Fanatical Yet Inconsistent Egalitarians

Cohen describes a class of “politically engaged socialist egalitarians… [who] have no strong opinions about inequality at millionaire/billionaire levels. What they find wrong is that there is, so they think, unnecessary hardship at the lower end of the scale.” (31) In holding these views they are hoisted by their own petard. Mises counters their position as follows:

Seen from the point of view of the economically backward nations, the conflicts between “capital” and “labor” in the capitalist countries appear as conflicts within a privileged upper class.

In the eyes of the Asiatics, the American automobile worker is an “aristocrat.” He is a man who belongs to the 2 percent of the earth’s population whose income is highest. (HA, 836)

Who is to say that the present working and middle classes in America are not the millionaires of the days of old? For ours is the age, Mises writes,

in which industry supplies the consumption of the masses again and again with new commodities hitherto unknown and makes accessible to the average worker satisfactions of which no king could dream in the past. (HA, 605)

The European worker today lives under more favorable and more agreeable outward circumstances than the pharaoh of Egypt once did, in spite of the fact that the pharaoh commanded thousands of slaves, while the worker has nothing to depend on but the strength and skill of his hands.

If a nabob of yore could be placed in the circumstances in which a common man lives today, he would declare without hesitation that his life had been a beggarly one in comparison with the life that even a man of moderate means can lead at present. (Liberalism, 22-3)

If so, then there is no non-arbitrary minimum of the wealth of the general public that would satisfy the politically engaged socialist egalitarians and rid their cause of urgency. They are so predictable, we might with good reason sneer. If the standard of living of today’s average worker were to reach the level of today’s average millionaire, and the standard of living of today’s average millionaire were to reach the level of today’s average billionaire, then this apparently happy development would not, oddly enough, cause the egalitarians to shut up. They’ll continue to cry bloody murder even if, as Rothbard puts it, the workers “only enjoy one yacht apiece while capitalists enjoy five or six.”

Consider again the Donald Boudreaux’s thought experiment. Thomas Woods argues that “what would most impress [an ancestor from the year 1700 today] are the aspects of Gates’s life that the software giant shares with ordinary Americans. When you consider the differences that characterized rich and poor prior to the Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, the ‘capitalism-promotes-inequality’ myth is further exposed as the ignorant canard that it is.”

It is clear that our politically engaged socialist egalitarians are inconsistent, but precisely in being politically engaged they rather appeal to the cheap envy of the masses. Apparently, since envy, as a mortal sin, we always will have, we must also forever endure the socialists.

Cohen’s Repressive “Community”

Cohen posits what he calls a “justificatory community,” defined as a relationship between an individual and some group in which the individual may be called to justify his actions.

To illustrate this he gives two examples.

First, regarding the wage rates of the British academics: wages should be raised, the argument goes, because “otherwise they will succumb to the lure of high foreign salaries. We can suppose that academics are indeed disposed to leave the country because of current salary levels. The issue of whether, nevertheless, they should emigrate is pertinent to the policy argument when they are regarded as fellow members of community who owe the rest a justification for decisions that affect the welfare of the country.”

Second, regarding Lithuanian independence from the former Soviet bloc. “The Moscow generals might address the… movement leaders as follows: ‘Widespread bloodshed is to be avoided. If you persist in your drive for independence, we shall intervene forcefully, and there will be widespread bloodshed as a result. You should therefore abandon your drive for independence.’ The Lithuanian leaders might now ask the generals to justify their conditional intention to intervene forcefully. If the generals brush that question aside, they forswear justificatory community with the Lithuanians.” (45-6)

Now it seems obvious that an alleged member of a “community” (a random group of strangers who inexplicably claim authority to judge and harass equally random men on the street?) has a moral duty to justify his behavior to that community only if the community in turn has a moral (or other kind of) right to demand such justification.

It seems even more obvious that British academics, as presumably free men and not slaves to their “community,” whatever it might be, have a right to migrate to whatever country will welcome them. They are not feudal Russian peasants bound by law to their patch of land. Their countrymen do not have the right, of any kind, whether legal, moral, or prudential, to question their choice of residence of employment.

Or if they do question, the academics can safely ignore their conceited blather.

