The Cursed “Ethos”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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