Why Not Socialism?

I have decided to begin a book recommendation series. Occasionally, I will pick a book I enjoyed — either recently or in the past — and link to it via the sidebar, as well as write a post about it. The first book is Why Not Socialism? by G.A. Cohen.

Cohen begins this very short book (really a long essay) by telling a story about a camping trip. During camping trips, he notes, individuals behave in a very socialist manner. Campers share what they bring with one another, and share equally in the fruits of their labor (e.g. fishing). If anyone were to behave differently in such a circumstance, people would think them a jerk. If, for instance, someone decided to charge the others to use their pan or their ball, nobody would find that even remotely acceptable. If someone was really good at fishing and claimed that they should get the best of the caught fish, similar disgust would follow.

After establishing this hypothetical, Cohen proceeds to use it as an expository tool to probe the desirability and viability of socialism on a larger scale. In Cohen’s view, socialism rests upon two normative principles: equality of opportunity and community. To explain the socialist sense of equality of opportunity, Cohen establishes three different types of equal opportunity: 1) bourgeois equality of opportunity, 2) left-liberal equality of opportunity, and 3) socialist equality of opportunity.

Bourgeois equality of opportunity seeks the elimination of formal and informal status restrictions that affect life chances (e.g. caste positions and race). Left-liberal equality of opportunity takes it one step further, and seeks to eliminate all circumstances of birth that affect life chances, whether they derive from birth status or from the conditions of one’s birth position. So for instance, under left-liberal equality of opportunity, an effort is made to provide extra aid to poor children because of the hardships they face.

Socialist equality of opportunity takes it one last step, and seeks to eliminate all unchosen disadvantages that affect life chances. The net result is that differences between individuals merely reflect differences in taste and choice, not inherent differences in ability, differences in birth privileges, or differences in status. This, Cohen argues, is the most preferable and just approach to equal opportunity.

It has its flaws however. For instance, it can allow for massive inequalities that result from option luck, i.e. totally fair and voluntary money gambles. This failure and others motivate Cohen’s second socialist principle: community. Community has two main elements. The first involves individuals positioning themselves such that they can relate to one another and their experiences. This necessarily prohibits massive amounts of inequality as such inequality would create gulfs in lived experiences that will make individuals unable to relate to one another. The second involves communal reciprocity in which individuals give and serve others, not for the purpose of market exchange, but because others need their help. Cohen believes both elements are essential to socialist morality.

After sketching this picture of socialist moral requirements, Cohen then turns to the more interesting question: viability. Cohen focuses heavily on the economic calculation problem. Popularized by Hayek, the economic calculation problem points out that, in addition to its other functions, market pricing is a massive informational tool. Pricing reflects the aggregate preferences of billions of individuals while also accounting for resource scarcity. Socialism, Hayek argues, has no way of doing the kind of calculating work that market prices do.

Although conceding that such a problem is real, Cohen points to a handful of market socialist systems that keep pricing in place while also achieving the kind of distributions and equality that his system prefers. These market socialist systems are not perfect, but they are, to Cohen, a big improvement.

Throughout the book, Cohen’s clarity, simplicity, and intellectual seriousness shines brightly. As in his other writing, Cohen writes with a very earnest desire for the actual achievement of socialism. As such, he takes on challenges and admits his faults, all while laying out the best case he can for the socialist vision he advocated during his later academic life.