Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 112, Issue 2, pp 271–281

Is Market Society Intrinsically Repugnant?


    • McDonough School of BusinessGeorgetown University

DOI: 10.1007/s10551-012-1248-z

Cite this article as:
Brennan, J. J Bus Ethics (2013) 112: 271. doi:10.1007/s10551-012-1248-z


In Why Not Socialism?, G. A. Cohen argues that market society and capitalism are intrinsically repugnant. He asks us to imagine an ideal camping trip, which becomes increasing repugnant as it shifts from living by socialist to capitalist principles. In this paper, I expose the limits of this style of argument by making a parallel argument, which shows how an ideal anarchist camping trip becomes increasingly repugnant as the campsite turns from anarchism to democracy. When we see why this style of argument fails to generate interesting objections to democracy, we then see why it also fails to generate interesting objections to market society.


G. A. CohenCapitalismSocialismGreedCommunity


In Why Not Socialism?, G. A. Cohen—one of the most important and influential political philosophers of the past quarter century—argues that socialism is intrinsically desirable, and that capitalism and market societies are intrinsically repugnant. Business ethics, broadly understood, concerns not merely the more narrow issues of corporate social responsibility and managerial ethics, but also important questions about the morality of a commercial economic regime in itself. Business ethicists need to grapple with Cohen’s argument.

Though Cohen is a Marxist, he concedes that market economies seem to deliver the goods. Inhabitants of liberal, market economies tend to be happier, healthier, and wealthier than members of other societies. Even by socialist standards, market-based societies have consistently been more just than the alternatives we have tried.1 Still, Cohen thinks, if only we were smarter and more altruistic, we would want to dispense with market institutions altogether. If so, what does that tell about these institutions?

Cohen thinks market institutions and practices are intrinsically undesirable. We put up with them, and should put up with them, only because we are too dumb and morally corrupt to do better.

In this paper, I extend Cohen’s style of argument to criticize democracy and argue on behalf of anarchism. My first task is to show that whatever grounds Cohen provides for lamenting and disliking capitalism, the same kind of argument provides at least equally strong grounds for lamenting and disliking democracy. Democracy and markets are in the same boat. Social democrats may be tempted to read Cohen’s work as vindicating a belief many of them hold: good democracies tolerate markets only because they have to. But Cohen’s kind of criticism works against democracy as strongly as it works against markets. If so, and if Cohen is right, then good democracies tolerate democracy only because they have to. If Cohen’s argument succeeds in showing that capitalism is intrinsically repugnant, then it also shows that democracy is intrinsically repugnant.

My goal in extending Cohen’s argument is not to criticize democracy. Rather, it is to expose the central weakness in the kind of argument Cohen makes. The kind of argument Cohen against markets can be extended to criticize many, perhaps even most, of the most valuable institutions we imperfect people live under. I use democracy to illustrate this because democracy enjoys widespread support, often bordering on reverence, among business ethicists, political philosophers, and political theorists. I expect that when these theorists see Cohen’s objection extended against democracy, they will be underwhelmed. When we see why a Cohen-style argument against democracy is underwhelming, we can then see why the same argument against market-based societies is also underwhelming.

In “The Socialist Camping Trip” section, I outline Cohen’s argument from Why Not Socialism? I then present what I take to be a compelling preliminary case for (what I call) non-coercive anarchism.2 I will describe a context, called “the anarchist camping trip”, in which most people would favor an anarchist form of cooperation over the democratic alternative. “The Ideals Realized on the Anarchist Camping Trip” section describes the principles that are realized on the camping trip, principles whose realization make the trip attractive as described. In “Is the Ideal Desirable?” section, I ask whether these principles would also make (society-wide) anarchism desirable. Finally, in “So, Why Not Anarchism or Socialism?” section, I discuss the upshot of this exercise. I explain why democrats will not be impressed by my argument, and why, for similar reasons, capitalists need not be impressed by Cohen’s argument. Cohen has not really given us any new reasons to favor socialism. He has not shown us that ideal socialism is better than ideal capitalism, or that real socialism is better than real capitalism. At best, he has shown us that ideal socialism is better than real capitalism (a thesis that, if true, is underwhelming).

The Socialist Camping Trip

Cohen’s book proceeds as follows. First, he has us imagine a camping trip among friends. Everyone wants everyone to have a great time. Food and goods are shared freely. Everyone abides by (purportedly socialist) principles of community and equality.

After a while, people begin to act in ways that Cohen believes are characteristic of capitalism. Harry demands extra food because he is especially good at fishing. Sylvia demands payment when she finds a good fishing spot. Leslie demands payment for her special knowledge of how to crack nuts. Morgan, whose father left him a well-stocked pond 30 years ago, gloats over having better food than the others.

