Why not Socialism? Well, mostly because it’s morally problematic

The new great blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians poses an interesting question which comes from G.A. Cohen’s Why not Socialism?:

…imagine a camping trip among friends.  Food and goods are shared freely.  Everyone abides by (purportedly) socialist principles of community and equality. Everyone does his part. No one takes advantage of anyone else. No one free rides. Everyone contributes. Everyone shares.

After a while, people begin to act like capitalists (as Cohen understands realistic capitalistic behavior). Harry demands extra food because he is especially good at fishing. Sylvia demands payment when she finds a good fishing spot. Leslie demands payment for her special knowledge of how to crack nuts. Harry, Sylvia, and Leslie refuse to share without extra payment. Morgan, whose father left him a well-stocked pond 30 years ago, gloats over having better food than the others.

Cohen concludes that the camping trip was better when the campers acted like socialists.  When the campers act like capitalists, the trip becomes stifling and repulsive.

The question then is, should society ideally conform itself along the lines of the first, socialist camping trip? Ignoring concerns about the realism of society being able to be organized in this way, is this some kind of dream which we could hope for?

Let’s take that camping trip, where everyone shares. Scale it up – up to 100,000 people. Now, if we want a society in which everyone shares fairly, we will have to develop a mechanism to tell people where and how to contribute. We’ll have to tell them how much to make, and how to make it. But luckily, in this scenario everyone is totally good and only desires to be optimally charitable. Everyone knows precisely how to maximize their own production for the good of others, and how to distribute it. By the end of the day we have a perfect society of perfect people spiraling onwards and upwards in a beautiful…

Wait a second. Let’s reel our conditions back just a teensy bit into reality. Let’s say we know how to distribute everything perfectly, but people aren’t totally perfect. They want some stuff for themselves, and sometimes they want to work in fields which aren’t socially optimal. If there are a sizable number of these people — and hell, I know a few — then suddenly to make this society work we need to start forcing people to do things. We need to force people into the best of all jobs for them and society; we need to force them to hand over their property for the greater good. So if we have perfect information, we can make this work — but only by forcing individuals against their will into optimal jobs.

Now, both of these scenarios seem problematic. Under some conceptions of morality, for an action to be good, it must be a choice: there must have been a legitimate alternative, which could have been chosen by the actor. Both of these situations fail that test. In the first, the people are unerringly good: they appear to have no choice in the matter. And if they do have a choice, and might ever deviate from this perfection, than the second situation arises and we must force people against their will to reach a situation like that campfire, where everyone shares. Do we really want a society in which all forms of morality are enforced by law? Do we believe that in a world without choice morality has much meaning?

Socialism, even under ideal theoretical conditions, runs into serious moral problems. Either by populating the world with amoral automatons or enforcing all ethical decisions by force, socialism removes choice — and with it, the morally necessary capacity to err.

(and let’s not forget the slight practical issues with socialism.)

Photo: The Third State

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2 Responses to Why not Socialism? Well, mostly because it’s morally problematic

  1. erik huber says:

    First, what do you mean by socialism? Take a democracy in which a socialist party enjoys a plurality – the people have expressed a desire for the kind of cooperation which can only happen on a national scale. They decide that the group should invest for Harry, who is good at fishing but hasn’t the capital for the best pole, so that he can bring in more fish – he can sell them if he wants, but because he’s bringing in more of them (and of course there will be two or more Harrys in a community of 100k), he will sell them more cheaply, and the society recoups its investment.

    Sally is older and has less to contribute than the others, but if she doesn’t get decent, orthopedically enhanced boots, everybody is going to have to eventually help carry her, unless they are willing to just leave her behind to die, and we’re talking about a “moral” society here. So they buy boots for those who need them, because it’s the right thing to do, and is ultimately mutually beneficial.

    Legislating morality or equality is not necessarily the definition of socialism. Believing that it is sometimes in our best interest, as a group, to own certain assets mutually, is. As we have seen, the label is very convenient in this country because it can apply to almost everything, including fire departments (but curiously not armies, one of our very heaviest public expenditures), but once applied, that person or practice is allegedly foolish and sinister. The original socialists, Fourier, Owen, et al, believed in a voluntary cooperative, which the camping trip you originally cited might well have been. Imagine four rabbis go on a trip, and entrust to one rabbi all of their cash, and tell him to go ahead and select hotels and rent rooms, arrange bus travel, etc.. Along the way, the rabbis will work and collect funds, but agree to pool them. Is this a pernicious experiment?

  2. Morton says:

    A couple points:
    1. Is all that’s meant for socialism that it can be in our self interest as a group to mutually own things? If that’s true than everyone from JS Mill to FA Hayek are socialists because they believed in public goods (such as lighthouses, bridges, even armies). I was here looking a socialism in which everyone is pooling their resources to try to reach a type of equivalence in society, which seems to be what Cohen is talking about here.
    2. Of course, voluntary cooperatives I don’t have a problem with, as long as they’re truly cooperative. But that’s a little easy, isn’t it? Yes, if 4 rabbis (or even non-rabbis!) want to all work together that seems dandy. But clearly, socialism wants to extend to a situation in which, as you say, a plurality of the country can force everyone to cooperate. At that point, we’re dealing with a radically different situation, one in which a group of people can force other people, who are not voluntarily part of this cooperative, to pay for Harry and Sally’s situations. How do we know that these people don’t have just as pressing needs? How do we know that if Harry wasn’t guaranteed a good fishing pole he might not be incentivized to work longer hours, or innovate entirely? To be honest, I think taxation is completely necessary, and I’d even advocate for a somewhat active government in some respects. But the cooperative is a pretty shoddy justification for it. I didn’t suggest that this camping trip was pernicious, but rather that on a societal scale it faces not only practical barriers but moral barriers.
    3. One more thing about the rabbi experiment. If all the rabbis are pooling their incomes, there’s a chance that this creates some pretty poor incentives. If you doubt me, check out how the NBA’s revenue sharing has lead to its financial woes (http://www.welcometoloudcity.com/2011/1/21/1944301/nba-franchises-revenue-sharing-and-what-the-league-could-learn-from).

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