Socialist Converts to Environmentalism

If there is one philosopher whom I am not looking forward to meeting in the kingdom of our Father, it’s G.A. Cohen. I find him wicked, corrupt, and maybe even insane, as judged from the ugliness of his philosophy. I hesitated to commit myself to reading another book of his, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. But the Introduction was unexpectedly delicious, and I’ll live-blog the entire book in the next few days.

Classical Marxists, says Cohen, did not find it necessary to enter into the examination of either the economics or ethics of socialism, because they considered the coming of socialism to be “historically inevitable.” The forces of social evolution would arrange everything for the best. Ideas and individual human choices guided by them play but a very subordinate role in this grand process, such as determining how to make socialism “come as quickly and as painlessly as possible. … You do not have to justify a socialist transformation as a matter of principle to people who are driven to make it by the urgencies of their situation, and are in a good position to succeed.” (6-8) The choice of the word “driven” is revealing. It is not the individuals who drive history, as per Marxism, but somehow history drives them. It’s “matter (i.e., the ‘material productive forces’) over mind.”

What then constituted the agents of social change? “One was the rise of an organized working class, whose social emplacement, at the short end of inequality, directed it in favor of equality. … [Second] was the development of the productive forces, the continual increase in the human power to transform nature for human benefit.” The latter was supposed to result in some sort of a “post-scarcity” society, in which “anything that anyone needed for a richly fulfilling life could be taken from the common store at no cost to anyone.” (6)

However, “history has shredded [these] predictions.” As Mises pointed out, capitalism most efficiently converts “proletarians” into bourgeoisie and has: “the proletariat never became ‘the immense majority,’ and it was ultimately reduced and divided…”

But it is the second prerequisite for the socialist revolution that was annulled most decisively, according to Cohen. “The development of the productive forces now runs up against a resource barrier: … the planet Earth rebels: its resources turn out to be not lavish enough… to generate unceasing expansion of use-value” (7):

The new basis of a demand for equality relates to the ecological crisis, which is a crisis for the whole of humanity. … (1) Our environment is already severely degraded, and (2) if there is a way out of the crisis, then it must include much less aggregate material consumption than what now prevails, and, as a result, unwanted changes in life-style, for hundreds of millions of people. …

Western consumption must fall drastically; we cannot achieve Western-style goods and services for humanity as a whole…

A (supposedly) inevitable future plenty was a reason for predicting equality. Persisting scarcity is now a reason for demanding it.

“We can no longer sustain Marx’s extravagant, pre-green, materialist optimism,” concludes Cohen. (9-10)

Now I may be able at this time to see a reason for “equality” under Cohen’s assumption: if competition between entrepreneurs and workers has now, because of the “ecological crisis,” become zero- (or negative-) sum and cannot be harnessed for the sake of economic improvement, then there is little reason to permit it. If the standard of living is forever fixed and may even worsen, such as with population growth, then the key advantage of the free market — ever better and cheaper goods and services for the masses — disappears. Perhaps the economy should be frozen in place forever to mitigate the perverse and vicious competition which churns the social hierarchy but only makes things worse on the whole. If, as part of such eternal economic rest, the government takes over production and distributes consumer goods equally, not much damage will be done to this Cuban-style world in which nothing new is already guaranteed ever to happen.

But wasn’t Cohen deceived yet again by the false “ecological” scares of the early 90s? If his new presumption of inevitable global economic deterioration does not hold, what other straws will our author grasp at to bolster his hope for egalitarian socialism?

Or is he really finished this time for good? George Reisman wrote that “the green movement is the red movement no longer in its boisterous, arrogant youth, but in its demented old age.” Can we finally mercifully take Cohen and his fellow commies off the ventilator?

Cohen Robs Wilt Chamberlain

In Chapter 1, Cohen objects to capitalist acts between consenting adults on the grounds that they (may) have wider consequences. It seems permissible for a million basketball fans to pay a quarter each to see Wilt Chamberlain play. But Cohen finds them “insufficiently reflective, when we think through, as they do not, the full consequences of what they are doing.” (23) What are those? They consist in Chamberlain’s “special position of power in what was previously an egalitarian society.” (25) If the fans had realized the pernicious newfound power this sinister tyrant has acquired over them, then they might not have collectively agreed to exchange with him. Yet Cohen’s only example is that

a person’s effective share depends on what he can do with what he has, and that depends not only on how much he has but on what others have and on how what others have is distributed.

If it is distributed equally among them he will often be better placed than if some have especially large shares. (26-7)

I am mystified by how Cohen came up with this idea. He does not defend it; nor did I ever see it asserted elsewhere. Why, when others have equal wealth, am I better off than when they do not? What economic logic demonstrates this alleged principle or law?

Nozick assumes at the beginning of his argument that, in position D1, all goods are distributed equally. A socialist is invited to consider this initial position just. Nozick then proposes that there is no injustice in voluntary exchanges between members of society. He argues that free trade will shatter the equality by bringing about D2 marked by considerable inequality. But since the latter unequal state emerged from a just distribution by means of a series of just moves, it, too, is just.

Cohen claims that “the Chamberlain story… impugns not the original distribution but the exclusive rightness of the principle mandating it,” i.e., equality. (24) That seems like a wrong interpretation. The story illustrates rather that justice is fully compatible with both equality and inequality alike; and hence equality cannot be a principle of justice at all.