Emigration and secession are related. Hence the Lithuanians, too, had a right — natural, moral, and even legal, in light of the fact that the Soviet Union had collapsed and its treaties and organization with it, to secede from the evil empire. The Lithuanians could question the Moscow generals not because the two parties formed a “community” — what nonsense is this, since the former wanted precisely to disassociate themselves from the alleged communist paradise — but because they had a right to self-determination, especially as a well-defined nation. The generals had a moral duty to abstain from intervening in a peaceful act of a formerly conquered territory going its own way.

In neither example is the “community” in a position to demand justification for the specific action taken. The “individuals” — whether the British academics or the Lithuanian people — can do as they please and answer to no one.

It may be true, finally, that there is most generally a “brotherhood of men,” but it is marked most significantly by freedom from coercion, by the right of any one man not to be killed or robbed by another, indeed by bourgeois non-interference. Even then, it makes no sense for the victim to demand of his violent assailant justification, because none is possible at all. Both parties are well aware that the murderer or mugger is outside the pale. Otherwise, no one can tell another how to live. Cohen, mind your own business.

Why Is Fear of Punishment a “Better” Incentive Than Anticipation of Gain?

In Chapter 1, attempting to “rescue equality” from the “incentives argument,” Cohen keeps talking about the choice of the more talented to work harder at a 40% tax rate than at a 60% rate.

He claims essentially that the “threat” the talented make to reduce their output if the tax is high amounts to blackmail or even kidnapping. The talented are morally in the wrong by holding the welfare of the “poor” hostage to their selfish demands.

We’ll deal with that argument later. For now consider the following problem: by exhibiting displeasure over the lowering of the tax, Cohen shows that he is fully aware that people will not continue paying the higher tax voluntarily. He realizes that in order to get people to pay more tribute to the state, taxes have to be kept high or raised. In this case, the taxpayers are motivated by fear of punishment from the state for tax evasion. Cohen is not outraged or scandalized by this entirely normal and human response. Why is he so uptight about their being motivated by promise of reward by working harder at the lower tax?

Why is it Ok for an individual to be motivated by fear of punishment, but not Ok by promise of reward?

Cohen might reply that if the “rich” worked harder without pay voluntarily, perhaps imbued with his “egalitarian ethos” (to be evaluated later), then both the incentive of the lower tax rate and the disincentive of punishment for non-payment of taxes could disappear. There might still be some sort of “law” that 60% and not 40% of income is to be remitted to the state, but the enforcement apparatus could “wither away.”

Very well, we may grant Cohen for the sake of argument that choosing to work less hard at a higher income tax is morally dubious. But it’s hardly a violent crime to be punished by the state. Taxation, on the other hand, is extortion and theft, to be abolished posthaste. Cohen should work with the libertarians to eliminate taxes and then embark on a campaign of teaching and preaching to persuade the “rich” essentially to tithe to the state.

He may even take his fancy to its ultimate conclusion. “Let there be 100% tax,” he’ll proclaim, “but you, the people, shall not as a result quit working altogether and all starve. Nor, remarkably, am I requiring that you be enslaved by the state and forced to work. No, instead, you shall work just as hard and be just as dedicated to your jobs as at 0% tax, because you want to be holy (according to my, Cohen’s, understanding of the moral law). All the goods thereby produced shall go into a common stockpile to be then distributed equally.” If he can convince people to do that, then an important obstacle to socialism, namely, the question of who will take out the garbage, will have been successfully resolved.

The solution will note that the person who will take out the garbage under socialism for free is the same person who would take it out under laissez-faire for money, mysteriously working with identical zeal and eagerness to outshine his competition.

Workers and Looters: Cohen Mishandles Rawls

On p. 59, Cohen seems to show a misunderstanding of Rawls.

He posits a conflict between the talented, such as “highly paid managers and professionals” and “poorly paid workers, unemployed people, and people indigent for various personal and situational reasons, who depend on state welfare.”

This is wrong. Rawls, in constructing his argument, was concerned with distribution of goods between the cooperators within society, not between producers and full-time parasites, like the welfarites, old geezers living off Social Security taxes, or indeed the unemployed.

