2nd-, 1st-Order Desires, and the Market

2nd-order desires determine what kind of person one wants to be. A typical 1st-order preference is between chocolate and vanilla ice-cream. But when one thinks, "Liking ice-cream is not manly. I am just not the sort of guy who has any interest in ice-cream," he is expressing a 2nd-order desire. He is contemplating not what he wants but what he wants to want: "I like ice-cream, but it's a nasty temptation; I'll purge the desire for it from my soul."

This distinction is crucial to understanding the so-called "dependence effect" or the idea that our wants are determined by society.

In the paper linked to, Hayek points out that while all entrepreneurs collectively determine the maximum extent of the choices for all consumers collectively, no individual entrepreneur can compel any individual consumer to buy his product.

But there is a deeper issue here.

A company can cater to men whose self-image is either "strong rugged individualists" or "effeminate milk drinkers" (including those men who are not yet but are trying to become those types of people). These personal identities will generate the requisite first-order desires. The company can, upon guessing or predicting people's self-images and deciding on their target demographics, seek to inflame or stimulate those 1st-order desires, such as through marketing and advertising and even affirmations of the identity.

But it is a losing strategy for a company to try to change self-proclaimed tough individualists into weak milk drinkers as a precondition to selling them their product. An attempt to inflame 2nd-order desires will be perceived by the consumers as a threat to their very identity. They will not take this assault kindly and will reject it with contempt and disgust.

Raging Against Man

Unless people accept his egalitarian ethos, Cohen writes, "how can they, without a redolence of hypocrisy, celebrate the full realization of their natures as moral persons when they know they are out for the most they can get in the market"? (131)

In this single sentence, Cohen shows himself a depraved man in 4 different ways.

First, he attacks human nature. Man acts is the first axiom of economics and a self-evident first principle. A human being can't help seeking his happiness, "in the market" or anywhere else. He is not a robot to labor tirelessly for the commune.

Second, a man is not a Homo economicus. The motives of his actions need not be to obtain "the most he can get in the market," as if he is "greedy" or some such slander. It is a fact that the vast majority of people "prefer life to death, health to sickness, nourishment to starvation, abundance to poverty." (HA, 154) But the actual ends they seek are enormously varied, and life, health, etc. can be and are sacrificed every day for other ends.

Third, Cohen assumes that only an egalitarian is a "moral person." I personally think an egalitarian is a disgusting freak, a moral monster, even a madman. What a dreary existence it must be to constantly measure oneself against others, repress one's own desires, and restrain one's efforts in order to not be in any way better than they!

Fourth, Cohen thinks that morality is the be-all and end-all of life. Far from it. Moral law justifies one's relations with other humans and helps to build one's personality. But once man has been purified, he is freed and told: "Do as you will; enjoy yourself; have fun; have as much fun as you want, in fact, even if it's far more intense than the feelings of other people."

I am starting to dislike Cohen thoroughly.

The Difference Principle Reimagined

In Ch. 3 Cohen continues to push the idea of Rawlsian ethics as personal morality.

The difference principle (DP) states that deviations from original equality are permitted if they improve the conditions of the worst-off. But if inequality is thus justified, then so is equality. We may assume that in society D2 the more talented earn higher incomes. Why then shouldn't these high flyers donate all their money to the government to be distributed equally to all, thus bringing about D3? Surely, this would help the worse-off even more.

An objection crops up. If the market is destroyed, then how will we know which jobs are more urgently in demand than others? Without market prices for labor, what shall signal job-seekers to allocate scarce labor to its most important uses? Cohen has a ready reply. The nominal wages will remain at their laissez-faire levels, but everything above the amount due equally to all will be taxed away. Thus, Smith may contract to receive 50K per year, Jones, 80K, and Robinson, 110K. In fact, all three will receive only 20K after taxes. Cohen dares to suggest that "that way of achieving equality seeks to preserve the information function of the market while extinguishing its motivational function." (122n) Well, the market is not a game. It doesn't work this way. Again, people act for ends. They work to achieve specific goals in their consumption during their leisure. In their striving, they will ignore completely the nominal wage and look solely at the real wage. Then there is the point of view of the business firm. Why would it offer higher nominal wages if all real wages must be identical? What does it gain by doing that other than an unpaid government-imposed duty to withhold taxes from its employees' paychecks?