Cohen’s second attempt to trace the more remote consequences of free exchanges is that people might be upset that “a society of equality is in danger of losing its essential character. Reflective people would have to consider not only the joy of watching Chamberlain and its immediate money price but also the fact, which socialists say that they would deplore, that their society would be set on the road to class division.” (26)

But how can an individual be committed to equality? One may desire to live a just and prosperous life; in a libertarian society, it is within his own power to achieve both (the former by abstaining from stealing, etc.). But an individual cannot of his own accord become “equal” to everyone else. In order for that to happen, he must crush his fellow men. In practice, he must unite with everyone else to form a government that will be crushing everyone equally. One can commit personally to, say, a religion, without any need to involve anyone else in his decision. But one cannot thereby commit to “equality.”

Equality is not a consumer good like a smartphone, nor a lifestyle, but an ideological vision. It’s not an arbitrary subjective preference, as if for chocolate ice cream, in comparison with which capitalism would be vanilla. If it were such, then we might argue that there is no accounting for taste. But if it’s an ideology, then figuring out whether this ideology is true is precisely the issue at hand. It would, after all, be irrational to commit to a set of false ideas. For example, Cohen has not established that group G, the members of which all want to be equal with each other, may justly coerce people uninterested in equality also to be equal to G, which is what his reflective socialists must resort to.

But if a commitment to equality is absurd, such as if we can prove that it is abhorrent to justice, liberty, and welfare, then Cohen’s argument fails.

For example, contra Cohen, a self-interested exchange is a Pareto-superior move, whereby two people (such as a given fan and Chamberlain) become better off with no one becoming worse off. Outlawing this transaction straightforwardly diminishes human happiness.

Socialists will defend their prohibition of the Nozickian capitalist acts between consenting adults, Cohen suggests, “by reference to the social good and widened freedom that it promises.” (30)

Now regarding the first, Cohen replies to a deontological argument with a utilitarian one: good consequences (in terms of welfare?) make an inherently unjust act Ok. This is hardly decisive. Further, what if it can be proved that socialism results, as it in fact does, in the destruction of the economy, abject impoverishment, and mass extinction of the human race?

(Given Cohen’s recently raised “environmental” consciousness, perhaps that’s exactly what he wants.)

Regarding the second, no proof that freedom would in fact be widened by a prohibition is adduced by Cohen, which keeps this claim obviously self-contradictory on the face of it.

I am not sure whether Cohen rejects deontological talk of rights as such or merely libertarian rights. He complains that “if children are undernourished in our society, we are not allowed to tax millionaires in order to finance a subsidy on the price of milk to poor families, for we would be violating the rights, and the ‘dignity’ of the millionaires.” (31) But we are not talking about a situation in which a violent mob loots a greedy and grasping rich man in a top hat and monocle and spends the plunder on children’s health but about either a capitalist society that has millionaires or a socialist society that does not have any at all. In the former, an act of theft (and make no mistake, taxation is theft as per libertarianism) is impermissible according to basic justice. In the latter, such acts can never occur for lack of millionaires in the first place. What then is Cohen’s point?

(Cohen is in love with taxation. Political salvation for him comes from high income taxes. The idea is not to fund any particular government activities that Cohen likes but simply to combat inequality and, as an essential part of it, to cripple the market economy.)

Regarding the meaning of “force” or “coercion,” Nozick is himself unclear. To test his definition, Cohen compares the situation of villager Victor with either farmer Fred or farmer Giles, both of whom, let us suppose, own a tract of land near Victor. Victor has a right of way across Fred’s land but not Giles’. When both Fred and Giles build an insurmountable fence around their properties, Victor is said to be equally “forced” to find another route. But the word “force” is inextricably linked to injustice. Fred violates Victor’s right and so forces him to adjust his life unjustly. But since Giles is within his rights, no injustice occurs, and there is no “forced” imposition on Victor.

With the semantics thus clear, it remains to ask Cohen whether he really imagines that under socialism, people will not be subject to hunger and will not be “forced” by the prospect of starvation to work. A worker is free when he (1) is mobile as opposed to bound to land; (2) has permission to seek work at any business firm as opposed to enthralled to a particular lord; (3) is subject to no government licensing requirements; (4) can at will become a capitalist and entrepreneur as opposed to being fettered with state-imposed barriers to entry into any industry. All these hold under capitalism; none hold under socialism, where the authority determines (as it should if there is to be a coherent central plan) one’s occupation and place and conditions of work.

Whether Just Steps Preserve Justice?, 1

Recall that Nozick has argued that if we start in a just situation and from then on permit only non-unjust transactions between persons, such as voluntary “market” exchanges, then any resulting state after however long a time will also be just. Cohen aims to cast doubt on this law with several counterexamples. As we will see, none of them turn out to work.

1) “Imagine that one of my justly held rolling pins rolls out of my front door and down the hill and through your open door, without your knowledge. You innocently mistake it to be the one you mislaid, and you keep it and use it. Now, so I take it, not everything is justly held, but no one has behaved, or is behaving, unjustly.” (44)

I find this a rather inoffensive state of affairs. To spice things up, let’s consider an even stronger case. Smith loses a $20 bill; Jones finds it and keeps it. This time, Jones knows that the money (or pin) is not his. But what’s the big deal? Who convinced Smith that he is guaranteed never to suffer any unfortunate accident? In this case, straightforwardly Smith loses ownership of the $20; the banknote is then put back in the state of nature and becomes unowned; finally, Jones homesteads it and gains ownership of it.

In cases where the lost value is considerable, the justice of the situation depends on the possibility and cost of rectifying the mistake. If Jones cannot find the owner, nor the owner, him, then the title to the money goes to Jones. If the parties can find each other at a reasonable cost, then Jones may have a duty to cooperate in fixing the error (and perhaps be entitled to a reward for his conscientiousness). For example, the situation would be relevantly different if Jones were to receive a package containing $1 million in cash intended for Smith by mistake. It would be both reckless and probably criminal for Jones to up and keep it without an earnest attempt at setting things right.