Rawls simply ignores the underclass or those who for whatever reason cannot engage in social cooperation, wisely considering the problems of crime and charitable giving to be beyond the scope of his book. His “worst off” are not bums on government dole; they are full-fledged producers who happen to be relatively but not completely deprived of gifts of nature or nurture (perhaps as children). We might even say that each of the Rawlsian wraiths behind the veil of ignorance expects to be incarnated as someone working 40 hour per week, though without knowing what his productivity will come to be.

It may be that egalitarianism demands that even those who do not produce at all be allocated an equal share of the communal income. But this would be an argument of Cohen’s own design. Rawls’ theory does not involve people who think they might upon exiting the veil of ignorance insist on being paid for doing nothing.

It is true that the completely disabled are part of any civilized society. There is a danger that a party in the original position will be instantiated as one of them. Moreover, such a person may not be a producer but would be if he could; he is not a hobo living off alms by choice. Nevertheless, considering them to be the worst-off would undermine Rawls’ system. The difference principle would be rendered nugatory, since the welfare of the completely disabled is always near zero. Their very survival is perpetually imperiled. They cannot be helped by inequalities or in any other Rawlsian way. If they are supported by charity (rather than by own family), then presumably just enough to barely subsist; so, even general economic progress will not improve their standard of living.

Perhaps Cohen would argue in favor of “from each, according to his ability; to each equally.” Everyone shall work for the welfare of the community with great fervor, motivated by the Cohenian egalitarian ethos, though be paid identically with everyone else. If one declares that his ability is zero, then he, too, will receive his proper equal share. He will not be denied citizenship in the commune. Once again this would be entirely Cohen’s own development that has nothing to do with Rawls.

Political vs. Personal for Cohen

Rawls in A Theory of Justice repeats on a number of occasions that the parties in the original position are “mutually disinterested,” e.g.,

they are conceived as not taking an interest in one another’s interests (12);

they are not willing to have their interests sacrificed to the others (112);

all parties try to to win for themselves the highest index of primary social goods, since this enables them to promote their conception of the good most effectively whatever it turns out to be. (125)

Cohen replies that “in the original position mutual indifference is assumed for methodological reasons to derive justice from rational self-interest under a veil of ignorance constraint. But it does not follow that the principles chosen by mutually indifferent parties of the original position are consistent with mutual indifference when they operate as rules of interaction in a functioning society.” (RJaE, 81)

And yet this device demonstrates that Rawls is concerned solely with the society’s political constitution and economic policy, not personal morality. Cohen grasps this quite well. He “rejects the conclusion that impersonal justice is a matter for the state only”; “demands of distributive justice reach personal decision.” (9) Cohen contrasts the Rawls’ view “that distributive justice is a task for the state alone” with his own, “which is that both the state, with no life of its own, and the individual, who is indeed thus endowed, must, in appropriately different fashions, show regard in economic matters both to impersonal justice and to the legitimate demands of the individual.” (10)

It is this view that causes Cohen to qualify his concession that “every person has a right to pursue self-interest” with “to some reasonable extent; but a modest right of self-interest seems insufficient to justify the range of inequality, the extremes of wealth and poverty, that actually obtain in society…” (61) It is unclear why self-interest ought to be “modest” as opposed to being the fundamental part of human nature, animating all human actions. The fact is, human beings seek happiness and act for ends. The contemplate potential future enjoyments and set out to bring them about. Ought the self-interest of the “poor” also to be be modest? Does Cohen suggest that people repress their emotions and desires? He must, because he’d like people to be moved by his “egalitarian ethos” where the “rich” have an alleged duty to become equal to the “poor” in material wealth.

Something out of Nothing

Rawls was not an egalitarian like Cohen. Equality of distribution for him is merely a tool of thinking; the initial stage (prior to any negotiation) in the original position (not in the actual world). Rawls does not value equality as an independent end, other than as a self-evident way to distribute goods at that point; even Hoppe concedes as much in the Introduction to Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty: Rawls writes that “the first principle of justice requiring an equal distribution (of all resources)… is… obvious”; Hoppe comments: “True; for if it is assumed that ‘moral parties’ are not human actors but disembodied entities, the notion of private property must indeed appear strange.” (EoL, xv)

Cohen’s innovation consists in arguing that “in a society of wholehearted commitment to the [difference] principle, there cannot be so stark a contrast between public and private choice. Instead, citizens want their own economic behavior to satisfy the principle, and they help to sustain a moral climate in which others want the same.” (RJaE, 70) Thus, his egalitarian ethos completes and consummates the difference principle as personal morality that was at first conceived by Rawls as an instrument of government policy.

