Monday, December 14, 2015

The Dreary Utopia of the Socialists

-David Gordon
Jason Brennan, a remarkably prolific libertarian political philosopher, has a good eye for the essence of an argument. He puts this ability to effective use in Why Not Capitalism? In the book he challenges the defense of socialism in Why Not Socialism? by G.A. Cohen, whom Brennan rightly considers “the leading Marxist philosopher — and one of the leading political philosophers, period — of the past 100 years.”

At first, one might think that arguments in political philosophy over the merits of socialism and capitalism have no importance. If by socialism one means collective ownership or control of the means of production in a large-scale economy, there is nothing to debate. Mises and Hayek showed with the socialist calculation argument that socialist planning “cannot work, even if people were motivated to make it work, because planners do not have a workable substitute for prices.” If socialism cannot work, what is the point of comparing its ethical merits with its capitalist rival? Unless we desire economic chaos, socialism must be rejected and the free market affirmed.

Mises viewed matters in exactly this way. Before his calculation argument, the most effective challenge to socialism appealed to incentives. If people were not allowed to profit from their productive endeavors but were instead subjected to egalitarian imperatives, they would lack motivation to work. Socialism was incompatible with human nature. Mises thought that socialists could answer that the limits of current human nature might be overcome. They could not respond in this way, he thought, to the calculation argument. Once we grasp that socialism is impossible, there is no further room for philosophical discussion.

Cohen recognized the force of the economic argument that socialism cannot work, though he implausibly hoped that future developments in technology might alter the situation. He did not agree, though, that this renders otiose comparison of the ethical merits of socialism and capitalism. We can ask, “If socialism is unrealizable, is this a matter for regret? Is socialism ethically better than capitalism?” Cohen says that it is, and this is what in Why Not Socialism? he endeavors to show. Cohen believes that “even if socialism were infeasible, it would remain intrinsically desirable and the best way for us to live together.”