Cohen on the Desirability and Feasibility of Socialism

In “Why Not Socialism?”1 G.A. Cohen explains what is objectionable about capitalism, what is desirable about socialism, and why it’s an open question whether socialism is feasible. Part of what’s desirable about socialism is that it realizes a radical kind of equal opportunity. What interests me in this post is the other reason socialism is desirable, which is that it realizes community, and in particular a non-instrumental, non-market form of reciprocity.2 I accept Cohen’s account of the tension between capitalism and reciprocity, but I think it raises problems for his analysis of the feasibility of socialism.

Cohen identifies two obstacles to feasibility: motivation and information (“social technology”). He rejects the motivation problem; people are not too selfish by nature for socialism, though capitalism does train us to operate on the basis of greed and fear. The information problem is more challenging, he thinks. We need to make decisions about resource allocation based on information that doesn’t exist in any one place, but is dispersed throughout the population (Hayek). Each of us has special knowledge of our own preferences, capabilities, and local environment. In a system of prices based on supply and demand, this information gets aggregated in an economical form. I don’t need to know everything everyone else knows, I just need to recognize that the end result of their choices is that the price of some product has risen. That’s enough to tell me that I should turn to some close substitute – or that I should consider producing the good that is in short supply. Letting prices fluctuate with supply and demand allows each individual to choose what to consume and produce, while ensuring that we have enough miners and farmers, not all musicians and hockey players. Unfortunately markets tend to generate unjust inequalities, and encourage us to instrumentalize each other. Cohen admits that we don’t at present know how to realize personal choice and prosperity on a large scale in a manner that is consistent with equality and community. Yet he also insists that we don’t know that we will never know how to do this. So he leaves the feasibility of socialism as an open question. I think he’s missed a motivational problem, however, one that arises from his own account of the value of community.

To explain what’s bad about capitalism, Cohen imagines a camping trip organized on a capitalist basis.

“You could imagine a camping trip where everyone asserts her rights over the pieces of equipment and the talents that she brings, and where bargaining proceeds with respect to who is going to pay what to whom to be allowed, for example, to use a knife to peel the potatoes, and how much he is then going to charge others for those now peeled potatoes which he bought in an unpeeled condition from another camper, and so on. You could base a camping trip on the principles of market exchange and strictly private ownership of the required facilities. Most people would hate that.”

“Harry loves fishing, and Harry is very good at fishing. Consequently, he brings back more fish than others do. Harry says: ‘It’s unfair, how we’re running things. I should have better fish when we dine. I should have only perch, not the mix of perch and catfish that we’ve all been having.’ But his fellow campers say: ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Harry, don’t be such a shmuck. You sweat and strain no more than the rest of us do. So, you’re very good at fishing. We don’t begrudge you that special endowment, which is, quite properly, a source of satisfaction to you, but why should we reward that pre-eminence?” (cf Mill).

These passages are meant to show that when on a camping trip, we accept the principle that everyone should share roughly equally in both the benefits and the burdens of the trip, weighted by need on the benefits side, and by ability on the burdens side (Harry shouldn’t expect to work less than others just because he can catch fish more quickly). 

Cohen also thinks that the camping trip involves an attractive form of non-market reciprocity, as an element of community. By ‘community’, Cohen means the shared valuing of mutual concern. In other words, I care about you and you care about me, and we each care that the other cares, etc. (the analogue of common knowledge, but for values rather than beliefs). The normal way shared valuing manifests itself is as non-instrumental reciprocity. 

“I serve you not because of what I can get in return but because you need my service, and you, for the same reason, serve me.”

If the sentence stopped after “need by service” it would express unilateral altruism. Cohen’s idea is that people want to serve others who serve them in turn, because they value such relationships for their own sake, on top of whatever further benefits they may bring. They want to serve not just anyone, but those others who want to serve others. 

“I do not want to be a sucker who serves you regardless of whether you are going to serve me (unless you are unable to), but I nevertheless find value in each part of the conjunction – I serve you and you serve me – and in that conjunction itself I do not regard the first part – I serve you – as simply a means to my real end, which is that you serve me” (67).