Cohen presents some quotes from A Theory of Justice (74ff) to suggest that Rawls might have viewed his approach with some sympathy, but it is certain that Rawls made no explicit allusion to any such thing in the book. The switch from the discussion of what kind of society is best to personal morality is fully Cohen’s own baby.

His aim in his moral preaching by his own admission is to “induce agents to accept very high levels of taxation.” (70n) Let’s trace his argument.

Cohen considers the “threat” of the “rich” to work less hard under higher taxes and shrink the total pie to such an extent that even with redistribution the “poor” will be worse off than under lower taxes to be the same sort of threat that a kidnapper issues to the parents of a kidnapped child. “If the rich could be regarded as external things like machines, of bits of nature,” our author goes on, “it would then be irrational for the poor not to accept their proposal” to set up the incentives for them that “work.” “But the poor know that the rich are persons, and they may regard them as fellow members of a community who can be asked, face to face, for justification.” (65) In short, Cohen proposes that the introduction of incentives for the more talented, such that in seeking their own profit, they also benefit the worst-off, that is, the difference principle, does not follow necessarily from Rawls’ reasoning. For if justice demands that the worst-off be taken care of, then the better-off should do their duty to them even without any incentives at all.

But does not Cohen’s own ideology treat the rich as machines to be used for the interests of the worse-off? The rich have no rights to spend the money they honestly acquired; they have highly demanding duties to the poor which they must robotically discharge. The symmetry of capitalism is replaced with a one-sided exploitation by the poor of the rich.

The problem, once again, is that people act for ends. Presumably, by working they intend to earn money which they then plan to spend on their own pleasures. In submitting to the disutility of labor, people aim to profit. They are not robots who perform “duties” automatically and without feeling. It is not the case that the better-off are working essentially to increase the welfare of the worse-off and as a disturbing and unwelcome accident of this improve their own welfare even more. On the contrary, they work essentially for themselves, and as an accident, make even the worse-off happier. If the first were true, then I agree that one could question why they should have “incentives” when it is their “moral duty” to assist the worse-off. The talented would be bound to the worse-off in a sort of indentured servitude. But if second which seems true to me, then it is merely proof that capitalism enriches the entire society. The natural aristocracy is dragooned into service to society as a whole through the cleverness of the economists.

Hence in order to keep working hard even at high taxes, the “rich” must benefit from doing just that. Logically, their goal can be one of the following two things.

1. They desire to improve the lives of the worst off, which means that they love them and acutely feel their pain. This sort of mighty charity is implausible, as only God is capable of personally loving each of the billions of humans.

2. They desire universal equality and themselves to be equal to everyone else. This is to be sure a strange goal. It seems preposterous and inhuman. Probably almost no one who ever lived actually had it. Cohen has not as of Chapter 1 proven the people ought to desire this, and that those who fail to desire this are awful sinners who must immediately reform.

Cohen can reply that he merely takes the difference principle to its logical conclusion. But a difficulty appears posthaste. Cohen’s argument can be put thusly. Let there be a society D1 marked by equality of distribution. Rawls appears and suggests that everyone in this society can become better off by allowing the talented some incentives to perform, but at the expense of equality. The talented thereby work harder and produce more wealth, prospering themselves yet also creating value for the less fortunate. Name this society D2. Cohen retorts that a still better society D3 is possible: one in which the talented work just as hard, but the fruits of their labor are nevertheless distributed equally. Amazing! D1 has been transformed into far richer superior D3 by a philosophical argument!

Cohen seems to have invented a perpetual motion machine that improves economies all by itself. An even more wonderful D5 is sure to follow.

Of course, Cohen has simply commanded certain people to work harder or brainwashed them that doing so is their alleged moral duty; if they obey, then total product will have obviously increased, and each person’s equal share will be greater, as well. But how many times will he be able to crack his whip? Surely, there is a limit to how “hard” any individual must work to satisfy a deity even as demanding as Cohen?

