Here's Why Not

From Herb Gintis' excellent review of the lately-departed G.A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism?:

Cohen argues that markets are morally offensive institutions that most people would be happy to get rid of if they could figure out some alternative compatible with the standard of living we are accustomed to in advanced market societies. “The market” says Cohen, “is intrinsically repugnant…Every market, even a socialist market, is a system of predation.” (pp. 78,82)
In place of the market, Cohen celebrates the caring and voluntary mutual aid that occurs in small groups of friends (he never mentions family), and believes this can be extended to a community of strangers as well. He calls this “communal reciprocity.” (p. 39)
Rather than lamenting the incompatibility of socialist community and human nature, Cohen faults our meager social technology; there is simply no known machinery for harnessing natural human generosity. He calls this an “insoluble organizational design problem.” “In my view,” he remarks, “the principal problem that faces the socialist ideal is that we do not know how to design the machinery that would make it run.” (p. 55)
I think there are two problems with Cohen's argument. First, there is a reason why we lack the organizational institutions that harness human generosity, and it has to do with a side of human nature that Cohen does not recognize. There is a great deal of heterogeneity among people in the degree to which they privilege the personal, including self and family, over the social. Everyday observation, reinforced by a huge body of empirical evidence—see my book, Bounds of Reason (Princeton, 2009) for details—that unless there are safeguards against the free-rider tendencies of the selfish, the natural tendency for the majority to cooperate will be undermined, and cooperation will unravel. Moreover, the larger the group, the harder it is to identify and punish the free-riders, even though most people are willing to incur personal costs to do so. Markets work because they discipline firms, who then discipline workers, thus solving the free-rider problem. Moreover, markets discipline firms by forcing them to compete and therefore reveal to the public exactly what are the limits of the possible in satisfying consumer needs and using technology efficiently. The knowledge of production possibilities unleashed through market competition cannot be revealed in any other way that we know of.

Gintis' second problem is another good reason also why not.
I've read a good number of Cohen's papers and books. I've always enjoyed them, and I've always come away feeling he has clarified for me the contours of the debate. The great thing about Cohen was how transparently and unabashedly he angled for the result he wanted to get. But he wasn't one to pack the conclusion into his premises, so when he would land short of his longed-for conclusion, you could be pretty certain that's as close as you can get with those particular premises. And you could be pretty sure that if there were some other premises out there both more plausible and more amenable to producing the wanted result, he would have found them and started from there. For many years Cohen was to Anglophone analytic political philosophy something like Ted Kennedy was to American politics: he marked the outer bound of the reasonable left. I think now that contemporary political philosophers have begun to lose their “studied ignorance of standard social and psychological theory, common among philosophers of the mid-Twentieth century,” as Gintis puts it, the bounds are shifting, leaving Cohen's views well past the edge of a receding tide.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center