Cohen concludes that the camping trip was better when the campers acted like socialists. When the campers started acting like capitalists, the trip became stifling and repulsive.3

Cohen then articulates the moral principles underlying the socialist camping trip. (He does not defend these principles at length or attempt to show they are preferable to other possible principles.) The principle of socialist equality of opportunity eliminates all inequalities resulting from undeserved disadvantages or advantages. This principle allows significant inequalities if such inequalities arise the right way. However, the campers also abide by a principle of community. The campers care about one another, and care that they care about one another. Cohen argues that as a result, the campers will not tolerate certain inequalities that socialist equality of opportunity would otherwise permit.4

Cohen then argues that large-scale societies would be morally better if they were like the socialist camping trip. If we could figure out how to make societies run like the socialist camping trip, we would rejoice. We tolerate capitalism only because we think we must. Perhaps, given our moral and cognitive failings, capitalism delivers the goods. But socialism would be the preferred system if only human beings were morally better. On Cohen’s view, capitalism promotes the common good by relying upon greed, fear, and people’s limited knowledge. Socialism, he says, would rely upon generosity, community, and wisdom.

Cohen says there are two main questions about socialism. First, is it intrinsically desirable? He thinks it clearly is. Second, is it feasible? Here, he is less certain. He thinks it might be feasible, but is unsure. He is not convinced that people are too immoral or too dumb to make socialism work.

When people claim socialism is infeasible, they cite two different kinds of reasons. First, they might hold that socialism requires better moral character than people are likely (or perhaps even able) to have. For instance, the USSR was a disaster in part because its institutions created bad incentives and attracted power-hungry people. (Of course, if people were morally better, they would not respond badly to bad incentives.) It also failed to motivate people to work hard. Second, many economists argue that socialism is infeasible because people lack the information they need to make it work. The “Calculation Problem” or “Knowledge Problem” holds that in large-scale societies, it is impossible to make good economic calculations without market prices or a good substitute. Market prices convey information about the relative scarcity of a good in light of the effective demand for that good. Market prices provide a simple vehicle for producers and consumers to adjust their behavior to scarcity and demand. According to the Calculation Problem, socialist planning cannot work, even if everyone were motivated to make it work, because planners do not have access to real prices or to a workable substitute for prices. The problem of planning an economy is too hard for a small bureau of planners.

Cohen agrees that if socialism turns out to be infeasible (for either or both of these reasons), then we should not try to instantiate it. However, he claims that if socialism were infeasible, this would not make it any less intrinsically desirable. The intrinsic desirability of a social regime is independent of its feasibility (or cost). In previous work, Cohen illustrates this point with an analogy. Suppose I see some grapes, the tastiest grapes ever. Now, suppose the grapes are out of reach—it is not feasible for me to get them. If so, it does not make them any less intrinsically desirable.5 If I cannot reach the grapes, then I should not bother to attempt to pick them. However, their intrinsic value is independent of my ability to pick them.

Cohen finishes his argument by claiming that a certain form of market socialism is feasible, or, at least, that we do not know it is infeasible. Cohen appreciates that the Calculation Problem casts strong doubts on the feasibility of socialism. In response, he cites Joseph Carens’s work, which attempts to combine socialist distributive principles with the market’s information-gathering power. Of course, Carens is not the first to propose market socialism as a solution to the Calculation Problem. (In fact, most of the historical debate over the Calculation Problem concerned not whether central planning would work, but whether market socialism would avoid the problems of central planning.) Instead, Carens is trying to revive a debate about market socialism and make a better case for it than his intellectual predecessors. Cohen acknowledges that few people find Carens’s arguments convincing, and Cohen does not try to solve the problems critics see in Carens’s work. Instead, Cohen’s chapter on feasibility is best seen as a call for others not to lose hope but to attempt to solve the Calculation Problem.

The Anarchist Camping Trip

For the next few sections, I will show that we can modify Cohen’s argument to argue against democracy and on behalf of what I call non-coercive anarchism. My argument, and often my language, will largely mirror Cohen’s. I will also make the rigor and carefulness of my argument match (or slightly beat) Cohen’s.

Non-coercive anarchism, as I define it here, is distinct kind of anarchism. Anarchist societies lack a state, but might have private enforcement mechanisms. (Think of the competing, private enforcement agencies Robert Nozick discusses in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.) In non-coercive anarchism, though, there are no institutional or personal mechanisms for using violence to maintain social order or enforce norms. People cooperate, reciprocate, pull their weight, care for one another, create and abide by working social conventions, and so on, but do so without any explicit or implicit threats of violence.

The Trip

Suppose we go camping. We have no hierarchy among us. No one is in charge. We have different goods, such as matches, fishing rods, and coffee, among us. Some of these might be collectively held; some might be privately held. We are largely free to do as we please, and no one tramples on anyone else’s rights. Everyone treats everyone else with respect and kindness.

Despite our differences, there is peace. Everyone respects each other. People observe rules that lead to the common good. No one steals from anyone else. If anyone is hurt or in need, someone always pitches in. No needs go unmet. Everyone does his or her fair share to maintain common facilities.