In this latter case, Cohen would grant that if Jones keeps the package then he is doing something wrong, but he insists that Jones’ crime consists in merely perpetuating an already unjust distribution of goods. And this distribution appears to have resulted from a just state without anyone’s being guilty of any wrongdoing.

However, “distribution” is of legal titles to property rather than of physical locations of items. That an object moves from point A to point B is neither necessary nor sufficient for a change in who owns what to occur.

When Smith exchanges his apple for Jones’ orange, titles are transferred lawfully, preserving a just distribution. The actual positions of the apple and orange in space are incidental.

If a thief steals X from me, I remain the true owner of X. If the thief avoids detection and convinces society that the stolen good is really his, I may have no recourse other than to let the matter be and acquiesce in an unjust distribution. But if I catch the thief and recapture X, then there would have been no change in the distribution of titles to property, because I was owning X even when the thief had physical possession of it.

Again, when an authority falsely yet publicly denies that Smith has a property right to X (such as a natural right) in the first place, accuses Smith himself of an injustice if he insists on holding on to X, seizes X by overwhelming force, and “officially” grants the title to X to Jones, the title is transferred wrongfully resulting in an unjust distribution.

Of course, both the thief and the government would be committing unjust acts in the process, so Nozick’s law survives.

An unjust distribution then arrives at the scene only when the true owner gives up on finding justice.

But in the case of the misdirected package, Smith still owns the money, and everyone knows it. Again, the mere fact of the Cohen’s pin innocently finding its way through my door to me does not create an unjust distribution. Either Cohen still owns the pin despite temporarily forsaking control over it through a “misadventure,” or the pin has been “lost” and is now up for grabs, in which case I can appropriate it.

More distinctions are in order. Let an unjust act consist in deliberate unauthorized use of another’s property. An unjust situation would be securely continued unauthorized use of another’s property over a period of time. And an unjust distribution prevails when there is a reluctant general acceptance of unjustly obtained existing property titles.

Thus, every time Jones spends some of the money in the package (perhaps indeed under false pretenses), he acts unjustly; if he is allowed to persist in this, then he will have also created an unjust situation. But there is an unjust distribution only at the point when Smith abandons his efforts to locate the money, so that Jones’ de facto control over the $1 million is upgraded to de jure ownership. Thus, if Jones keeps the package locked up (say, to wait out Smith’s frantic search while Jones arranges a retirement in the Caribbean), he is physically and in a clearly unauthorized manner preventing Smith from recovering and using his property. This is an unjust situation. When Jones finally moves to the Cayman Islands and is safely out of reach, there is now an unjust distribution.

As a result, my knowingly misappropriating Cohen’s pin creates an unjust situation but not, at least at first, an unjust distribution. The former, because I am using it continuously without permission and also perhaps because I am refusing to return it. The latter, because Cohen still owns the title to the pin which has not been transferred or redistributed either lawfully or, insofar as he is still looking for it, unlawfully.

To summarize:

(1) If Cohen concedes in his heart that the pin has been lost, then by that fact he abandons ownership of it. If I then find it and keep it, there is no unjust distribution.

(2) If I find the pin and can’t locate the owner though I try, then the pin becomes mine at least provisionally even if Cohen is still looking for it, because it makes no sense to let a good pin just sit there in the barn doing nothing. Such a rule is also pro-social by posing rigorous incentives to people not to lose their stuff. Again no unjust distribution follows.

(3) If I find the pin and maliciously hide it, and later Cohen gives up trying to find it because of my efforts, then there is an unjust distribution, but it was brought about by my unjust acts.

Nozick’s law then is undamaged by the first of Cohen’s attacks.

Just Steps, 2

Cohen’s further examples fail more straightforwardly.

2) A case of “extreme ignorance: I sell a diamond to you for a pittance (or I give it to you on a whim), a diamond that we both think is glass. By that (ex Nozick’s hypothesi) just step, a situation arises in which you hold a diamond. But few would think that justice is fully served if, its true character having come to light, you now hang on to it, even though no one behaved unjustly in the generating transaction.” (45)

It is a perfectly just both situation and distribution. No one is immune to making mistakes; and a mistake like undervaluing a diamond is one’s own responsibility.

Even if I know that the diamond is real, I am not obligated to inform Cohen that his choice to sell it to me is foolish. It is completely just (even praiseworthy, though at times perhaps not “nice”) to take advantage of another’s economic ignorance.

A fortiori, it is not unjust to keep the diamond if I did not know it was real at the moment of the exchange. Let it be a lesson to Cohen not to be a sucker.

3) “An insurance company (innocently) goes bust and thereby (in the absence of state assistance to them) ruins the lives of people who could not have known that its position would come to be exposed, people who now have to sell their assets voluntarily (in the relevant libertarian sense), for a snip, to alert non-fraudulent buyers.” (46)

What could more more innocent or ubiquitous indeed than a company in the free market losing money and going out of business? If that is “unjust,” is there anything that isn’t? The people who trusted the company in vain will learn to be smarter in the future, that’s all.

4) Nozick’s own example of the monopoly holder of drinking water, such as presumably an oasis in a desert which is the only source of water for a hundreds of miles in any direction. (46)

This falls under “need,” since the water is used not for pleasure regarding which people can make choices but to preserve life itself. But how relevant is this case for a paradigmatic market economy where people transform deserts into thriving civilizations?

