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

The Mythologies of Marxism 

Winter 2000

If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? by G.A. Cohen (Harvard University Press, 2000; xii + 233 pgs.)

Cohen has a great philosophical virtue. He constantly raises major difficulties for the bad ethical and political doctrines that he professes. He is a Marxist of sorts, although there is not much left of that system after Cohen has finished with it.Classical Marxism, Cohen makes clear, argued for egalitarianism and socialism on an entirely different basis from most contemporary advocates of those views. Today, egalitarians like Rawls and Dworkin claim that morality requires their position: a just society would, at the very least, allow much less inequality than now exists in the United States.

Marx's appeal was not to morality, but to self-interest. Capitalism would inevitably develop into a system in which almost everyone was a member of the proletariat. Since workers under capitalism surrender more and more of what they produce to capitalist exploiters, they do not look with favor on the existing economic order. Happily for them, salvation lies at hand. A socialist economic system, in which workers replaced capitalist entrepreneurs, would not only end exploitation. It would also lead to economic abundance. In a socialist economy, "the free development of each would be the condition for the free development of all." This paradisiacal state would ensue not because people had changed their nature and become totally altruistic. Quite the contrary, so much would be produced that no occasion for major conflicts would arise.

Cohen aptly points out a simple fact that topples this entire edifice. "The proletariat did, for a while, grow larger and stronger, but it never became . . . `the immense majority', . . . and it was ultimately reduced and divided by the increasing technological sophistication of the capitalist production process, which had been expected to continue to expand the proletariat's size and augment its power" (p. 104).

Not only was Marx in error about the size of the proletariat, but his mistake had disastrous consequences. Because Marx thought that the collapse of capitalism and its replacement by socialism was inevitable, he spent almost no time thinking about the nature of a socialist order. If socialism was inevitable, such speculation was futile and Utopian.

Cohen terms Marx's line of thought the "obstetric motif." Echoing Mises, Cohen notes that socialists were totally unprepared about what to do after the revolution. "If you think of politics obstetrically, you risk supposing that what Lenin called `the concrete analysis of a concrete situation' will disclose, transparently, what your political intervention must be, so that you do not expect and therefore do not face the uncertainties and hard choices with which a responsible politics must contend" (p. 76).

I would be jumping out of character if I did not inject a note of criticism. Cohen does not ask himself how Marx and his many followers can ever have believed that socialism generates abundance. Mises's calculation argument of course shows that socialism collapses into chaos. But altogether aside from this, the Marxist position is transparently silly.

In Marx's view, "capitalist competition abolishes itself by creating enterprises of implicitly social character in which the capitalist becomes obsolete, so that little but his removal is needed to establish socialism. It is not a great exaggeration to say that, in the view of Marx and Engels, socialism is what capitalism has made of itself, minus the capitalist class" (p. 48).

Here precisely is the silliness. Why should anyone think that replacing capitalists by workers, with the economic system otherwise substantially the same, will dramatically increase productivity? The claim seems entirely arbitrary and based on nothing.

Cohen, to repeat, abandons socialist inevitability. In its place he offers "normative political philosophy." Here once more, his conclusions often can be turned to the advantage of the free-market position.

More specifically, Cohen does not here advance a defense of egalitarianism. Instead, he powerfully argues that egalitarianism demands more from its advocates than is commonly recognized. John Rawls, e.g., has a system that offers equality on the cheap, but Cohen is not buying.

Rawls takes equality of resources as his baseline, from which any deviations must be justified. But such justifications are ready-to-hand. Suppose inequality helps the least well-off class in society. Then Rawls's famous "difference principle" might allow inequality to help the poor through incentives. The talented, able to attain higher-than-average incomes, might generate more resources for redistribution to the needy. (Further discussion may be found in the review elsewhere in this issue of Rawls's The Law of Peoples.)

In Cohen's view, the difference principle, if correctly understood, "implies that justice requires (virtually) unqualified equality itself, as opposed to the `deep inequalities' in initial life chances with which Rawls thinks justice to be consistent" (p. 124).

Cohen anticipates that Rawlsians will reject his argument. Rawls holds that justice is the "first virtue of social institutions," not the sum and substance of morality. The scope of justice is confined to what Rawls terms the "basic structure" of society-its constitution and fundamental legal institutions. Within the confines of the basic structure, individuals who resolutely pursue self-interest do not act unjustly.

Cohen finds unconvincing this sharp dichotomy between basic structure and individual actions. Surely whether a society is just depends in part on how family life takes place within it. If families in a society are rigidly hierarchical, can the society maintain a regime of egalitarian justice?

Our author thinks it cannot. "Family structure is fateful for the benefits and burdens that redound to different people. . . . Yet Rawls must say, on pain of giving up the basic-structure objection, that (legally uncoerced) family structures have no implications for justice . . . since they are not a consequence of the formal coercive order. But that implication of the stated position is perfectly incredible" (p. 139).

The demands of equality press even more insistently than I have so far indicated. Suppose someone believes that justice demands equality of wealth, or at least more equality than now prevails in capitalist economies. Why should he not feel obligated to give away a large share of his own money to the poor? Cohen easily dispatches some excuses not to do so. If it is said that a single person could have only a negligible effect in ending poverty, Cohen draws a distinction. True enough, one person cannot end altogether poverty in a large society. But particular needy individuals can certainly be helped through large donations. Cohen does not unequivocally conclude that rich socialists must divest themselves of most of their wealth; but he shows that those who seek to keep both their money and their egalitarian political convictions have a problem on their hands.

Why should those of us not inclined to egalitarianism care about this? As it seems to me, Cohen has generated an argument that may readily be adapted to the defense of the free market. If professed egalitarians realize the all-embracing character of their principle, will not many of them draw back? Cohen has, by showing where equality leads, provided a reductio ad absurdum of the position he wishes to support.

Our author gives aid and comfort to his ideological enemies on yet another front. In a famous review of Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Thomas Nagel "claimed that there are good grounds for state redistribution of the holdings of those who want to contribute, because a person who is willing and, indeed, eager to contribute through taxation might reasonably be unwilling to give off her own bat" (p. 169).

In brief, you think you should contribute to help the poor but find it too hard to give up your money, when you are free to withhold it. Hence you really want to be coerced. In response, Cohen makes a simple point that was apparently too much for Nagel to fathom: "Nagel appears to ignore the individual's ability to avoid such recurrent difficult voluntary decisions. I can bind my own will, once and for all, or once in a long while, by signing an appropriate banker's order" (p. 171). With enemies like Cohen, our friends can increase their efficiency.


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