men ought to fly in a birdlike manner. The proper argument (as Cohen would have it) would rather be a proof that even if men could fly, the moral law would still not insist on it.

Cohen then writes: "It is indeed a reason not to adopt a rule when and because the fact that no one can follow it makes it futile, but it is equally a reason not to adopt a rule when futility reflects the different fact that no one will follow it, even though he can. But one would never say, investing the statement with the sort of importance that attends the typical announcements that 'ought' implies 'can,' that 'ought' implies 'will.'" (253)

Do you see the problem? The first ought applies to the question: "Ought there to be a law?"

The second ought applies to the question: "Ought I to do my duty, for example, by obeying a law?"

The first ought is thus sensitive to both "can" and "will": there ought not to be a law if people can't obey it or if people won't obey it, e.g., because of difficulty of enforcing it. Thus, it is stupid and counterproductive for the government to issue a law that the people will hold in contempt and flout even though they are fully capable of heeding it.

The second ought tracks only "can," because choosing not to do one's duty does not cause the duty to come to fail to hold.

Note that duty-oughts can imply other things, such as "one is not in a lifeboat situation."

Respect and Love

By not killing or not stealing from a man, we should him respect; by giving life and profiting him, we upgrade respect into charity-love.

Rescuing Equality: Conclusion

Our author sympathizes with the Marxist slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." (225) He acknowledges that its first part seems to call for enslavement of the talented and "needs to be scaled down."

Further, "the slogan divorces labor, the exercise of ability, from income," Cohen says. In other words, it divorces human actions from the consequences of those actions for the actor. Whatever you do, you are not to taste either success or failure. Whatever Cohen's dubious defenses, it thus neatly destroys both freedom and responsibility.

Why the Talented Are Enslaved Under Cohenism

Our author writes:

Egalitarians ask more product or service of the talented, but not more sacrifice.

It is an aspect of their greater talent that, usually, producing more product or service than others provide does not mean, for them, more sacrifice than others endure.

The point is not to get as much as possible out of talented people, but to get out of them the amount of product or service (which is greater than normal) that comes with ordinary amounts of effort and sacrifice. (208)

This displays a misapprehension of the idea of slavery. It may be true that catching 5 fish and gathering 1 pound of berries for Crusoe is as burdensome as catching 1 fish and gathering 1 ounce of berries for Friday. The disutility of labor is not the relevant sacrifice that justifies calling egalitarianism "slavery." Rather, it's the fact that in subsidizing Friday until equality of distribution is reached, Crusoe does not receive the full product of his labor. Crusoe produces more than he consumes; Friday, the reverse.

"What's so special about receiving such full product?" Cohen may ask. Well again, Crusoe is not a robot. He acts for an end, in this case, to feed himself. The sacrifice Cohen presses for is for Crusoe's labor to be used for the benefit of another economic agent, someone whom Crusoe presumably does not love as himself. He "asks" (can Crusoe answer by rejecting the demand?) Crusoe to dissipate his efforts pointlessly for him, to exhaust himself without reaping any benefits from his burden. And that's unjust.

Egalitarian Inspiration

That's what Cohen keeps calling following what I have insisted must be a combination of egalitarian ethos (EE) and ethos of service (EoS).

He argues that one may be "inspired" to live according to the duty to be equal to others. This duty is mostly fulfilled by supporting a legal system that equalizes all wages. At the same time, in daily life, it is a moral not legal duty. The state does not force one to undertake it.

But suppose one decides that EE + EoS is in fact filth. Consider a real duty such as not to murder. Its violation is a sin with three effects: corruption of nature, a stain on the soul, and debt of punishment. Regarding the last of these, there must be in a person servile fear of the law which is the foundation of all further moral development.

But who is to punish one if he ignores the EE? Not the state, because Cohen rejects coercive determination of occupations and forced labor (making EoS the only "solution" left).

Not the Christian God who says: "Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt 19:18-19), and apparently not mentioning either EE or EoS at all.

Will such a rugged individualist then be publicly ostracized from the community, shunned, and shamed? Will his credit rating be ruined? In practice, I think this won't be enough, and state violence will have to make a comeback for Cohen.

Ethos, Cont.

I concede in the previous post that a sufficiently radical alteration of the human nature might make egalitarian capitalism work.