This non-instrumental form of reciprocity contrasts with what Cohen calls “market reciprocity,” in which I serve others only to induce them to serve me. Marketplace competition pressures us into treating each other merely as means to our own ends, he claims.

“The immediate motive to productive activity in a market society is typically some mixture of greed and fear, in proportions that vary with the details of a person’s market position and personal character. In greed, other people are seen as possible sources of enrichment, and in fear they are seen as threats. These are horrible ways of seeing other people, however much we have become habituated and inured to them, as a result of centuries of capitalist civilization” (66; also 71).

I agree that reciprocity is in tension with the organization of society on a competitive basis (though Jason Kuznicki expresses some reasonable doubts, based on cases of apparently legitimate market behaviour within friendships). Reciprocity is a promising basis for socialism, as it is a widely shared value. Yet reciprocity also poses an important obstacle to socialism’s feasibility.

Cohen discusses Joseph Carens’ proposal for a socialist society that consciously uses the market for the sake of allocative efficiency, while using the tax and transfer system to cancel out all of the inequalities the market generates. People act so as to maximize their pre-tax income (subject to some prerogative for personal time and projects), while fully understanding that post-tax they will not end up richer than anyone else who works equally hard (incomes will legitimately differ based on preferences for leisure vs the products of labour). From the point of view of reciprocity, this system faces a major hurdle. What assurance does anyone have that their fellow citizens are fulfilling their productive duties? For example, it might be my duty to take the most lucrative employment I can find (pre-tax), even if I like it less than some lower paying job, knowing that post-tax my income will be the same. Are others willing to do the same for me? In any pluralistic society, many people will not share the socialist ethos. And even if the ethos is widely shared, uncertainty can drive noncompliance. Even if I know that we both want to comply, I may be uncertain about whether you know that I know this, and so wonder if you might not comply due to this doubt. In short, if community is based on reciprocity, and if reciprocity has a conditional structure – if reciprocity is distinct from unilateral altruism, as Cohen seems to accept – then there are motivational challenges to socialism’s feasibility, for large-scale societies, not just informational challenges (though information is involved too).

I’ll conclude by mentioning two further issues. First, it’s not clear that this problem is simply one of feasibility, as opposed to desirability. For reciprocity is an element of community, which is a positive value.

Second, Cohen thinks that community goes beyond justice, in the sense that it imposes requirements on us that are in addition to the requirements of justice. Yet reciprocity is closely related to justice. I think we could be committed to reciprocity between citizens without being committed to a strong form of political community, i.e. without always putting first the shared valuing of mutual concern at the level of the polity as a whole. We can be committed to community at different levels, after all.


  1. This essay is available as a short book, but I am referring to the version in the edited collection Democratic Equality: What Went Wrong? For a summary of the book, see Herbert Gintis’s Amazon review. What I say here builds on his points about disagreement and free-riding in large groups, and his other work on reciprocity. ↩︎
  2. In “Publicity, Reciprocity, and Incentives” I used reciprocity to defend the basic structure objection to the socialist critique of productive incentives, but I didn’t discuss “Why Not Socialism?” ↩︎

5 thoughts on “Cohen on the Desirability and Feasibility of Socialism”

  1. Camping trip = going on holiday. Theorizing (that a camping trip might serve as) a model for justice = ensuring that “language *goes on holiday*” (Wittgenstein, Phil. Investigations no. 38). So you can see why I’m so worked up about Rawls treating politics as a game. I mean, maybe hockey, but baseball?

  2. I see! The reference was lot on me. “For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. ” This statement from W means what – that problems which only appear to be genuine problems arise when we take language out of its ordinary context and usage, and assume that it still means something, still refers to real things? I’m probably mangling that. Baseball I find only good for a beer and a snooze in the mid-innings on a sunny day, but I have a bunch of friends who Expos fans who would dispute that.

    1. It means that when you bring theoretical reason to bear on domains where it’s inappropriate (e.g. politics),
      you leave the serious, practical world.
      Theories of justice are, like the rulebooks of games and spirts (or the organization of camping trips), meant to be played. Taking such theories seriously is thus like going on holiday by mistake.

      (I know I’ll never convince you of this. Still, I’m holding out hope that, one day, I’ll understand why I’ll never convince you of this!)

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