5) Voluntary slavery: “A and B are identical in talents and tastes. Each would so like to have a slave that he is willing to risk becoming one in exchange for the same chance of getting one. So they toss a coin, B loses, and A clamps chains on him.” (47)

If I pay you money to build a house which will take you a month to build, then you are bound to my service for a month. If I pay you to build a skyscraper, you may be bound for much longer, say, 3 years. Why can’t the duration of service be extended indefinitely according to our contract, including until your very death? (Suppose in fact that you die while in the process of building the skyscraper. Weren’t you a de facto slave of mine?)

There are two problems with slave contracts, such as when I pay you a large sum of money up front to commit you to serve me for the rest of your life. First is that such a contract is self-contradictory. (1) It seems a part of the definition of “slavery” that a slave cannot own property, including whatever the master paid him as per the contract’s terms. Or, whatever the slave allegedly “owns,” the master can lawfully expropriate at any time at will.

(2) The slave need not be allowed any leisure time to enjoy himself or his money.

(3) The master’s power over the slave is unlimited and absolute; hence for example, if a slave gets sick and the master does not want to expend money on treatment, he can kill the slave.

This is a reason to condemn a slave-master relationship as inherently unjust.

Second, such contracts are counterproductive, since slave labor is mostly worthless, and the incentives proper to free workers to accumulate human capital, i.e., improve their skills, under capitalism disappear. It would usually make no sense for any two people to contract this way.

This is a reason to condemn a society that recognizes slavery as legitimate as barbaric and primitive.

(The third problem is that voluntary slavery is contingent on the fact that humans are mortal which limits the master’s initial lump-sum payment to the would-be slave to a finite amount of money. If men lived forever, then voluntary slavery would not be logical; but a free worker under capitalism is compatible with earthly immortality.)

As a result, it is reasonable to outlaw voluntary slave contracts at the outset.

This particular example, however, does not seem self-contradictory, any more than, say, a freely entered into 2-man Russian roulette where the winner obtains some prize while the loser dies. Boxing matches have been known to end in one contender’s death. I would not say therefore that a libertarian must necessarily consider such a slave contract to be unjust. If it is not libertarianly unjust, then Cohen has run out of examples.

Note also that marriage is a life-long contract, literally til death do youse part. Yet morality itself insists that marriage is ideally indissoluble.

Defining Freedom, Rights, and Ownership

Cohen notes correctly that libertarians cannot extol mere “freedom,” understood as the state of affairs of not needing to ask anyone’s permission to use an object. For freedom as such is maximized in an anarchist society which has no laws at all. Suppose that

I want to perform an action which involves a legally prohibited use of your property.

I want, let us say, to pitch a tent in your large back garden, perhaps just in order to annoy you, or perhaps for the more substantial reason that I have nowhere to live and no land of my own, but I have got hold of a tent…

If I now try to do this thing that I want to do, the chances are that the state will intervene on your behalf. If it does, I shall suffer a constraint on my freedom. (56)

It is obvious that freedom is inextricably linked with rights to property. One is free to exercise his right without asking anyone’s permission.

The question then is, what is my protected sphere of action? Rights to me come with duties to you to respect those rights. As rights enhance my freedom, so duties diminish yours. Libertarians like libertarian rights, such as the right to private property in the means of production, and dislike anti-libertarian rights, such as the alleged right “to health care” or “not to be discriminated against” by a private business.

Cohen then complains that Nozick does not provide his own “characterization of people’s rights.” Well, others have, such as based indeed on self-ownership, and I fully expect Cohen to have to engage such characterizations later in the book.

However, freedom is not thereby reduced to a zero-sum game between systems of rights, because some such non-irrational systems increase overall freedom, as I will now show.

Let Cohen then have a right to pitch a tent on anybody’s property. Either he has obtained a unique government privilege granted to him only, or everyone has such a right. In the first case, Cohen is some sort sovereign monarch-beggar. Our author dislikes “classes”; but this is much worse: it’s a caste society with Cohen and perhaps his buddies becoming a superior caste whose legal claims automatically override everyone else’s.

In the second case, everyone has a right to squat on any “private” property. Here are some implications:

  1. I have a right to pitch a tent inside Cohen’s own tent.
  2. I can throw Cohen out if I am stronger than him and pitch my own tent where his used to be.
  3. I can go to the CIA headquarters in Langley and pitch a tent there.

It is clear that this universal right to squat on any piece of land results in complete chaos, as land is effectively nationalized, yet absurdly the government that now owns the land refuses to allocate it via appropriately strict bureaucratic rules. Instead, it permits an utter — and self-contradictory — free-for-all, i.e., a war of all against all.

In fact, such a war is equivalent to absence of the state. But if the government does adopt such rules, then it takes freedom away from everyone, because everyone will now have to ask permission from the government whether they can use any parcel of land as they want to. Cohen might of course point out that the bureaucrats will now possess maximal freedom to dispose of the land. But this is hardly satisfying to the anti-libertarian.

In another example, let there be in society a pen-loaning market. At one point Cohen the philosopher-king decrees that everyone has a right to chew on borrowed pens. Far from increasing freedom, this policy decreases it by removing the freedom of a pen-owner and borrower to contract with each other as they see fit or as they negotiate the terms according to their own counsel. An owner will no longer be able to demand as part of the agreement that the borrower abstain from chewing on the borrowed pen.

Economically, there are two negative effects of this policy, one immediate and one possibly more remote.

First, it would reduce the number of pens loaned, since some owners would rather refuse to loan than suffer from having their pens chewed on. It will coincidentally raise interest rates, as pen owners seek extra compensations from potential pen-chewers.

