Social Justice, Libertarianism

Socialism ≠ Love and Kindness; Capitalism ≠ Greed and Fear

Last year, I presented Why Not Capitalism at two APAs and a few universities. To my surprise and delight, the most common reaction (from my usually left-wing colleagues) was, “Oh, wow, you’re right. A perfectly just society would be anarchist, and would have robust markets and private property in the means of production. Huh, I didn’t expect to agree, but you’re right.”

One professor said, “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Capitalism has a socialist ethos but a capitalist economy.” In some sense, sure, you could say that. But in some sense, no. The problem is that we should avoid treating socialism as if were just equivalent to community spirit and benevolence, or capitalism as if it were just equivalent to greed and status-seeking:

We must be careful not to equate socialism with moral virtue or community spirit. Capitalism and socialism are simply ways of organizing the ownership of property. In capitalism, individuals may own the means of production. In socialism, they may not—the means of production are owned collectively (or by the representative of the collective, such as the State). Socialism is not love or kindness or generosity or oceans of delicious lemonade. Socialism is not equality or community. It’s just a way of distributing the control rights over objects.

Cohen asserts that capitalism runs on greed and fear. Yet Cohen cannot simply assert this as a conceptual claim. Capitalism is not analytically tied to greed and fear. Whether a regime is capitalist or not has nothing to do with people’s motives. A fearless, greedless capitalist society—like the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village—is not, in virtue of its motives, less capitalist than a fearful, greedy capitalist society—like Denmark or Switzerland. A social system is capitalist to the extent that it has private property in the means of production, decisions about the use of property are made by owners rather than by governments or society at large, people may make contracts as they please, legal monopolies and subsidies are absent, and so on.

Cohen and other socialists have a choice here. They can decide to assert that by definition, goddammit!, capitalist societies run on greed, avarice, and fear, and that people in capitalist societies are primarily motivated by self-interest. But, if they do that, it becomes an empirical question whether any market society is also a capitalist society so defined. So, this gets them nothing in the argument. Also, it just seems like bad lexicography. Or, they can decide to say that a system is capitalist to the extent it has markets and robust private property (including robust private control rights) in the means of production. They then leave it open, as an empirical question, whether capitalist so defined encourages or undermines various virtues and vices.

…if Cohen had said, “By ‘capitalism’, I just mean a predatory system of greed and fear,” that would be no stronger a condemnation of market societies than if Adam Smith said, “By ‘socialism’, I just mean a system of bloodthirsty dictators who starve and slaughter peasants.” We cannot just decide to insert evil motivations into the very definition of capitalism in order to argue that capitalism is evil. That would be both bad philosophy and bad lexicography.


Cohen might respond that we can imagine capitalist societies that lack any bad forms of fear or greed and that run on virtue, but real capitalist isn’t like that. He’s right. But this isn’t an available move for him. I can just say that similarly we can imagine socialist societies that lack fear and greed and which run on virtue, but real socialist societies aren’t like that either

Cohen claims that actors in market societies are motivated by greed and fear. He is right; many of them are, at least much of the time. And these motives, as well as a host of other moral failings, lead them to do many horrible things in business, government, and private life.

What are people motivated by in socialist societies? In the USSR, Cuba, or Khmer Rouge Cambodia, were people motivated by love, generosity, and community? No, they were motivated even more strongly under those regimes by base emotions, such as fear, malice, and the lust for power.

Cohen would probably say he is not defending the Bolsheviks or the Khmer Rouge, even if he did mourn the passing of the USSR. When he says agents in a socialist society are motivated by community spirit, he is discussing an imaginary and fictional socialist society. Because Cohen’s camping story is fictional, Cohen can simply stipulate that the characters in his story have whatever motivations he likes.

However, notice again how badly this weakens Cohen’s argument against capitalism. Cohen says that an advantage of socialism over capitalism is the kind of motivations it engenders and relies upon. When Cohen says that agents in capitalist economies are motivated by greed and fear, he is articulating what he takes to be an empirical generalization about real-life, non-ideal capitalism. When Cohen says that agents in socialist economies are motivated by altruism and community spirit, Cohen is not making an empirical claim at all. Instead, he is simply stipulating that the people in his camping trip have good motivations. He is simply stipulating that in his preferred society, people would have nice motives. That’s all he’s got.

