Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

A Reluctant Marxist

Spring 1998

G.A. Cohen
Cambridge University Press, 1995, x + 277 pgs.

G.A. Cohen is my favorite Marxist. He takes libertarian-political theory with extreme seriousness, and again and again he makes points devastating to socialism.

As every reader of Murray Rothbard will know, the principle of self-ownership stands at the basis of libertarian thought. Each person is the owner of his or her own body. Combined with a Lockean theory of property, we can at once generate the principles of a free-market order. But even on its own, the self-ownership principle rules out the welfare state. You cannot be compelled to labor for someone else, even if the other person "needs" your labor more than you do.

One might expect a Marxist at once to brush aside self-ownership, but Cohen does not do so. Quite the contrary, he finds self-ownership intuitively plausible: "In my experience, leftists who disparage [Robert] Nozick's essentially unargued affirmation of each person's right over himself lose confidence in their unqualified denial of the thesis of self-ownership when they are asked to consider who has the right to decide what should happen, for example, to their own eyes. They do not immediately agree that, were eye transplants easy to achieve, it would then be acceptable for the state to conscript potential eye donors into a lottery whose losers must yield an eye to beneficiaries who would otherwise not be one-eyed but blind" (p. 70).

As Cohen rightly notes, your right to your own body outweighs commonly used socialist principles that mandate redistribution. You are entitled to keep your eyes even if the fact that you have two working eyes is a matter of genetic luck and even if a blind person "needs" an eye more than you do. (You could still see with one eye but he cannot see at all.)

I hasten to add that while I am happy to accuse socialists of nearly anything bad, I do not contend that they in fact support the eye-transplant scheme. The case is intended merely to illustrate the strength of self-ownership. Incidentally, one English moral philosopher, John Harris, does support a compulsory organ lottery, but I do not know whether he is a socialist. (I'll bet he is, though.) There is no proposition so absurd that some philosopher has not advocated it.

Cohen must now confront a dilemma. He finds self-ownership prima facie plausible. But self-ownership leads to libertarianism; must he not then abandon his Marxism? Cohen is not prepared to take this heroic course. True, he recants much of socialism; but he is at most a neo-recantian. What then is he to do?

Two courses of action suggest themselves. He might admit self-ownership, but deny that it leads to free-market capitalism. Alternatively, he might claim that, in spite of its surface plausibility, self-ownership ought to be rejected. It is the latter tactic that he adopts: he readily acknowledges that self-ownership negates socialism.

One of the arguments he deploys against self-ownership is pitifully weak. He asks us to imagine that everyone is born with empty eye sockets. The state implants two eyes in everyone at birth, using an eye bank it owns. If someone lost both eyes, would we not oppose an eye lottery to remove forcibly one eye from a sighted person to help the blind person? But in the example the state owns all the eyes. Cohen concludes that our real objection to an eye lottery in the actual world is not that it violates self-ownership but that people have a right to bodily integrity.

The "suggestion arises that our resistance to a lottery for natural eyes shows not belief in self-ownership but hostility to severe interference in someones's life. For the state need never vest ownership of the eyes in persons" (p. 244).

A defender of self-ownership can readily acknowledge that it would be wrong to remove someone's eyes in Cohen's science-fiction case. All he needs to preserve his principle is that the fact that you own your eyes adds to the moral badness of making you enter the eye lottery. And what is the matter with that?

Bodily integrity and self-ownership supplement each other: they do not compete for our allegiance, as Cohen seems to think.

But why then is Cohen so anxious to give up self-ownership, a principle he has acknowledged seems plausible? He has no more to offer than the usual Rawlsian pabulum. It is "unfair" that, owing to genetic "luck" and other circumstances that people do not "deserve," some are in a position to do vastly better than others. Why should one assume without argument that people ought to have an equal chance at success? It is ironic that Robert Nozick is standardly criticized by leftist political philosophers for assuming libertarian rights without argument, yet they themselves never offer an argument for their egalitarian principles. (Libertarians who do argue for self-ownership, e.g., Murray Rothbard, are largely ignored by the mainstream.)

If self-ownership survives Cohen's half-hearted assault, the free market is not yet out of the woods. Cohen has another argument against libertarians, this one directed at Lockean theories of property acquisition. (I omit discussion of Cohen's objections that apply only to Nozick's theory. Unfortunately, Cohen selects Nozick as his standard libertarian.) According to the Lockean theory, individual self-owners may, by mixing their labor with unowned property, come to acquire it.

Cohen maintains that this theory fails by itself to support property rights in land. It is, as it stands, incomplete. For the justification of property rights to be successful, an additional premise is needed. The premise in question is that land is initially unowned. If everyone starts off with rights to an equal share of the earth's surface and resources, the Lockean theory has nothing on which to operate.

We may grant Cohen his point, but it avails him nothing. Why should we assume that people begin with property rights of the kind he wants? He gives no argument that they do; and the assumption that property is at the start unowned strikes me as eminently plausible.

Cohen, of course, dissents. But what happens if we grant him his assumption of an equal initial division of the earth's surface? The upshot, as our author recognizes full well, would not be socialism but a variety of libertarianism. Since the people with the initial endowments are by hypothesis self-owners, they would be free to carry on whatever "capitalist acts between consenting adults" they wished. Hillel Steiner, a British political philosopher much esteemed by Cohen, has devised a quasi-libertarian system of precisely this kind; and Cohen says nothing against it.

I have so far left unsupported a claim that Cohen advanced earlier. What are the devastating admissions about socialism that he makes? One example must here suffice. The leading leftist justification for "social democracy" is of course John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. And the socialist aspect of the theory is the famous "difference principle," by which inequalities are justified if and only if they are to the advantage of the least well-off group in society.

Even some who reject Rawls's theory think there is a good deal to be said in favor of the difference principle. After all, consider someone devastated by congenital illness. Do we not feel some impulse to help him, even if, as good classical liberals, we deny him a right to aid?

Cohen is one of the few writers on Rawls to appreciate a point that Rawls himself makes no effort to conceal. The difference principle does not apply to unfortunates of the sort just mentioned! "[T]hose who indeed are 'unfortunate and unlucky,' are simply not part of the Rawlsian game. . . . The principles of [Rawlsian] justice, being principles for dividing the benefits of cooperation, do not apply to them" (p. 224). Cohen has with this simple observation destroyed the initial moral appeal of the difference principle. Can a writer of Cohen's perspicuity continue wearing his Marxist blinders indefinitely? Time will tell.


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