The incentives problem can under some very implausible assumptions be handled. I mean, look at me: I'm not getting paid for writing this blog, yet I do it anyway.

But egalitarian socialism will still be impossible because of the second socialist computation problem.

Cohen is both an egalitarian and socialist, but he is smart enough in this book to argue for equality without mentioning socialism, as well.

The Cursed “Ethos”

Cohen continues: "In the communist ideal labor should be given freely, like noncommercial love (though not, therefore, out of love)." (225) Freely means free of charge, not at the discretion of the giver. The part is parentheses is telling. For there are not one but two ethos for Cohen. The first is the egalitarian ethos (EE) which should permeate all human actions. One must supress his desires for pleasure for the sake of being no better off than anyone else. This ethos is harped on throughout the book. But we can see now that this is not the only ethos of Cohenism. The second one is the ethos of service (EoS). One must struggle mightily out of this "moral inspiration" (192) to serve other people. One is not to labor out of self-interest or love for his fellow man; instead, laboring is a duty, ethos #2. This one, however, is nowhere discussed explicitly.

EE is clearly insufficient, since it does not in and of itself specify where and how hard anyone ought to work, or even whether he should work at all. EoS demands laboring solely to benefit society. Before we proceed, therefore, let Mises provide a sobering reality check:

While the sacrifices an individual worker makes in intensifying his own exertion burden him alone, only an infinitesimal fraction of the produce of his additional exertion benefits himself and improves his own well-being. While the individual worker enjoys completely the pleasures he may reap by yielding to the temptation to carelessness and laziness, the resulting impairment of the social dividend curtails his own share only infinitesimally.

Under such a socialist mode of production all personal incentives which selfishness provides under capitalism are removed, and a premium is put upon laziness and negligence. Whereas in a capitalist society selfishness incites everyone to the utmost diligence, in a socialist society it makes for inertia and laxity.

The socialists may still babble about the miraculous change in human nature that the advent of socialism will effect, and about the substitution of lofty altruism for mean egotism. But they must no longer indulge in fables about the marvelous effects the selfishness of each individual will bring about under socialism. (HA, 677-8)

"Moral inspiration" must mean some desire to promote the good of other people. But such a thing is, as they say, 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Even if, as Cohen maintains, it is false that "people never act out of generous or conscientious inspiration, with no prospect or benefit," (193) it is still false that people always or even as a rule act out of these impulses or that a durable system of economic affairs can be built out of them.

On p. 184 Cohen considers the case of a woman (call her Mary) who prefers (1) being a doctor at $50,000/year to (2) being a gardener at $20,000/year to (3) being a doctor at $20,000/year.

Given EoS without EE, she will choose (1); under EE without EoS, she will choose (2); with both present, she will choose (3).

My judgment is that EoS on its own is entirely otiose and unnecessary, since (1) would be chosen under free markets + inequality, as well; it's just that Mary's pursuit of self-interest and the common good will be harmonized through the market process. Furthermore, under unegalitarian laissez-faire capitalism, Mary would still serve society at $50,000 best; it's just that she would also better serve herself, and she is a part of society. As Mises says, Mary "becomes a social being not in sacrificing her own concerns for the sake of a mythical Moloch, society, but in aiming at an improvement in her own welfare." (HA, 160) Moreover, she would (justly) get the full product of her labor.

Second, I think that EE is evil and inhuman, even despicable.

However, I grant that if EE and EoS are both somehow adopted by the great majority, the resulting economy, namely egalitarian capitalism, though a lie and ridiculous game, might just work.

Selfishness, Again

Cohen believes something quite odd, namely that "selfishness, and, too, our equanimity about it, are precipitates of centuries of capitalist civilization. (First capitalism destroys community. Then its defenders say that material incentives are necessary because communal ones aren't powerful enough.)" (178-9n)

But "selfishness" is an elemental property of the human will. It "belongs to man to do everything for an end," St. Thomas states; "the object of the will is the end and the good. Therefore all human actions must be for an end." (ST, II-I, 1, 1) It is human nature to seek happiness, and happiness is sought in acquiring and enjoying goods that suit each individual's nature and personality. Cohen is denying people their due, the fulfillment of a capacity that belongs to them by their very essence, and that is unjust. The search for happiness is not an effect of capitalism; it is a process which is best served by capitalism.