Still, a libertarian might not be able to condemn a society in which the economic regime was laissez-faire capitalism, but where many people voluntarily donated or tithed a large percentage of their wages to the "minimal" government that then distributed the cash so as to equalize as much as possible incomes. Such a society seems implausible, however.

It seems that Cohen has proven too much. If the Rawlsian DP, after Cohen is through with it, does after all require complete equality and with it, complete economic and social collapse, then it must be either jettisoned entirely or seriously reworked. But I have felt that the DP does state an important truth. Let's see therefore how it can be fixed.

The original and primordial question is, under which system of economic organization are human pursuits of happiness harmonious at least in the longer run? In particular:

  1. How shall an individual find a place in the economic order and "integrate himself into the totality of society," in Mises' phrase, where he can render the most valuable service to society?

  2. How to ensure that society, in turn, shall serve each individual increasingly better with time? How to enable and promote economic improvement and creative advance?

  3. How can humans, each with his unique life and plans, avoid getting into each other's way as they seek their own pleasures?

  4. How to coordinate human productive activities and labors to ensure that within all factories, farms, etc. all novel projects commence only when the complementary factors of production are found and cheerfully snap into place?

It turns out that the answer to all these questions is the same: implement laissez-faire capitalism. It's not "inequalities" that "should be permitted if they improve the welfare of the worst-off"; rather, freedom to pursue happiness is granted to all if it tends to be in the interest of society as a whole, of the "masses," with the free individual himself being squarely part of society, such that his welfare counts, too. Call this the freedom principle, FP. It is indeed true that such freedom does not guarantee success in this pursuit. Some people will fail to reach their goals; others will succeed; different people will succeed differently. Considerable inequality will obtain thereupon. But it's not our focus of concern.

Sufficiently deeply anti-social acts -- murder, theft, and so on, are obviously to be repressed. But the liberty to improve one's own life does not entail any duty of the more talented to sacrifice for the sake of the worst-off. Unhampered capitalism does not suffer from the Cohenian absurdity whereby the best sort of folks that humanity has to offer, who are already spectacularly serving the people via the free market, are allegedly "morally" commanded to give away their wealth or income.

It may be that one reads Mt 19:21, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me," and, through grace, becomes firmly convinced that this is his vocation. But there is no natural duty to do this.

We show respect to the human nature by allowing people to seek their self-interest but structure the legal system so as to harmonize and coordinate this search. Perhaps we ought to thank God for designing us capable of social cooperation. There is no overarching end to aid only the worst-off at all costs, including by brainwashing people into imagining themselves "just" for slaving away for the sake of the poor. The standard of living of the general public does improve continuously and quickly under laissez faire, but no inappropriate and scandalous sacrifices are required of the more gifted individuals.

We can see that the DP and FP are identical in their first part: the welfare of the masses (which should be the same as Rawls' worst-off if he is to make sense) is our desideratum. But DP does, and FP does not, entail a perverse second part, namely, that the economic elite are to labor altruistically for the sake of the community. And this is a distinct advantage of FP.

Cohen thinks that elimination of inequalities can be "willed." If only the more talented were more "moral" in their "daily lives"! I condemn Cohen as morally perverse, and the difference principle as outlined by Rawls as badly thought out.

Cohen’s Straw Man Libertarian

Cohen considers a "libertarian" who "supports laissez-faire because he believes in equality of opportunity, and he believes in the latter because he thinks it unfair for people's progress to be differentially impeded and promoted by restrictions and advantages for which they are in no way responsible." He then dismisses him as not "a very clear thinker."