Second, consider an innovation in pens that will be made 10 years from now. It promises to massively enhance consumer happiness, but the new advanced pens are slightly fragile and cannot be chewed on. The government regulation in a nuclear blast from the past destroys the pen loan market, since lenders cannot ensure that the pens will be returned to them undamaged. In a coup de grâce, because of Cohen’s reckless and imprudent intervention, the pen revolution is never even commercialized in the first place. The entrepreneurial freedom to bring novel goods to the market has diminished.

(Cohen may again object that one’s freedom to compete against existing business firms entails the latter’s duty to put up with competition or that it entails absence of protectionism and special privileges to the vested interests which would be a form of “freedom” to them. This, too, I think is a weak and implausible move.)

These are some of the senses in which freedom is lessened by government interference with private property and free market.

Ownership is now easy to define. To own X is to have an exclusive right to use X at pleasure, to improve or on the contrary destroy X, to prevent others from using it or, more generally, to grant and withhold permissions to others to use X, and especially to sell any particular use of X or any of the bundle of rights over X or X as a whole.

Cohen Conflates Freedom with Power

Our author babbles something about how being poor allegedly restricts one’s freedom, such as when someone “is too poor to visit her sister in Bristol.” (58)

Suppose the woman lives in a totalitarian society where travel is prohibited and people are bound to their places of work and residence. She will then need a special government permission, a pass, to go to Bristol. Perhaps it takes months for the bureaucracy to issue a pass. Perhaps the government needs her toiling in the factory and refuses to let her go. She is unfree and cannot of her own pleasure visit her sister, even if she is rich as Croesus.

In a free society, she may indeed be too poor to go. But that’s a qualitatively different constraint. It’s true that she is surrounded by other people’s private properties, but those are open to her on the condition that she pays for access, such as to the train. The entrepreneurs running these establishments will love her and wait on her every whim for money.

How much money she has depends mostly on her skill at earning it. She remains her own free woman and a sovereign consumer. Other people, the entrepreneurs, serve her and depend on her arbitrary whim as to how it pleases her to spend her money, including on the trip to Bristol. In bossing around the producers, she is the master.

On the other hand, whether she gets a state-issued pass depends on the indifferent bureaucrats who this time are sovereign over her. In being thus dependent on the arbitrary whim of another, for whom she is an annoying nuisance, she is a slave.

Solving Objections to Libertarian Original Appropriation

In Chapter 3, Cohen wants to block the inference from self-ownership to ownership of external resources. To further this end, he seizes on libertarian original appropriation of unowned land and capital goods and criticizes its justice.

Locke’s theory stresses that appropriation is permissible as long as the new owner leaves “enough and as good” for others.

Nozickian proviso seems weaker, as he requires only that those whose position may have been worsened as a result of any particular appropriation be compensated with the overall benefits of capitalistic social cooperation.

Our author chides Nozick for comparing a private property regime solely with the state of nature and not with all the alternative property arrangements. As an example, he describes a situation in which two men, A and B, presumably on some small island, get m and n units of some good respectively when the land is unowned. If A were to appropriate the entire island and employ B for wages, then both men’s shares would increase to m + q and n + p, where q > p. The Lockean proviso is obviously violated; but the Nozickian proviso is seemingly satisfied, because both A and B are better off under private property than under a commons. But not so fast. For if B had been able to appropriate the land, then it would have been he who would enjoy an increase of q. Hence, A‘s claim harms B relative to the counterfactual situation of B staking the claim instead.

This, of course, is a contrived and unrealistic scenario which does nothing to help us formulate rules for developing the human civilization starting at the beginning of the recorded history until a thousand years in our future. The “nature” whose “state” we are considering in Cohen’s fantasy bears no relation to the actual human environment. It’s almost a “lifeboat situation” such as when two people are contesting for a plank to hold on to after a shipwreck. Ought the first person who reaches the plank to keep it and save himself, while the second guy who was a minute late drown? Rothbard comments:

Does the concept of aggression and property right apply even here? Yes, for again, our homestead principle of property right comes into play: i.e., the first person who reaches the plank “owns” it for the occasion, and the second person throwing him off is at the very least a violator of the former’s property and perhaps also liable for prosecution for an act of murder. …

To those who believe that such a homesteading principle is unduly harsh, we may reply (a) that we are already in an intolerably harsh and fortunately rare situation where no solution is going to be humane or comforting; and (b) that any other principle of allocation would be truly intolerable. (EoL, 150-2)

Even this implausible situation can be resolved by the rule that the first person to mix his labor (or whatever) with matter gets to own the resulting good. Whoever arrives at the scene later has the duty to respect the newly arisen property right. In that case, B‘s claiming the land instead of A ceases to be a counterfactual if we keep fixed the assumption that A was there first, and there is no longer a need to deem it an alternative.

In other words, B cannot claim the land if he is not there, and A is permitted to claim the land, because at the moment of asserting ownership, there is no one around to complain. When B at long last makes his appearance, he is faced with an existing property right and must take it as given; once again he does not have the luxury of objecting.

Cohen seems aware of this argument: “Why should B be required to accept what amounts to a doctrine of ‘first come, first served’?” he asks (80). There are a number of reasons.

(1) It is a uniquely orderly rule to conduct privatization of resources conflict-free.

(2) There is no rational alternative. Should it be “second come, first serve”? But that’s essentially taxation wherein the second person is a self-proclaimed feudal lord who subjugates the rightful owner, forcibly converts him into a mere “tenant,” and demands that he pay rent-tax to him. This is illegitimate according to libertarianism.