People also abide by rules that make coexistence better. Some rules are just the traditional rules of the campsite. Other rules are decided on by discussion and deliberation, after which time everyone unanimously agrees on the rules. If there is insufficient time for everyone to discuss rules, then a few of the campers, with great care, will suggest good rules, which everyone spontaneously accepts. (After all, they know that anyone proposing rules has taken great care and has everyone’s interests at heart.)

All of this is done without coercion or the threat of coercion. No violence, or threat of violence, is needed to maintain order and community. Everyone understands that she would be able to violate others’ rights or the rules with near impunity, if she so chose. However, out of moral motivation alone, we campers respect each other’s rights, play fair, pitch in, and abide by the rules.

The Trip Turns Bad

Now imagine we campers begin behaving the way citizens do in real democracies, such as United Kingdom, Sweden, or classical Athens.

Harry, who has been administering some of the publically shared goods, demands an official title. Whereas before others freely gave him goods in exchange for his work, Harry now demands that all campers provide him a set amount of goods, to be collected at regular intervals, and that these other campers be subject to violence if they do not comply.

Sylvia demands that some people be armed with sharp sticks and be charged with enforcing the rules. She says we should not count on campers’ good will. The newly appointed enforcers often abuse their power. The enforcers are also paid with goods obtained under the threat of violence.

Leslie decides it would be best to have leaders, and so writes a constitution and organizes an election. Significant prestige attaches to these leadership positions. A social hierarchy appears. Rich, attractive, white campers find it easy to acquire these newly created positions of power. Minorities and the poor do not.

Campers start having significant disagreements about the social norms, and organize into factions. They give their factions names, such as “the Social Justice Party” or “the Honored Tradition Party”. They vie for power. Campers assume that members of other factions are stupid, ignorant, or morally corrupt.6 They play favorites with members of their own factions. They ignore arguments made by opposing sides.

Morgan says, “We should make a rule that outsiders cannot visit or live at the campsite (even if one of us is willing to trade his spot), unless the outsider gets permission from all of us or from our elected leaders.” Morgan gets the enforcers to patrol the boarders of the campsite. We campers make a rule that the children of current campers are automatically allowed to camp at our site, but outsiders must prove that they will be valuable to us. Otherwise they are turned away with the sharp sticks.

A disaster strikes campers at a near-by campsite. Whereas previously we anarchist campers would have wanted to help, now we decide only to send a small package of goods. When a few refugees from that campsite come to our campsite, we turn them away, except for a few of their most educated members.

We begin enforcing rules even when campers have no reason to abide by them. For instance, one camper decides she dislikes it when others smoke marijuana. (She associates marijuana use with Mexicans and black jazz musicians.) She convinces most of the others to pass a rule forbidding marijuana use, even though the available evidence overwhelmingly shows that marijuana is safer than alcohol, which we do not make illegal. If any camper uses marijuana (even in private), the enforcers tie her to a tree for a day and take some of her supplies.

Soon, we begin passing more and more rules. Due to time constraints, deliberation over potential rules is often cut short, people vote, and the rules are enforced with the threat of violence, even though many campers lack compelling reasons to submit to those rules. Our leaders often vote for rules even when they have no idea what the rules are and what effect the rules will have when enforced.

Social pressure increases, pushing campers to conform to common viewpoints. People are often ostracized for saying or believing the wrong things. No one is physically attacked for holding unorthodox views, but the range of public discourse about how to run the camp becomes narrow. Those outside the narrow range are ignored or ridiculed.

Once the tax system is in full force, campers start lobbying the camp treasurer and other leaders to get special favors. For instance, Morgan, who is good at fishing, prompts the rulers to declare that no one may fish unless he or she uses a carbon fiber pole. (The rulers say this regulation is for safety, but many of us can see through this lie.) Of course, Morgan is the only one with a carbon fiber pole, and so he becomes the sole provider of fish.

At this point, the campsite resembles a modern democracy. I expect most readers will agree that the camping trip was better when it was run on anarchist principles. (Was it the best possible way to run a camping trip? Perhaps not. But it was better.) The introduction of the vile and repugnant behaviors characteristic of modern democracy corrupted the trip. Few would want to go on a camping trip where people fought for power, used threats of violence to get their way, rigged the rules in their favor to exploit others, and so on. But this is what people do in modern democracies everyday.

Of course, the circumstances of the camping trip are different from the circumstances of everyday life. It might be that non-coercive anarchism is desirable and/or feasible for a camping trip, but not desirable or feasible for large societies.

The Ideals Realized on the Anarchist Camping Trip

In this section, I outline some of principles and ideals realized on the anarchist camping trip. I will not try to settle the exact nature and interpretation of these principles.