The ultimate problem here is that such commands and brainwashing have nothing to do with the egalitarian ethos, as understood by Cohen. Desire for equality and devotion to work are not connected in any way. That one is an egalitarian does not entail that he must work more or less hard. The talented do not owe a definite and large sum of money to the poor, such that to repay the debt they have to exhaust themselves in hard labor for life.

The emergence of D3 from D1 ex nihilo is a cheap trick unworthy of a philosopher.

Inequalities Should Challenge the Poor’s Self-Worth!

Inequalities, Cohen argues, “might indeed challenge the sense of self-worth of those who are at the bottom.” (77) Well, gee whiz. Of course, they challenge their sense of self-worth! They had better! Being at the bottom is precisely a sign of social worthlessness. It means that the poor person is useless to the community. No one cares for the services, if any, that he has to offer to other people, as least not much. He needs to reevaluate his approach to life and work ASAP. Moreover, restoring one’s self-respect is a result of personal achievement and decidedly not of being given looted money for free.

Socialism Is Naturally Paired with Egalitarianism

One needs both parts of the description to identify himself as such. For socialism is a form of organizing the social system of production, namely, the idea that the state shall own all the factors of production, including, in this doctrine’s extreme variant, all labor. But socialism need not be egalitarian. A dictator or a committee of dictators can have all sorts of arbitrary powers over their subjects. They can have complete authority to kill them, to send them to prison or to life of hard labor, to determine their occupations and their family life (if such there be), to organize gladiatorial battles for the dictator’s amusement, to take any girl to bed and then have her executed the next day (the tale of Scheherazade being the familiar example), and numerous other outrageous things the imagination readily suggests. So, they would own everyone as their slaves, who would be miserable, while the dictators and their friends would live it up (to an extent).

On the other hand, egalitarianism is concerned with consumption, namely, that no one is to have more than his fellows to enjoy. And an egalitarian society need not be socialist. In fact, there is an argument for the assertion that a laissez-faire capitalist society becomes ever more equal. To reuse the example in a previous post, there is a bigger difference between a starving man and a sated man than between someone who has only one yacht and someone who has five, or between someone who flies coach and someone who flies first class. Under capitalism, there will always be a “trickle-down” process of luxuries being introduced to the innovators in the art of consumption (indeed, the rich), and after a fairly short while becoming necessities without which the common man could barely imagine his life. But with economic progress, as time goes on, each luxury first created will be ever more rarefied and seemingly “out there” and will improve the lives of the rich to a lesser and lesser extent as compared to the lives of the masses.

As an example, consider the Internet and sites such as and Google Books and so on. Knowledge of the truth about any subject, once the most precious, expensive, and worthy commodity one could ever purchase in his life, accessible only to a select few, has finally become cheap as dirt. Only princes and the aristocracy could at one time afford to hire scholars. The sky is the limit now; truth and debate about pretty much everything, created entirely by the market, is just a mouse click away. Gnosticism, understood as presumption of secret knowledge that perhaps entitled one to salvation or other goods, is dead and buried. That is how capitalism diminishes inequalities.

Who the Worst-off Are Is an Empirical Question

Rawls starts out with a position of equal distribution of all primary goods. Then he allows those inequalities that would, in addition to benefiting the talented, will also benefit the worst-off. But notice: it is impossible to identify the worst-off or, for that matter, the better-off, outside the free market system in which people’s powers and talents and virtues can in fact be manifested. It is only when we have a laissez-faire economy that a stratification of society based on people’s incomes can occur and the worst-off be pointed out to us. Only by empirical testing, via observing the actual consequences of numerous self-interested human actions, can we rank people in terms of their well-being. Only then do Cohen et al become able to say: this situation is unacceptable, and the better-off — John and Bill — must be looted for the sake of the worst-off — Mark and Sam.

In other words, it is only the rigors of the free market that can separate those whose services are valued and compensated from those who invest poorly. Before a person can be labeled “worst-off,” he must first try to succeed, and only if he fails again and again does this label become appropriate. But this trying and testing oneself can only occur in the market. The abolition of the market which the socialist egalitarians envision would destroy the very mechanism which the difference principle requires in order to do its job.

But the world is in constant flux. Everything changes, including people themselves. Everyone wins some and loses some to various extents. And, of course, as soon as we equalize things, a new generation of people will present the difficulty just outlined. So, who are the worst-off and how do we tell them apart from the more fortunate in life’s lottery?