(3) It encourages everyone to go out and explore the earth as fast as he can, so that he may claim for himself land and other goods. This presses resources into social use most efficiently.

(4) Prior to homesteading, no one controlled or used the land. But controlling and improving (or having at one time improved) the land are both necessary and sufficient for the land’s coming to be under private ownership. Thus, (a) the land was first unowned; (b) whoever makes profitable use of the land first gets to own it.

We then want someone, whether A or B, to own the land, so that the process of human subduing and mastering the earth can commence, and we adjudicate competing claims with the help of the (exceedingly reasonable) “first come, first serve” rule.

Cohen’s second counterfactual is cooperation between A and B “under a socialist economic constitution.” (87) Now socialism does not work. But abstracting from that point, Cohen asks why we cannot consider the world’s resources to be jointly owned by all mankind, such that “what each may do with it is subject to collective decision.” (84) First of all, ownership is a legal notion, but in the state of nature there is no law other than natural law. Though self-ownership is part of natural law, nothing in natural law specifies anyone’s particular ownership of any specific land or capital or consumer goods, least of all joint collective ownership by all humans of the entire world.

Second, it is explicitly absurd; Rothbard considers the “‘communist’ Universal and Equal Other-ownership”:

It is physically impossible for everyone to keep continual tabs on everyone else, and thereby to exercise his equal share of partial ownership over every other man. In practice, then, this concept… is Utopian and impossible, and supervision and therefore ownership of others necessarily becomes a specialized activity of a ruling class. Hence, no society which does not have full self-ownership for everyone can enjoy a universal ethic. …

Can we picture a world in which no man is free to take any action whatsoever without prior approval by everyone else in society? Clearly no man would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish. But if a world of zero or near-zero self-ownership spells death for the human race, then any steps in that direction also contravene the law of what is best for man and his life on earth. [Hence, “communism” is contrary to natural law.] (45-6)

We can argue similarly that if people in North America, say, had to wait for the permission of the people in Mongolia to appropriate land, then they’d all have starved or at least never taken any steps toward improving their lot and creating a civilization.

There is a final point of disagreement between me and Cohen. Our author claims that Nozick presupposes the “empirical” fact of capitalism’s superior productivity in order to establish that “if a private property system exists, then the fact that some people own no or little private property in it is not a reason for removing it.” (85) The idea again is that the advanced capitalism began aeons ago with original appropriations compensates all adequately for the disadvantage of the loss of the primordial freedom.

It’s a true, good, and important argument. But here it’s beside the point.

Even in regard to the stronger Lockean proviso, it may be that in AD 3,000, all or most land and even oceans will be privately owned, which will result in the proviso literally to “leave enough and as good” becoming inoperative at that time. But this fact would not invalidate the then existing property titles, which will have been justly traded hundreds of times by that time; nor will it make unjust the original appropriation of parcels of land amidst a mostly wild world by our ancestors in 4,000 BC. Hence, we do not need the argument in favor of keeping private property proposed by Cohen.

If the fact of some people’s owning no property were a reason to “remove” the private property system, Cohen’s job would be easy. For clearly, children are born owning literally nothing; their parents grace them with the gift of care. At best a child may hope someday to inherit his parents’ property. It is perfectly legitimate for a parent to throw a grown child out of the house at a high enough age with nothing but his clothes and tell him to go and fend for himself. But no one takes the existence of children to impugn capitalism. Neither then can the existence of propertyless adults do so.

Self-Ownership Under Capitalism vs. Socialism

The crucial role of Chapter 4 is further to analyze the idea of original joint ownership by the human race of all external goods while admitting self-ownership. Cohen considers an example of joint ownership of some land by “Able” who can work and “Infirm” who cannot and decides that Infirm will likely withhold permission to Able to do anything unless Able agrees at least to keep Infirm alive or even to give him ½ of the fruits of his labor.

We have seen in the previous post how Rothbard disposes of “universal and equal other-ownership,” perhaps whereby each man out of the 7 billion presently living owns 1 / 7 billionth share of ownership in every other man. Nobody out of this multitude will be able to do anything but upon securing universal permission or approval from everyone else. “Clearly no man would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly perish.”

I suggested that the same sort of argument can be deployed against universal and equal world-ownership, too.

Cohen presents a rather similar objection himself. He even admits that joint ownership can be logically extended to human beings themselves. But “the joint ownership element deprives the self-ownership with which it is combined of its intended effect, which is the provision of autonomous self-government. For people can do (virtually) nothing without using parts of the external world. If, then, they require the leave of the community to use it, then, effectively (as opposed to formally, or juridically), they do not own themselves, since they can do nothing without communal authorization.” (93-4) He goes on:

What is the point of my owning myself if I can do nothing without the agreement of others? …

Does not joint world ownership entitle a person to prohibit another’s wholly harmless use of an external resource, such as taking water from a superabundant stream, and is it not, therefore, inconsistent with the most minimal effective self-ownership (and independently indefensible to boot)? …

Self-ownership is not eliminated, but it is rendered useless… (98)

Cohen’s reply is stark in its brazen terseness. You see, a capitalist society also fails to make self-ownership effective. Libertarians and Nozick in particular imagine that “the most abject proletarian — call him Z — who must either sell his labor power to a capitalist or die, enjoys the relevant rights.” In fact, however, Z lacks effective self-ownership, too, because he cannot “do anything without the agreement of the… capitalist”!

Our author concludes:

Either capitalism does not confer consequential self-ownership, since Z’s self-ownership is not robust enough to qualify as such; or, if it does so qualify, then genuine self-ownership allows the enforcement of equality of condition, since Able’s self-ownership is at least as robust as Z’s, and no inequality follows from self-ownership in the Able/Infirm world. (100)

In the first case, we have

“the bare bourgeois freedom which distinguishes the most abject proletarian from a slave”;

in the second, it is

“the more substantive circumstance of control over one’s life.”

