…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.
Photo: The Third State