One note: By itself, “anarchism” just means opposition to the state. There many different possible grounds for opposing the state, other than those I specify below. (For example, one might oppose the state on different moral grounds than I specify, or one might oppose the state for non-moral or immoral grounds.) So, in some sense, I am building a particular moral framework into the non-coercive anarchist society I described. However, this point applies equally well to Cohen’s argument for socialism. By itself, “socialism” just means the collective ownership of property, especially in the means of production. Cohen describes his campers as realizing a particular set of socialist values, but other socialists, besides Cohen, could ofcourse have described a different socialist camping trip where a different set of values is realized. Not all socialists share Cohen’s reasons for advocating socialism.

The Ideal of Voluntary Cooperation

When the campers were anarchists, they realized an Ideal of Voluntary Cooperation, which holds:

Even without threat of punishment, each person will always seek peaceful ways to coordinate on norms. Each will abide by norms and rules that serve the common good, promote justice, and solve coordination problems. No one will free ride on public goods. There will be no coercion or threats of coercion.

The Ideal of Voluntary Cooperation holds that it is morally preferable for people live and cooperate with one another without resorting to violence or threats of violence. Under this ideal, all interactions are based on respect and consent. No one is coerced or threatened into behaving well or cooperating with others. People do the right thing for the right reasons, and do not need violence to induce good behavior.

Gregory Kavka might appear to have a challenge to this Ideal of Voluntary Cooperation.7 Kavka asks us to imagine a society of “angels”. Angels, as he describes them, have complete knowledge of all the correct moral principles and always act conscientiously on those principles. Angels are morally better than we are. However, angels share our cognitive defects—they are not any smarter or more epistemically rational than we are. Kavka argues that angels might need government, despite their moral perfection, because they might still come into conflict. He argues that they might blamelessly make factual mistakes about how to apply their moral principles, and this could lead to conflict. Or, they might blamelessly enter into prisoner’s dilemmas. Or, Kavka thinks, they might even have some basic irresolvable moral disputes. (Perhaps there is no truth of the matter about certain moral questions, and so the angels have differing opinions, and might blamelessly fight over which values will be realized when there is a conflict.)

Suppose Kavka is right. This would not undermine the Ideal of Voluntary Cooperation. Kavka does not argue that in the morally best imaginable circumstances, people would still need government. Rather, his point is limited: morally perfect but cognitively limited and unlucky people might blamelessly need government. Kavka does not show that government is ideal, but instead only argues that some of our reasons for needing government are not caused by our moral imperfections. Anarchism might be infeasible even for (unlucky, cognitively imperfect) angels, but it might still be the most intrinsically desirable state of affairs. Kavka, if correct, shows us that government might be necessary even among angels, but this is compatible with claiming that it would be desirable for angels to dispense with government, if only they could.

The Liberal Principle of Public Justification

The anarchist camping trip also realizes the Liberal Principle of Public Justification. The Liberal Principle of Public Justification (which is accepted by a wide range of liberal philosophers) claims:

A person is under no standing obligation to justify her actions, provided she does not interfere with others. She is presumed to be free to do as she pleases unless she has conclusive grounds for restraining her behavior. Any coercive interference with her liberty must be justified on grounds that she can reasonably accept. In the absence of such justification, coercion and threats of coercion are unjust.8

People are presumed to be free and equal. There are limits to what they may rightfully do, but there is a presumption in favor of liberty. As Gerald Gaus explains,

To say that each individual is free implies that each has a fundamental claim to determine what are her obligations and duties. To say that each is equal is to insist that members of the public are symmetrically placed insofar as no one has a natural or innate right to command others or to impose obligations on them. Free and equal persons thus recognize no claims to natural authority over them.9

Because people are assumed to be free and equal, and because no one has any natural authority over others, to impose duties backed by threats of violence (as all states do) is morally problematic. States require people to obey rules, even if those people disagree with the rules, and even if they have excellent or conclusive grounds for disagreeing with the rules. This is why one of the classic problems of political philosophy is to justify the state.
According to the Liberal Principle of Public Justification, to justifiably enforce norms limiting personal liberty, each person subject to those limits needs to have conclusive reasons to accept the limits. Public reason liberals generally agree that this can happen in two ways.
  1. 1.

    The norm is something that the reasonable person, given her values, ought to recognize as binding her.

  2. 2.

    There might be a range of potentially acceptable norms (such as whether the speed limit will be 35, 40, or 45 mph), but there are no conclusive reasons for a person to accept any particular one of those norms. However, that person has conclusive reasons to accept one of these norms as opposed to accepting none of them, provided that other people also similarly accept the norm, and provided that the particular norm is selected by an adequately fair and smart decision-making procedure.

Public reason liberals (such as Gaus, Estlund, John Rawls, and so on) hold that the enforcement of rules is just only if conditions like these hold. (They might dispute the exact nature of these conditions, but they will agree to something similar to 1 and 2 above.) If neither of these sets of conditions has been met, but a reasonable person is coerced into complying with the norm, then that person has been subjugated—forced (under threat of violence) to comply with norms and rules that this reasonable person has no conclusive reasons to comply with, and to submit to a decision which she has no conclusive reasons to regard as authoritative.