Fortunately, he recognizes this creature to be "statistically rare." (92)

For libertarians do not, like writers of self-help books, stress individual progress: they rather celebrate social progress and individual rights.

The churning of the social hierarchy, such that an individual is faced with mobility, both upward and downward, is scarcely important, other than as a tool of social progress. If out of two men, one must be the boss, and the other, the fool, does it really matter who is who?

What matters is that each man acquires that position in which he can serve society the best, be it indeed the position of manager or the technician.

Individual rights are intimately connected with this vision of a successful society in this way: each person is free to plot and plan, wheel and deal, build and trade, labor and direct production as per the principles of laissez-faire capitalism in order to find such a position.

Thus, Mises points out: "We attack involuntary servitude, not in spite of the fact that it is advantageous to the 'masters,' but because we are convinced that, in the last analysis, it hurts the interests of all members of human society, including the 'masters.'" (Liberalism, 22)

Equality and the Two Positions

Cohen might try to salvage his argument by saying that D1 is the original position, while D3 is an actual society. In that case, my charge that Cohen has proven too much by creating a perpetual motion machine that would forever improve the economy cannot be sustained.

This move, however, creates a different problem. That equality is preferable to inequality in D1 with its "disembodied somnambulists" does not entail that it is also preferable in D3 with actual people.

The Essence of the Economy

In considering his moves from D1 through D2 to D3, Cohen in a childlike manner asks: "at what level is the equality of income and wealth in D1 pitched, and why is it not postulated to be higher, or lower, than whatever that level is?" (99)

An excellent question. In being so caught up with improving society by magically getting from D1 to D3, Cohen fails to ask how an economy actually grows in the first place.

It turns out, through capitalist saving and entrepreneurial profit-seeking endeavors of investing the money saved into longer and more roundabout methods of production.

Discoveries of new technologies play a crucial role, as well.

This dynamics is destroyed when Cohen's egalitarian vision is implemented. The answer to his question then is that the level of economic development in his "D1" is entirely arbitrary, i.e., can be assumed to be anything, for Cohen's own disreputable purposes; and this level in the actual society has been achieved entirely via capitalism and permission to people to earn unequal income and to accumulate unequal wealth.

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."

How to Destroy the State?

I mean specifically the imperial "federal" government?

Who Is the Worst-off?, 3

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?

A Note on Socialist 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 Amazon.com 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.

Inequalities and 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.

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.

Political and Personal

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.

Workers and Looters

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.

Two Kinds of Incentives

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.

Cohen’s “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.

The Non-Egalitarian 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.

A Flaw in the Original Position

From the fact that resources ought to be distributed, before the application of the difference principle, equally in the original position it does not follow that they ought to be distributed equally also in the actual real-world position.

If it did follow, then why use this highly abstract device at all? Rawls should have been able to prove that equality of distribution should prevail in actual human societies without resorting to the artifice of the original position.

Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality

I read it first in 2008 and made notes. I will be rereading it again now starting tomorrow, but I've been putting if off for a couple of days, because the poison he writes depresses me.

Equality with Angels Is Promised to the Saints

So says St. Thomas on a number of occasions. But certainly not equality in nature; the angelic nature will remain superior to the human nature.

Could it be equality of dignity or importance in the eyes of God? But we have this equality even now. The good angels serve us as the condition of their beatitude; the evil angels suffer defeat at our hands, and so must acknowledge our greatness.

Further, if Mary is the queen of heaven, then she is above the angels, as well. I think the equality spoken of is of ultimate happiness. It will be impossible to predict, by picking an arbitrary angel and arbitrary human saint, who will be happier. Some angels will be happier than some saints; but some saints will also be happier than some angels. If there is a "hierarchy of happiness," then both angels and humans will be interspersed within it.

Another possibility is that equality refers to the good possessed by each, which is God, though the capacity of enjoying Him will be unequal for all creatures.