Thus, Cohen is not doing social science. He is not helping us discover what motivates people in different regimes. He is not showing us how different regimes change people’s motivations. He is not doing empirical comparative politics. He has not given us any reason whatsover to believe that socialism engenders or relies upon better motivations than capitalism.

If one really wants to know what capitalism does to people, one has to leave the comfort of the philosopher’s armchair and do bona fide social scientific research. And, as I explain in the book, many people–Joseph Henrich, Paul Zak, Herbert Gintis, and many others–have in fact done this kind of research. Contrary to Cohen, the extant research says that markets don’t for the most part make us worse people, but make us better. As it turns out, one of the strongest cultural predictors that people will be generous, kind to strangers, trusting, trustworthy, fair, and tolerant is how market-oriented their society is. People from traditional or non-market-oriented societies are, on average, less virtuous on these measures. As Gintis summarizes, “The notion that the market economy makes people greedy, selfish, and amoral is simply fallacious.”

Cohen deserves a scolding here, and he gets it:

Cohen spent his life arguing about how community and fellow feeling are among the highest values. Yet, he did little to investigate what actually helps promote them.


I define the Cohen Fallacy as the fallacy of trying to conclude that because an ideal version of one social system is superior to a non-ideal version of another, that the first system is unqualifiedly better than the second. I also say Cohen commits what I call the “Other Cohen Fallacy,” which is the fallacy of trying to equate economic regime types with values and virtues (or disvalues and vices). Sharon Krause noticed this problem, too, in an early review of Cohen:

…the fact that most of us intuitively find a camping trip that is rich in generosity, cooperation, unselfishness, and friendship to be appealing in no way demonstrates that we find socialism, as the collective ownership of property, desirable. It just shows that we value these moral dispositions, as indeed we should. [Cohen’s book suffers] from a conceptual ambiguity…with respect to the meaning of socialism. Sometimes socialism is defined in terms of the specific economic practice of collective ownership; at other times, Cohen equates it with…equality and community…and with…generosity, friendship…and unselfishness…Yet nowhere in the book does Cohen demonstrate that collective ownership uniquely realizes these general principles and dispositions, or that it is the only way to honor them.

  • Jameson Graber

    “a fearful, greedy capitalist society—like Denmark or Switzerland”
    I laughed when I saw that.

  • TracyW

    This is fun to watch. I hope, Jason, you’re having fun doing this, it sounds like you are.

    • Jason Brennan

      I’m here to kick ass or* chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of gum.

      *Usually people say “and”. But then it follows that they’ve failed.

      • anomdebus

        Not necessarily. It could just mean that they came, chewed gum and just need to fulfill the last item on the list.

  • Jameson Graber

    It seems like the Other Cohen fallacy is a lot more common than the Cohen fallacy, and it has a lot more severe repercussions. Just think of discussions on the minimum wage, in which anyone against it clearly wants a society in which rich people rule over the poor. Or discussions on education–even reformers on the left are accused of wanting a society run on greed, because somehow charter schools = greed.

    • Bryan C. Winter

      Greed is a meaningless pejorative. No matter your economic system, greed always exists. I’m ok if greedy people are channeled into productive ends like building and selling useful products.

  • James

    I’m not sure anthropologists generally believe markets make us better people. I think they see the pre-civilized world as a paradise (one that ran on credit rather than money, and had community resources, rather than private property). There are other systems possible, as discussed by David Graeber. I’m skeptical that a society w/o the ability to force things at gunpoint would have industry & markets as we know them- it would probably end up being very different.

    I’m optimistic about the future once we see the systems of capitalism/democratic socialism/corporations/politicians finally fall apart. Alternative systems of money & production are interesting. I don’t have much hope for new systems happening in America, but other countries might see great things in the future.

    • Jerome Bigge

      There appear to be three possible ways that an economy can be organized. Individual enterprise, organized group enterprise, or government enterprise. The first is “capitalism” as we know it today. The second is less well known, but can be represented by “Mondragon” in Spain. That is an enterprise operated by its own organized workers. “Worker owned cooperative” appears to be the most common term for this, although “syndicalism” in some definitions also fits. The third, government run and controlled enterprise, generally is considered to be “socialism”. Both Nazism and Fascism (Italy under Mussolini) were effectively “socialism”. As was Soviet Russia under Lenin and Stalin.