Unfortunately, all real democracies regularly subjugate their citizens. All of them routinely impose laws and regulations upon citizens that the citizens have no conclusive reasons to accept. They threaten citizens with violence if they do not comply.

Is the Ideal Desirable?

Non-coercive anarchists aspire to realize the principles that structure the life on the camping trip on a large-scale level. Non-coercive anarchists therefore face two distinct questions, which are often not treated as distinctly as they should be. The first is: would non-coercive anarchism, if feasible, be desirable? The second is: is non-coercive anarchism feasible?10

Someone might object that the anarchist camping trip is not desirable. However, it would be strange to argue that that introducing violence to the trip would make it better. Violence and threats of violence are intrinsically undesirable—they are justifiable only if necessary to protect important values.

Someone might instead object there are special features of camping trips distinguishing such trips from normal, large-scale society, and these features cast doubt on whether anarchism is desirable in large-scale societies. The campers have realized non-coercive anarchist values, but only in the course of a recreational activity in which there are no competing social groups, in which everyone knows each other personally and is observed by the others daily, and in which personal and family ties exert no counterpull to anyone’s sense of obligation. To what extent do these differences render the idea undesirable, or less desirable?11

I do not see that the stated differences undermine the desirability of seeing the anarchist camping trip values spread across society. The cooperativeness and peacefulness displayed by the campers when living among friends is equally appropriate and desirable in a larger community.12

At base, democracy is just a decision-making method. Political democracy is a method for deciding (directly or indirectly) when, how, and in what ways a government will threaten people with violence. In democracies, people routinely compete to gain power for themselves. They routinely exploit the ignorance, irrationality, or ignorance of others for their own advantage. They routinely secure private interests at the expense of the common good. They routinely split into political parties that act like warring tribes. We tolerate these vile and repugnant behaviors not because we like them or find them admirable, but because we think democracy is the best we can or will do, given human limitations. But imagine that someone discovered a way to tap into human cooperativeness and generosity, such that we could achieve peace, justice, and maintain our high standards of living without having to subjugate anyone, exploit anyone, maintain a hierarchy, threaten anyone with violence, or harm anyone. We would rejoice.

In the morally ideal society, people live together without violence and threats of violence. They thus live together without a state, and thus non-coercive anarchism is more intrinsically desirable than any form of government.

So, Why Not Anarchism or Socialism?

Cohen’s argument can be extended as an attack not just on capitalism, but on democracy. Since most philosophers and business ethicists are strongly sympathetic to democracy, this should give them pause. Let us now look at some of the problems with Cohen’s critique.

Comparing Ideal to Non-Ideal Regimes

I doubt democrats will be much impressed by objections I have raised here. They should, and most probably do, agree with my basic conclusions: (1) democracy is intrinsically repugnant, to some degree, because it relies upon institutionalized violence, (2) it would be most desirable for us to live together in peace, justice, and prosperity without recourse to institutionalized violence, and (3) actual democracies are characterized by a host of unjust and vile behaviors.

Still, democrats will respond that there is something too easy about my criticisms. I compared an imaginary, idealized regime to a more realistic one, and concluded that the idealized social regime is better. I might be right, but that is not very interesting. On this point, John Rawls says, “…we must be careful here not to compare the ideal of one conception with the actuality of the other, but rather to compare actuality with actuality, and in our particular historical circumstances.”13 Note that Rawls says this not to defend democracy from an anarchist critique, but to defend private property in the means of production from a Marxist critique. His point is that it is unsurprising if an ideal form of socialism is better than a non-ideal form of market society. (Though, we might add, the reverse is interesting. That is, it is interesting if a non-ideal form of a social regime is better than even an ideal form. For example, it is interesting if realistic social democracy is better than the best conceivable form of fascism.)

Democrats would likely object that even if certain vile behaviors are common to real democracies, in ideal democracies, these behaviors would be absent. I described democracy as it is, but not as it could be, if only people were better. I compared an ideal anarchist society to a realistic democratic society, and concluded that ideal anarchism is better. But, I did not compare like to like. The relevant comparisons are ideal anarchism to ideal democracy, and real anarchism to real democracy. My argument is unfair to democracy.

We can, of course, imagine an ideal democracy, where such bad behaviors are absent. However, a defender of capitalism could similarly describe an idealized capitalist society where the behaviors and vices Cohen finds problematic are absent. For instance, consider “Galt’s Gulch”, from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Galt’s Gulch is a small society of capitalists where Rand’s heroes, hidden away from the corrupt world, live together in peace and prosperity. They treat each other with respect as traders, entrepreneurs, and producers, value each other’s genius, and admire even the most menial workers for the nobility of their labor and purpose. Galt’s Gulch has a capitalist economy, but is free of the base forms of greed and fear that worry Cohen. Instead, Rand’s heroes are motivated by the desire to innovate and excel. We can even improve on Rand’s idealization by imagining her heroes are not ethical egoists (as she imagines them to be), but are instead strongly altruistic and committed to making sure everyone in their society has enough.

