Monday, 17 August 2009

GA Cohen and libertarianism

For those of you who don't follow political philosophy, you might not have known that G.A. Cohen, the former Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls, died last Wednesday. There are a whole bunch of tributes and obituaries (many of which are indexed here) floating around the web, but I wanted to write about something a little different, namely, what libertarians can take from his work.

This may initially sound a little strange given that Cohen was, early on at least, a Marxist. Whether or not that was true later on in his life, he remained
a steadfast egalitarian to the end. It might be asked, what can libertarians possibly learn from a guy who disagreed with us about so much? The simple answer is, quite a lot: despite his egalitarianism, Cohen wrote the very fine book Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality. Although it is billed as an attack on libertarianism in general and Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia in particular, I highly recommend it to any libertarian who wants to (as we all should) seek out the strongest counter-arguments to their views.

Anyway, what is particularly interesting in SFE is that it contains Cohen's extended reaction to the principle of self-ownership, which says, in his own words that "
each person enjoys, over himself and his powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that he has not contracted to supply." Most libertarians have heard of, and might even believe in, some principle along these lines - although Nozick only mentioned it once in ASU Cohen is quite right when he says that it plays an essential role in his thought, and Murray Rothbard certainly believed in something of the kind. Cohen's real interest in self-ownership, though, only came about when he realized that something like it is latent in the standard Marxist accounts of exploitation of the working classes: for A to exploit B, B must already be the rightful owner of what is transferred. And so if the capitalists exploit the workers, then it must be in part because the workers are the rightful owners of their own labour - something like self-ownership, in other words.

If justice is a matter of distributing goods according to the Marxist pattern 'from each according to ability, to each according to need,' then workers cannot be entitled to the full value of their own labour, since maintaining that pattern will require taking the product of some workers' labour and giving it to the need. Conversely, if people are entitled to the full value of their own labour, they are entitled to it regardless of whether or not the distribution of holdings in society adheres to the above pattern. But if workers are not entitled to the full product or value of their labour, the Marxist moral concerns about capitalist exploitation lose their force - after all, what are the capitalists doing wrong but unjustly taking the labour of the workers? So a serious Marxist must give up either ' each according to need' or their critique of capitalism as exploitative, because the two are mutually incompatible. Cohen chooses the pattern, but he takes the problem with utmost seriousness - to the extent that he even thinks Marxists should jettison their concern with exploitation altogether (a cynical reader like me might say that this is because he realizes that distribution according to need will be necessarily exploitative; exploitative, that is, of those who produce what is needed and have it taken from them.) This is, needless to say, great fun to know when arguing with any Marxist friends you may have, because it really puts them in a pickle if they haven't thought deeply about it.

So self-ownership seems to preclude any kind of equality: if people, as a matter of moral right, own themselves and their labour, then it is very hard to see how anyone can legitimately enforce material equality. I say 'very hard' rather than 'impossible' because Cohen has several arguments in his book in which he attempts to show that self-ownership is compatible with material equality, mainly by trying to sever the connection between property in one's person and property in the external world (or something like that; I think the arguments are more designed to make trouble for libertarians than to argue for self-ownership together with equality). These arguments, in my opinion, fail. The whole debate gets very pernickety at this point, and I might do a post on it in the future if I have time, but if anyone has read Cohen and is interested in responses Tom Palmer has a good article here, and Eric Mack, who is an excellent philosopher and who, incidentally, will be giving a talk for us here in Oxford on November 18th, has a pair of devastating (to Cohen) and in-depth papers here and here.

This post is getting too long, so I'll stop now. Next time I want to say something about Cohen's argument in his Freedom and Money (have a read in the meantime) which has been very influential and which is, I think, an extraordinarily bad argument. Anyway, that will have to wait!

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