      However the meaning of the word “socialism” has changed from what it appears to have meant back in the 19th Century. Going by the writings of Karl Marx and authors such as Jack London (available from Amazon for your Kindle), the meaning back then was more similar to that of the control of the means of production of goods and services by organized groups (in Jack London’s “THE IRON HEEL”) not by “government” as we usually today think of “socialism” as being. Marx considered this an “intermediate” stage between capitalism and the ultimate development of “communism” (universal public ownership as I recall). In both of their economic utopias there would be very little “government” as such, or much need for government.

      The reality has of course been that “socialist” states (Germany, Italy, Russia) were all “violent”, oppressive, with their workers virtual slaves in some cases.

      • James

        I’d like to see more of #2. I think America is too far invested in #1, and we’re likely to slip into a brutal #3 if resource shocks hit hard over the next century.

        I think leaving the US we’ll have a better chance of being part of something beyond capitalism. There are pockets of good things happening here, but I think American stupidity will overwhelm all of that if we hit a major depression. I think the best innovation in the future will come from Europe or Asia, not N. America.

        • Jerome Bigge

          “Right to Work” encourages individualism, not cooperation. Some will do better, but others will do worse. We tend to confuse the idea of libertarianism with “individualism”. In reality it is individuals gathering together that get things done…

  • Bryan C. Winter

    Even the most socialist of European Democracies respect private property in general. In a way the capitalism Vs. Socialism argument is already won. However there is still a grand debate on degree. How much capitalism do you allow?

    I would argue more than we currently do. Whatever is happening in Silicon Valley should be exported to every part of the economy. I would argue that Silicon Valley is just an example of great capitalism, supported by seed research from the goverment, sure, but capitalism did the heavy lifting to scale the thing as big as it has become, and has made the world a much better place at effectively zero cost to the taxpayer since it payed for itself. The cell phone, sold at profit, has done more to help the poor than 50 years of direct aid.

    Many on the left would argue less, but very few make the argument that we should have none. Most on the left are simply distrustful of large corporations. So are we, but markets are a better and more effective way of containing excess, than a goverment that can be purchased through campaign funding.

    Anyone who makes the argument that capitalism has no value, has to at least argue against the lessons of history, and would need to use examples that actually exist. Currently, Capitalism is the only economic system with a track record of actual poverty reduction.

    • Jerome Bigge

      Most of the historical “excesses” of capital were due to an “alliance” between big business and government which created various sorts of legal monopolies where the consumers and the workers ended up the losers. We are still doing this today through restrictions upon what people are “allowed” to do to support themselves. Various sorts of “crony capitalism” where government and big business work together, not to benefit the people, but to earn bigger profits and keep corrupt politicians in office.

  • Addie B

    Great book. I really enjoyed it and was surprised no one tackled the subject sooner.

  • Jeremy McLellan

    Loving this so much. I’m curious how much camping Cohen has done. I grew up in the Boy Scouts and it wasn’t exactly state socialism. Almost all of the supplies were privately owned. The rich kids had nicer tents, which was nice because they got to show them off by sharing, benefiting everyone. We’d meet the Monday before and decide on a basic menu and who would do which chore, but it was all negotiated. Then one person would do the shopping, but richer kids would bring extra food all the time. The few things that were “held in common” were actually just owned by the Scoutmaster and if you broke it you bought it. Most disputes were resolved without supervision. What happened if you didn’t do a chore or reimburse the shopper? Kids would call you a dick, but that was it. Even now when I go camping with friends everything is privately owned and nobody minds sharing because if you own the nicer supplies you just pay less in food.

    • Theresa Klein

      Similar experiences here, camping in large groups. You basically pay for the transportation of common areas like the kitchen and main tent, and maybe a port-o-potty rental. But the kitchen supplies are generally privately owned.
      Food isn’t necessarily shared. Generally only amoung close groups of 5-6 friends. A richer person will often buy extra food and cook a big meal for everyone to share. Tents and sleeping bags are private property and private space. You don’t go into someone else’s tent unless you know they would want you to.
      Same experience in group houses. Food isn’t shared, unless you are really deep in hippie rainbow child territory. An individual may voluntarily cook a big meal to share at his/her own expense. Rooms are different sizes and bigger ones cost more. They all have locks on them.