When Cohen describes how capitalism would corrupt the socialist camping trip, he describes the base motives and behaviors he believes characterize real capitalist systems. The defender of capitalism could complain that Cohen did not describe an ideal capitalistic system. He compares an ideal socialist society to a realistic capitalist society. But, the capitalist might object, the relevant comparisons are ideal socialism to ideal capitalism, and real socialism to real capitalism. If Cohen wanted to show socialism is intrinsically superior to capitalism, he would need to compare his socialist camping trip to something like this improved version of Galt’s Gulch. He has not done so.

A defender of democracy might object to my argument by saying that democracies do a far better job of protecting liberty, promoting welfare, and securing social justice than the other forms of government we have successfully attempted (including, one might add, any attempts to instantiate non-coercive anarchism on a large scale). In practice, democracies subjugate their citizens less than other forms of government. I agree with the defender of democracy—this is why I myself defend democracy.

However, one could just as easily say that even if market-based societies fail to meet Cohen’s favored standards of equality and community, they do a far better job of protecting liberty, promoting welfare, and securing social justice than any other economic systems we have attempted (including, one can add, all attempts to instantiate socialism or market socialism on a large scale).14 If the democrat’s objection has some force against my argument for the moral superiority of anarchism, then a similar objection has equal force against Cohen’s argument for the moral superiority of anarchism.

So, however unfair my argument against democracy was, Cohen’s argument against capitalism is equally unfair. If my argument against democracy is flawed, or simply uninteresting, because it makes the wrong kind of comparisons (ideal to real rather than ideal to ideal and real to real), then Cohen’s argument is equally flawed or uninteresting.

Motivations Under Socialism and Capitalism

Cohen claims that actors in market societies are motivated by greed and fear. He is right; many of them are. What are people motivated by in socialist societies? In the USSR, Cuba, or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, were people motivated by love and community? No, they were motivated even more strongly under those regimes by base emotions, such as fear and the lust for power.

Cohen of course would say he is not defending the USSR or the Khmer Rouge. 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 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.

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 at all to believe that socialism engenders or relies upon better motivations than capitalism.

If one really wanted to know what motivates people in market society, one would have to leave one’s armchair in All Souls College and do genuine social scientific research. One might ask: In the real world, does capitalism encourage predation, greed, fear, poverty, power-grabbing, and other nasty behaviors more so than other kinds of economic systems? What sort of behaviors and attitudes does socialism encourage? These are empirical questions. They cannot be settled by conceptual analysis or by imagining people on camping trips. The only way to answer these questions is go and check, to conduct historical, sociological, and psychological research on what exposure to markets does to people, and what happens when markets are replaced by something else. If capitalism turns out to encourage bad behaviors and bad attitudes, it is to that extent bad. Yet if it also turns out to do so less, in the real world, than its competitors (such as socialism) do in the real world, then to that extent we have reason to favor capitalism.

In fact, there are people conducting just this sort of research. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak says,

market exchange itself may lead to a society where individuals have stronger character values. The clearest evidence for this is the studies of fairness in small-scale societies conducted by Henrich and his colleagues. They showed that the likelihood of making fair offers to a stranger in one’s society is more strongly predicted by the extent of trade in markets than any other factor they have found. Exchange is inherently other-regarding—both you and I must benefit if exchange is to occur.15

Zak says that, as a matter of empirical verifiable fact, market societies induce people to play fair. Economists like to conduct experiments (using large amounts of real money) in which participants have the opportunity to cheat and swindle each other or to play fairly. Joseph Henrich tested a large number of variables to see which factors tend to make people play fair or cheat. As it turns out, the strongest predictor that participants will play fairly with strangers is how market-oriented their society is. People from market societies characteristically know how to put themselves in their trading partner’s shoes. People from non-market societies do not. Market systems require a high degree of generalized trust and trustworthiness to function. Consider the fact that I could fly to Hong Kong, a city I have never visited, flash a credit card, and be supplied a luxury car, all on my promise to pay. Somehow, market societies make this promise mean something.16

Henrich’s research is not the final word. It does not decisively prove that market societies foster better motivations than socialist societies. However, it is better than the armchair hypothesizing of Cohen (or Marx, for that matter).

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 is no less capitalist than a fearful, greedy capitalist society. 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. 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 Robert Nozick said, “By ‘socialism’, I just mean a system of bloodthirsty dictators who starve and slaughter peasants.”

Cohen would respond, I suspect, that while we can imagine capitalist economies free of predation, greed, and fear, but real capitalist economies are not free of greed and fear. He would be right. Yet, a defender of capitalism could retort that we can also imagine socialist economies free of greed and fear, but real socialist economies are not free of predation, greed, and fear. Quite the contrary.