This latter Cohen cashes out as “autonomy” which he believes is what self-ownership implicitly promises but fails to deliver, though in a different manner than joint ownership. (101-2)

It is plain that Cohen’s argument depends fully on the truth of the assumption, so far in the book nowhere proven or even elaborated on, that “propertyless proletarians” under capitalism fail to enjoy effective self-ownership. But isn’t it obviously false? Let’s list some basic facts about advanced (and even intermediate) laissez-faire capitalism.

1. Able must literally accede to being robbed by Infirm. But in a capitalist economy there are numerous capitalists who compete with each other for labor, thereby bidding up wages.

2. An individual capitalist, no matter how well endowed with capital goods, too, must buy the proletarians’ labor — as an essential complementary factor of production — or die. Of what use would a capitalist’s factory full of machines be to him without workers?

3. As capital goods become more complex and varied purely from the engineering standpoint, the complementary to them human capital, i.e., workers’ skills at using such capital productively, too, become increasingly more diverse, and division of labor intensifies. As previously unconnected markets unite into a more global economy, this division also becomes more extensive. Capitalism grants to each “proletarian” a massive choice of his vocation, as well as regarding places, wages, and conditions of work.

4. It’s not the case that entrepreneurial profits or interest returns to savers always or even typically exceed income from wages to workers. Rothbard points out further that “above-subsistence living standards depend on the supply of labor being scarcer than the supply of land, and, when that happy situation obtains, considerable land will be ‘sub-marginal’ and therefore idle,” still the case at the present time. (EoL, 64-5n3)

5. There are no legal barriers to entry into any social role: any proletarian can save a part of his income and invest it, becoming a capitalist; or start his own business, becoming an entrepreneur; or develop submarginal land and become a rent-collecting landowner.

6. Finally, let me quote Mises for the decisive coup de grâce:

Modern capitalism is essentially mass production for the needs of the masses. The buyers of the products are by and large the same people who as wage earners cooperate in their manufacturing. (HA, 590)

The outstanding fact about the Industrial Revolution is that it opened an age of mass production for the needs of the masses. The wage earners are no longer people toiling merely for other people’s well-being. They themselves are the main consumers of the products the factories turn out.

Big business depends upon mass consumption. There is, in present-day America, not a single branch of big business that would not cater to the needs of the masses. The very principle of capitalist entrepreneurship is to provide for the common man.

In his capacity as consumer the common man is the sovereign whose buying or abstention from buying decides the fate of entrepreneurial activities. (621)

A Cohenian proletarian then, far from being mostly a slave, is in fact, together with his not-so-disenfranchised brethren, a ruler of the economy. Capitalists serve him.

Armed with this understanding, we can reject Cohen’s claim of the “dire predicament” of his proletarian Z (100n11). It is inexcusable for Cohen to be so economically naive.

Marxism Dies with a Whimper

In Chapter 5, Cohen discusses three “solutions” to inequality, three opinions on how to bring about equality. The first comes from Marx as interpreted by Cohen. Marx, he argues, pinned his hopes for communism on the eventual attainment of “limitless abundance.” He “thought that anything short of an abundance so fluent that it removes all major conflicts of interest would guarantee continued social strife, a ‘struggle for necessities… and all the old filthy business’.” (131-2) Even disutility of labor will disappear when in that absolute perfection labor becomes “life’s prime want.” (126)

First of all, it is unclear to me why limitless abundance entails equality of distribution. Marx’s ideal is “to each according to his needs.” But people’s “needs” differ greatly: some “need” more, others less; some want X, others Y. Without scarcity but given human inequality in personality, interests, virtues, strength of mind and of desires, and so on, “allocations” of goods, i.e., what each man will grab for free for his own pleasure from the infinite supply, will be not only unequal but extremely idiosyncratic.

Second, this solution is self-evidently absurd, because there can be no such thing as limitless abundance for potentially infinite creatures like humans. Cohen quotes from the Soviet textbook Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism to “provide the reader with a taste of what Stalinist faith in the development of the productive forces was like”:

It is necessary:

to prolong man’s life to 150-200 years on average, to wipe out infectious diseases, to reduce non-infectious diseases to a minimum, to conquer old age and fatigue, to learn to restore life in case of untimely, accidental death;

to place at the service of man all the forces of nature, the energy of the sun, the wind, and subterranean heat, to apply atomic energy in industry, transport, and construction, to learn how to store energy and transmit it, without wires to any point;

to predict and render completely harmless natural calamities: floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes;

to produce in factories all the substances known on earth, up to most complex… and also substances unknown in nature: harder than diamonds, more heat-resistant than fire-brick, more refractory than tungsten and osmium, more flexible than silk, and more elastic than rubber;

to evolve new breeds of animals and varieties of plants that grow more swiftly and yield more meat, milk, wool, grain, fruit, fibers, and wood for man’s needs;

to reduce, adapt for the needs of life, and conquer unpromising areas, marshes, mountains, deserts, taiga, tundra, and perhaps even sea bottom;

to learn to control the weather, regulate the wind and heat, … to shift clouds at will, to arrange for rain or clear weather, snow or hot weather.