It is true further that capitalism de-communizes society, as in frees each individual from social pressures. Far from reversing this process as Cohen apparently desires, we must complete it. "It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen," says Mises. "A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police." (Liberalism, 55)

Autarky, Cooperation, and Inequality

Suppose Crusoe is alone on his deserted island. He typically catches 5 fishes and gathers 1 pound of berries each day. He consumes whatever he produces, thereby receiving the full product of his labor.

Friday arrives on the island. Immediately, Cohen would presumably argue, Crusoe is duty-bound to give Friday half his income to establish "equality" between them.

Crusoe now receives far less than the full output of his workday. How isn't Friday, according to the Marxist Cohen, or anyone for that matter, Crusoe's wicked and unjust exploiter?

Friday is trying to trick Crusoe into giving up his sustenance by appealing to a crazy moral theory. And Cohen is enabling him. For shame.

Radical Egalitarianism and Pure Procedural Justice

The Cohenian "egalitarian ethos" would not be mutually agreed upon in the original position, constituting as it does enslavement of the better off to the worse off.

Everyone, anticipating their possible incarnation as one of the better off, would veto this proposal.

Hence the Rawlsian method does not establish such an ethos as just.

As a result, Cohen's argument that the difference principle understood as applying to the political basic structure of society should be extended into the realm of personal morality fails to go through.

Just Inequalities

Cohen asks:

Why should the fact that it improves the lot of the worst off render an inequality fair? Why is 10, 6, however otherwise superior it may be to 5, 5, more fair than 5, 5, even if the worst off person's improvement from 5 to 6 compensates for the unfairness of widening the gap? (159)

And again:

Whoever has a veto has it because the initial distribution is endorsed by justice. It does not follow that a unanimously agreed change in that distribution could then not also be endorsed by justice, but what would be the reason for saying that it was? One might think that what unanimity incontrovertibly does is render the inequality that it endorses legitimate, but why just?

How can the principle that unanimity is here said to favor be declared, quite simply, just, given the standard of justice that made the initial distribution a demand of justice? (165)

Well, Rawls' device of bargaining in the original position is a case of "pure procedural" justice. Whatever is unanimously agreed upon in that situation is declared to be just.

Cohen, on the other hand, has simply defined justice as equality. Of course, in that case, any inequality is ex vi termini unjust.

The initial equal distribution of "wealth" in the original position is a demand not of justice but of logic, since the "free-floating wraiths" there are stripped of any and all identifying characteristics and are unaware of their environment to boot. How else but equally could one distribute anything between such strange creatures?

Cohen goes on:

Why would unanimity not render legitimate even a distribution under which the worst off were worse off than anybody needed to be? (166)

It would render such a distribution both legitimate and just in the Rawlsian sense, but presumably 4, 10 would not be agreed to if 5, 5 was the initial distribution.

Moral Arbitrariness

Cohen finds a problem with "deliberately exploiting a morally arbitrary advantage." (154) He is confused. (It's pathetic, really.) The inborn gifts of the talented may be morally arbitrary, insofar as a man cannot be praised for his moral goodness on their account. But these gifts are not physically arbitrary, and one ought to milk them for all they're worth in order to obtain narrow happiness, i.e., pleasure, such as indeed economic advantage. Cohen falsely claims that making smart use of one's assets including natural and social endowments for the sake of enjoying oneself is "unjust." A man who thereby comes to love his life can be praised and admired for his success.

Another question is what after all is morally relevant. Well, man is both a capitalist with his inborn or acquired human capital and entrepreneur who himself directs his own efforts. Even if his initial cache of capital does not earn him commendation, straightforwardly, successful self-direction and both the resulting dividends (happiness) and capital gains (developing his talents) are praiseworthy. Hence how prudently and courageously one invests his human capital is the essence of intelligent exploitation of "advantages," however "morally arbitrary," and itself is highly morally significant.

It may be that differences in talents do not justify unequal incomes. At the very least then they cause unequal incomes in the market economy. Further, that they don't justify inequalities does not mean that inequalities are unjust. Still less is the government justified in confiscating and expropriating one man's goods to subsidize another.