Moral Obligations to Strangers

Some might complain that a camping trip is the wrong analogy for Cohen to use. A large-scale society is not like a camping trip among intimate friends who share a common vision of the good and who care deeply about each others’ welfare. Cohen grants that of course large-scales societies are not like that. Cohen is not trying to describe society. Instead, he is offering a vision of how society could conceivably go, and asking us to evaluate whether that vision is morally superior to competing visions. He is claiming that a morally perfect society would not have private property or market institutions. Cohen thinks the primary reasons large-scale societies have never been like the socialist camping trip are that people are too selfish, greedy, and fearful.

However, there is a more pressing version of the objection that society is not like a camping trip. In commonsense moral thinking, and, according to most major moral theories, people have special obligations toward friends that they do not have toward strangers. Commonsense moral thinking holds that I owe it to my friends to promote their happiness and maintain a special bond of community with them. In contrast, I owe weaker, more diffuse duties of beneficence and justice toward strangers. Cohen might dispute this view, but it is not a dispute between socialists and capitalists. It is not a political or economic dispute at all. Rather, it is a dispute in moral theory about the demandingness of our obligations to our fellows as well as whether morality permits us to give partial preference to those close to us. There are socialists and capitalists on both sides of this issue.

Cohen might agree that his principle of community, if viewed as a duty, would be controversial even among other socialists. However, he can respond to this objection by claiming that the principle of community is not meant to articulate a duty, but an ideal. Perhaps it would not be wrong or blameworthy for us not to live by the principle of community, but it would be morally better and more praiseworthy to hold ourselves to this higher standard. He might be right. However, this does not yet tell us anything about whether socialism is superior to capitalism. Just as Cohen can imagine a socialist world in which everyone holds themselves to these higher standards, I can imagine a capitalist world in which everyone holds themselves to these higher standards.

Should We Reject Democracy and Markets?

I doubt many democrats would reject democracy on the basis of the argument I made in this paper. They might admit that non-coercive anarchism is ideal, but then continue to advocate democracy because they think it is the best social system we imperfect humans are willing and able to implement. Democrats would probably respond by saying, “At best, you have shown us something we already believed—that in utopia, people go without government. You have not shown us that anarchism is feasible. You assert that we do not know it to be infeasible—the arguments for its infeasibility are, according to you, inconclusive—but you have not added any new reasons to think it is feasible, and we have good grounds for thinking it is not. Until we are shown that it is feasible, we should not try to instantiate it. Regardless, we democrats do not advocate democracy because we think it is the best situation we can imagine. Rather, we think democracy is the morally best response to certain persistent problems, such as the fact that ‘people disagree, and their disagreements extend from their interests to their very ideas of the right and the good, so that society is possible only through the establishment of authoritative rules, binding on all and backed by the threat or use of force.’”17 That is how a democrat would respond to the argument I made in this paper.

It is commonplace in democratic theory now to hold that democracy is a response to the problem of persistent disagreement about the good and just. According to Rawls and others, people blamelessly come to have different conceptions of the good and the just.18 There is no realistic way to prove that one particular conception of the good and just is best, though we can imagine utopian scenarios in which such a proof is offered. People turn to democracy because they need a fair and reliable way to resolve their disputes despite these blameless disagreements.

However, if something like this response is available to the democrat, it is just as available to the defender of capitalism. People blamelessly have differing conceptions of the good. They do not all share the same overriding common ends, as in Cohen’s socialist camping trip, and they are not necessarily blameworthy for this fact. Market societies solve the problem of evaluative diversity by imbuing each person with a large sphere of personal freedom so that she may attempt to realize her own conception of the good. Those who want to live on communes with the like-minded are free to do so. Those who find communism inconsistent with their conceptions of the good are free to do so as well.

Are Markets Intrinsically Competitive?

Cohen worries that markets are intrinsically competitive, and thus cause us to regard each other as mere instruments to satisfy our own ends. Cohen says that capitalism encourages us to regard others primarily as competitors in the market and as means to enrich ourselves. It is terrible to regard other people as enemies or mere resources.

Democracy also encourages us to regard others primarily as competitors for political power or as a means to get what we want. This is also a terrible way to view other people. In fact, it seems to me to be worse way to view others. When people encounter each other on the market, they do so primarily as potential traders. They have respect for one another, and recognize each other as having the right to say “no” and walk away. Markets might rely upon the threat of violence in some way (to help maintain property rights and contracts), but at least they place the threat of violence in the background, out of sight. However, competition in democratic politics just is competition for a monopoly on the use of violence. Democratic competition determines who gets to hold the whip and the sword. Politics primarily concerns interactions where people lack the right to say “no” and walk away. To whatever degree the market is intrinsically repugnant, politics, including democratic politics, is worse. If Cohen is right that markets require an instrumental defense to overcome their intrinsic repulsiveness, then political institutions (even democratic ones) require an even stronger instrumental defense.

A democrat might reply that democracy does not just encourage us to view others as competitors for political power, but as fellow travelers with whom we will build a society. Democracy has a cooperative element in addition to its competitive element.

