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.