What Is Wrong with Good Luck?

“Natural liberty,” Cohen writes, “is rejected [by Rawls] because it fails to resist the morally arbitrary.” (93fn) This is because it is unjust to “permit distributive shares to be improperly influenced by natural and social contingencies so arbitrary from a moral point of view.” (92)

Let’s use an example. A person is doing website programming in VB.NET. He is stuck, not knowing how to solve a certain problem, and so he starts looking all over the web for solutions. Lo and behold, he finds help in less than 2 minutes. Isn’t that great? “No!” says Rawls. Our programmer did not deserve his happiness. What about others who were unlucky in their searches? What of those who tried programming and found it too difficult? Won’t they feel bad? The programmer found pleasure because of something that is morally arbitrary. This is a moral outrage; it cannot be tolerated.

You see where I am going with this. Luck may be arbitrary and irrelevant morally, but it is not arbitrary and irrelevant for human action. It is not arbitrary and irrelevant for successful human action. It is true that humans have duties. But human life is not exhausted by moral duties. Reward may indeed be a fitting crowning of righteousness and exactness in fulfilling one’s duties. But “there is in the world of reality no mythical agency that rewards or punishes,” says Mises (HA, 846), referring to action attempted to reach a goal. Speaking of a particular kind of action, he writes: “Entrepreneurial profit is not a ‘reward’ granted by the customer to the supplier who served him better than the sluggish routinists; it is the result of the eagerness of the buyers to outbid others who are equally anxious to acquire a share of the limited supply.” (300) So, there are both things one ought to do and things one is free to do, and for the latter luck is perfectly great. In fact, let’s have as much luck as possible for people, so that their plans, made within law, succeed! Who cares how luck is “distributed”? What could possibly be wrong with good luck?

Rawls and Cohen (R&C) are metaphysically obtuse. The world is clearly suffused with randomness. Randomly generated: human beings and their inborn endowments and talents, geographic environments from savanna to tundra, locations of various natural resources, the particular families, communities, and states that individuals are born into, opportunities people encounter with random capacities for seizing them, friends and associates, situations of being in the right / wrong place at the right / wrong time, calamities and misfortunes; and just plain luck are what human lives are defined by.

R&C are defending “a conception of justice that nullifies the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstance as counters in the quest for … economic advantage.” (quoted in RJaE, 104) This is quite absurd. Randomness is such a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of this universe that it must be considered an essential aspect of the divine design. Humans are explicitly required to make lemonade out of their particular lemons. Moreover, this design is arguably wise, such that it is blasphemy to murmur against God for an alleged injustice. R&C call the features of a person’s life randomly assigned “morally” arbitrary. They may be from the point of view of the conception of justice that demands perfect equality. But what if that conception is wrong? In any case, there is far more to life than “morality.” Unique individuals have to make the best of their unique positions, including pursue economic advantages.

R&C’s desire to moderate the effects of randomness is futile: randomness is far stronger that they.

Freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. It may be proper to reward responsibility, but the success of freely chosen actions is its own reward. R&C fail to come to grips with the reality of human life, wherein there is a never-ending search for happiness, dampened only in some areas by duties which one must unfailingly carry out. But human beings are not duty-doing machines. The society chosen in the original position would be one in which not only merit is honored and rewarded but also there is greatest possible success which social cooperation can furnish. For everyone behind the veil of ignorance has a vested interest in living not only in a just society but also in a successful one, that is, in one with the highest possible rate at which the productivity of human effort and capital accumulation increase, luck or no luck. In other words, success as such does not need to be justified before the moral law; it is entirely self-justifying. (Particular actions have to be checked against the moral law but not the legitimacy of acting as such.) And success consists almost entirely in making smart use of the resources at hand, including and especially those that are randomly produced.

In the movie Troy, there is the following dialog:

Achilles: Play your tricks on me. But not on my cousin.
Odysseus: You have your swords. I have my tricks. We play with the toys the gods give us.

The human pursuit of happiness consists in random agents exploiting and shaping random environments, indeed arbitrary “morally” but not physically, in regard to narrow happiness. There is no reasonable sense in which any aspect of this activity is “unjust.”