However, one can say the same for capitalism. In capitalist markets, I compete with only a small subset of the population. I cooperate (both directly and indirectly) with a much larger subset. Just in purchasing a pencil, I am indirectly cooperating with the millions of people whose thought and labor went into making that pencil. Markets function only when there exists a high degree of generalized trust.19 A market is not a Hobbesian war of all against all.

The Purpose of Political Philosophy

Cohen has been critical of most other political philosophers. He thinks they set the normative bar too low. They concede too much to human nature—to people’s unwillingness to do whatever justice requires—when they theorize about institutions and social regimes. Cohen wants to determine which institutions are most intrinsically desirable. The question that grips him is, more or less, “What the morally best society we can imagine?” His answer to that question might be correct. But this question, however pressing, is no substitute for a different question: “Which institutions actually tend to lead to real people to have good lives?” The institutions Cohen advocates in Why Not Socialism?, and which I advocated in this paper, have no history of being answers to this second question. Or, since Cohen’s most recent full-length book is highly critical of Rawls, consider that Rawls sees himself as answering this question: “What would a just democratic society be like under reasonably favorable but still possible historical conditions, conditions allowed by the laws and tendencies of the social world?”20 Even if we cut out the word “democratic” from this question, the institutions Cohen advocates in Why Not Socialism?, and which I advocated in this paper, have no history of being answers to this third question, and neither Cohen nor I have given our readers any reason to think our favored institutions could be answers to these questions.

Suppose we ask the question, “What’s the best kind of hammer?” One way to answer that question is to ask what kind of hammer a giant or an angel would use, and then evaluate our own hammers as pale imitations of hammers fit for giants and angels. A second way to answer this question is to ask what kind of hammer works for us, given our purposes, given how we are. We learn something about hammers however we interpret the question. It would be odd for theorists who interpret the question the first way to complain that theorists who interpret the question the second way concede too much to human nature. Yet, if we replace “hammer” with “institutions” above, this is more or less the difference between how Cohen theorizes about institutions, on one hand, and how, e.g., Rawls, David Schmidtz, David Miller, or Charles Larmore theorize about institutions, on the other.

Cohen acknowledges that ideal conditions might call for a hammer when non-ideal conditions call for a wrench. Or, to use a different metaphor, ideal theory is like designing cars on the assumption that they will never encounter slippery pavement, and will never be driven by bad drivers. If we had no such worries, we might not bother installing air bags. Here and now, though, we have compelling practical reason to not build cars like that. Analogously, if people were invariably altruistic and omniscient (or much better and smarter), we might have good reasons to favor Cohen’s socialist regime or my anarchist regime. Still, it would seem bizarre for an engineer doing ideal engineering to criticize engineers who design cars for realistic conditions.

Cohen says, “Justice is justice, whether or not it is possible to achieve it.”21 Perhaps Cohen is right. Still, when we want to assess just how repulsive or good our institutions are, all things considered, quite a lot turns on what we can expect them to help us achieve, and what they have a history of helping us achieve.


See Schmidtz and Brennan (2010, pp. 120–156, 222–224) and Stevenson and Wolfers (2008).


Readers will not that my language and organization here parallels Cohen’s (pp. 1–2). Throughout this piece, I will sometimes paraphrase Cohen, often substituting “anarchism” for “socialism”, and so on. I will cite the text where doing so would be illustrative for the reader.


As Cohen might note, even defenders of the free market often assert such things. For instance, F. A. Hayek says, “…if we were always to apply the norms of the extended order [i.e., large-scale societies] to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them.” Hayek (1991, p. 18).


In a review of Cohen’s book, Sharon Krause notes that Cohen never establishes that these principles cannot be realized under capitalism (or under some other non-socialist regime). Instead, Cohen seems simply to equate socialism with the realization of these principles. But, as Krause says, socialism is not equality and community. Instead, it is a form of economic organization, which may or may not be compatible with various moral values in principle, and which may or may not be tend to be successful in realizing these values in practice. See Krause (forthcoming).


Cohen (1995, p. 256).


See Mutz (2006) and Westen et al. (2006).


Kavka (1995).


This amalgamates and partially quotes from Gaus (2003, pp. 207–208).


Gaus (2010, pp. 233–275), here p. 234.


This paragraph paraphrases Cohen (2009, p. 46).


This paragraph paraphrases and quotes from Cohen (2009, pp. 49–50), in some parts.


This paragraph also paraphrases and quotes from Cohen (2009, pp. 49–50), in some parts.


Rawls (2001, p. 178).


See. e.g., Gaus (2010), or Schmidtz and Brennan (2010, chaps. 4–5).


Zak (2008, p. xv).


For more on the role of trust, see Schmidtz and Brennan (2010, chap. 4) and Ostrom (2003).


Larmore (2010).


Rawls (1996, pp. 56–57).


See De Soto (2000).


Rawls (2007, p. 11).


Cohen (2009, pp. 148, 155).


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012