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    In Markets (I prefer that term over capitalism), Quite the opposite is true. Like the biblical injunction, those who wish to be the greatest must be the servants of others. Henry Ford, Harlan Sanders, and Steve Jobs did not become wealthy giants by being wicked and evil. They did it by creating goods and services of high quality which other people wanted. In the process of serving others they also created jobs, improved markets, and payed taxes. How exactly is socialism more moral than that?

    • Anomaly


      Henry Ford was evil. He made his money in an honest way, but used it to finance an anti-Semitic periodical which Hitler often cited in the 1930s. He also bankrolled copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent book which helped the Russians justify pogroms. My point is not to say that capitalism is evil, but to correct the claim about Ford himself. He was a horrible human being and clearly has blood on his hands.

      • adrianratnapala

        LKN is still correct, Ford might have been wicked and evil, and a wealthy giant. But he did not become a wealthy giant by being wicked and evil. It’s not like any of his cars were actually built on Jewish slave labour.

    • famadeo

      Describing the profit motive as “serving others” is an interesting move (to say the least). I had forgotten that Mother Theresa was wealthy. Even circumscribing acts of “service” to market-value, Van Gogh was a genius who died in poverty.

      Regarding the saintly act of “job creation”, again, not an act of benevolence: those jobs are “created” out of necessity.

      “…those who wish to be the greatest must be the servants of others.” And what is “greatness”? Is success in the market a necessary reflection of virtue? Neither that, nor the fact that Steve Jobs’ were ultimately “servants” is clear.

      “How exactly is socialism more moral than that?” Well, if what you have in mind is the Khmer Rouge, it’s nothing to brag about.

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        Nevertheless, my statement still stands. Only by giving products and services can someone profit in the free market, (as opposed to either theft, or cronyism, both of which are anti-market). If a person makes the lives of people better but did it for a profit, that person may not have the heavenly reward the Mother Theresa gained, but here on earth lives are still better for it.

        • famadeo

          “Only by giving products and services can someone profit in the free market, (as opposed to either theft, or cronyism, both of which are anti-market).”

          “Only..”? Again, this isn’t clear. Or do you mean to ignore the fact that people can and do get rich by embezzlement or fraud?

          Even leaving that aside, it’s still not clear that succeeding “honestly” in the market quells all moral concerns: economic disparities are de facto power disparities. This merits a discussion in it’s own right.

  • Anomaly

    “They then leave it open, as an empirical question, whether capitalism
    so defined encourages or undermines various virtues and vices.”

    Luckily, we have quite a bit of evidence that most markets bolster rather than decrease generosity and trust. Former Marxists like Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles have recognized this, and adjusted their views accordingly.

    Too bad Cohen (and his intellectual kinsman Michael Sandel) never descended from the Ivory Tower to test his claims or read the experimental economics literature.

  • POD person

    Prof. Brennan, in your earlier post on “The Cohen Fallacy,” you claim that Rawls also is guilty of this fallacy. Commenter ‘Ron Jawls’ (heh) suggested that a defence may be open to Rawls, namely, that since institutions shape the dispositions of the people who live within those institutions, his asymmetrical idealizing is not arbitrary. In response, you acknowledged this possible move, but claimed that Rawls would then be guilty of the “Other Cohen Fallacy.”

    Based on what you’ve posted here, though, it is not clear why what Rawls says about property-owning democracy commits the “Other Cohen Fallacy.” Within a POD, there exists markets, private property (including ownership over the means of production), and so forth. So why wouldn’t POD people enjoy the dispositional benefits you mention? (Given the ecumenical definition of ‘capitalism’ you quote above, a POD would be ‘capitalist’ in the relevant ways, as far as I can tell.)

    • Jason Brennan

      There are places where Rawls does commit the Other Cohen Fallacy–he just assumes certain dispositions are built into systems. In other places, he seems to realize it’s an empirical question, but then doesn’t do a proper social scientific investigation, subbing arm-chair speculation instead.

  • Rachel

    See, this is why Jason Brennan is the best BHL. He actually gets to the core of shit. Finally. *explodes*

    • Sean II

      Aye, the good Brennan showed up big this time.

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