Egalitarian Ethos for Ants, Perhaps?

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.

Egalitarian Inspiration Must Still Be Enforced by the State

That’s what Cohen keeps calling adhering to 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.

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.

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.”

Rawls Is Concerned with “Rules of Regulations,” Not Justice, Says Cohen

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.

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: 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.

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.

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.

Rawls and Cohen Revisited

Reading Huemer reminded me of my notes on Rawls and Cohen. Again, if I were behind the veil of ignorance, thinking about what sort of society I’d want to live in, it would occur to me that since I can’t influence who I personally will be incarnated as (as rich or poor, healthy or sick, smart or dumb), I would focus on making the overall society as efficient as possible. This means in particular not its “total happiness” at any given moment, but the speed (and acceleration, etc.) at which this total happiness increases with time.

But that society is precisely libertarian laissez-faire capitalism.

Rawls seems to think differently. He’d rather live in a society where the “morally arbitrary” distinctions between persons, such as the quality of their families or IQs are erased. In practice, that would mean that the accidentally better-off shall toil thanklessly for the benefit of the worse-off. Rawls concedes that there can be “incentives” for the more talented so as to elicit the appropriate effort from them which would regretfully cause society to deviate from perfect equality. Cohen asks why, if justice is our ideal, any incentives are necessary. People should work as hard as they can only to give up the fruits of their labors to the poor out of a sense of moral duty. Perhaps we can even have full-featured capitalism, as long as all consumer goods are distributed equally.

In response, I argue that people act for ends. They perceive future pleasures; choose between them; choose between various means to attain these ends, and act with a hope of bettering their lot. “Moral duty” is not in the equation at all. One is never content with merely following the moral law, for a stone or any other inanimate object, too, is perfectly righteous in this sense. One follows the law for the sake of physical or spiritual survival. But he seeks happiness by working to satisfy his various desires and succeed in his pursuits.

In that case, a man must be ruthlessly brainwashed from childhood in order to forget his own ends and work like an automaton only to have his product confiscated. But what if he wakes up from this nightmare and thinks for himself? That’s presumably where the “incentives” would come in. What if he, responding to the tax laws, refuses to work? Then he must be enslaved and forced to work under threat of the whip. And what if he tries to run away to free himself? Then he must be killed, lest other slaves mutiny, as well.

We can see that Cohen is a murderer of both mind and body. Hs soul is his own business. But murdering talented people does not benefit the worse off, as Rawls himself acknowledges. Nor does enslaving them, since slave labor is extremely unproductive. Nor, in the final analysis, does treating them as tax-serfs. Up we go in this manner until we reach libertarian unhampered free enterprise system as the pinnacle of human social evolution.

This, I think, is what really follows from Rawls’ “original position.”