Cohen comments: “It goes without saying that even after coping with these magnificent and sweeping tasks, science will not have reached the limits of its potentialities. There is no limit, nor can there be any, to the inquiring human mind, to the striving of man to put the forces of nature at his service, to divine all nature’s secrets.” (133n39)

Our author is entirely right that “there is no limit, nor can there be any” to improvement in economic conditions regardless of what has already been achieved. So essential is this fact to the human condition that there will not be literally limitless abundance even in paradise, ever.

But if a “post-scarcity” economy in this world, where “roast pigeons will in some way fly into the mouths of the comrades,” as Mises lampoons it, is a self-contradictory daydream, then Cohen’s first solution is immediately undone.

His second solution, which he seems to dislike, involves the creation of some New Communist Man, who “will become a ‘social individual’ who identifies himself with the interests of other people.” (134) This is “Marx as interpreted by others.”

Cohen senses that “altruism in which people care only about the interests of other people is paradoxical, because there are then no interests for anyone to care about.” (140n56)

Another possibility is some sort of perfect Christian self-forgetful charity, which is not paradoxical at all, in which “the use of any material object, on any occasion, falls, with everyone’s consent, to whomever would appear likely to get the most satisfaction from it.” (143) This one is tricky, but in any case I don’t see how equality is served by it.

The third solution invented and favored by Cohen himself is for people to become motivated by a view of justice in which inequality of distribution is unjust and equality is just, and “voluntarily” pay various taxes designed to promote justice by minimizing inequality:

We should accept that there will always be substantial conflicts of interest, but that people may be able to handle them with mutual forbearance and a sense of justice when they are blessed with material circumstances which are clement, yet not Elysian.

For this to be feasible, people do not have to be zealously just and altruistic, since I am premising an abundance which, while smaller than what I think Marx prophesied, is great enough to ensure that very considerable self-sacrifice for the sake of equality of condition will not be necessary. (135)

Unfortunately, this reveals an even more serious misunderstanding of the human condition, because Cohen now apparently freezes the economy at some arbitrary standard of living that does not even pretend to resemble “limitless abundance.” Cohen gives no thought to the people’s desire for and live possibility of further improvement. Mises, for example, suggests that “the masses will not listen to exhortations to be moderate and contented; it may be that the philosophers who preach such admonitions are laboring under a serious self-delusion. If one tells people that their fathers had it much worse, they answer that they do not know why they should not have it still better.” (Liberalism, 190) Ever since Cohen has become a “green,” he by his own admission no longer believes in everlasting progress, foreseeing only doom and gloom for humanity. Far from abundance, he predicts only diminishing living standards that will take us even below what people enjoyed at the time of his book’s publication in 1995.

Cohen’s vision then is of a miserly, hopeless, dull, often worsening or at best unchanging existence for man, a world in which little of interest happens. Humans are born, live, and die, leaving no trace and making no difference. “Humanity’s uniquely teleological contribution to the universe,” in Salerno’s words, has, in Cohen’s melancholy view, come to an end.

Libertarians vs. Mensheviks vs. Marxists

Chapter 6 levels a devastating critique of two self-contradictions within Marxism.

Marxists claim that workers are exploited under laissez-faire capitalism. Capitalists viciously expropriate and steal workers’ “labor time” in much the same manner in which feudal lords stole the time of their enthralled serfs by forcing them to cultivate the demesne. In that case, the worker is cheated of the full product of his labor. Now this is actually nonsense animated only by a lamentable failure to grasp the nature of the market process and the social function of entrepreneurs. But let’s assume it for the sake of argument. How then can there be a theft by a capitalist of the worker’s sustenance, unless the worker had a moral right to the fruits of his labor and in particular, owned himself? Thus, Marxists must willy-nilly accept the fact of self-ownership and all that it implies.

This has two consequences. First, it breaks apart the political alliance between socialists and welfare state “liberals.” For the taxes extracted from the workers by the state, too, violate self-ownership that the socialists implicitly affirm and denude workers of the full product of their labor. Feudal lords exploit workers (both Marxists and libertarians agree); capitalists exploit workers (only Marxists think so); but also the state exploits workers (as only libertarians hold, but as Marxists, Cohen argues, are led to admit, as well).

There was indeed for a long time a tension between socialists and interventionists; as Mises pointed out,

Marx was opposed to social legislation — social security and so forth…

On the advice of Marx himself and, after his death, of Friedrich Engels, the German Reichstag voted against socialized medicine, social insurance, and labor legislation, calling them frauds to exploit the laboring classes even more than before.

On Cohen’s interpretation of Marx, communism becomes possible only under “limitless abundance.” (As we have seen, there can be no such thing.) Socialism as its lower stage is supposed to develop the “material productive forces” more efficiently and speedily than any other system, until such abundance is generated. (It doesn’t and in its only feasible Cuban-style form in fact kills any and all progress.) Capitalism, though causing impoverishment of the great masses of men while at the same time concentrating wealth in the hands of the very few (lies), should be left in its pure laissez-faire variety so that it could “mature” and be transcended as fast as can be. As a result, government interventionism and welfare-warfare state only delay the communist revolution.

Second, it neatly destroys Marxism’s own exploitation doctrine.

Let e = in any capitalist relationship the worker is unjustly exploited, and let s be the self-ownership thesis. The Marxist’s account of e (his condemnation of the capitalist as a thief) shows that he is committed to s

But the case of the cleanly generated capitalist relationship [via libertarian just original appropriation and just transfers thereupon] shows that s disproves e. So, if e is true, s is true; but, if s is true, e is false.

And that is a reductio ad absurdum of the Marxist claim that propertyless workers are, as such, exploited. (162)

The Mensheviks can apparently reject the self-ownership thesis with less trouble for their own doctrines than the socialists can. Cohen has promised to reject it, too, though toward the end of the book.