Monday, July 30, 2018

G.A. Cohen on Community & Equality (Part 2), or, the “hidden hand” of Bernard Mandeville

And now there is among socialist intellectuals an intelligent movement, but also alongside it, an unthinking and fashion-driven rush, in the direction of non-planning or minimally planning market socialist society. Market socialism is socialist because it overcomes the division between capital and labour; there is, in market socialism, no class of capitalists facing workers who own no capital, since workers themselves own the firms. But market socialism is unlike traditionally conceived socialism in that its worker-owned firms confront one another, and consumers, in competitive market-contractual fashion; and market socialism is also, and relatedly, unlike traditionally conceived socialism in that it reduces, even though it does not entirely eliminate, the traditional socialist emphasis on economic equality. Equality is prejudiced because market competition means winners and losers, who end up less well off than the winners do. 

I believe that it is good for the political prospects of socialism that market socialism is being brought to the fore as an object of advocacy and policy: these socialist intellectuals, even some of the fashion-driven ones, are performing a useful political service [‘As far as immediate political programmes are concerned, market socialism is probably a good idea.’]. But I also think that market socialism is at best second best, even if it is the best (or more than the best) at which it is now reasonable to aim [hence this is not an instance of the best being an enemy of the good’], and that many socialist intellectuals who think otherwise are indulging in Adaptive Preference. 

Now, the Adaptive Preference response has some good effects. Like the rational policy of Not Crying Over Spilt Milk, it may prevent fruitless lamentation and wasted effort. But Adaptive Preference also has great destructive potential, since it means losing standards that may be needed to guide criticism of the status quo, and it dissolves the faith to which a future with ampler possibilities may yet be hospitable. If you cannot bear to remember the goodness of the goal that you sought and which is not now attainable, you may fail to pursue it should it come within reach, and you will not try to bring it within reach. When the fox succeeds in convincing himself that the grapes are sour, he does not build the ladder that might enable him to get at them. [Cohen goes on to discuss the reasons why socialists in the past rejected the market, finding two of four such reasons ‘sound:’ (i) it is ‘unjust in its results’ and (ii) ‘mean in its motivational presuppositions.’] – G.A. Cohen, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1995): 255-265.

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Part 1 is here. While this topic is only in two parts, I hope to have a post on the value and several conceptions of community which, as we have seen, Cohen largely (thus not exclusively) discusses in relation to equality and its role as an “anti-market” principle. And if all goes as planned, we’ll have few posts on “equality” as well, beginning with Cohen’s penetrating and wide treatment of same in the context of contemporary political philosophy.

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“I mean here, by ‘community,’ the anti-market [the hyphen is mine, not Cohen’s] principle according to which I serve you not because of what I can get out of doing so but because you need my service. This is anti-market because the market motivates productive contribution not on the basis of commitment to one’s fellow human beings and a desire to serve them while being served by them, but on the basis of impersonal cash award. The immediate motive to productive activity in a market society is typically some mixture of greed and fear [more or less Bernard Mandeville’s ‘private vice:’ capitalist market motivation assumes, with Mandeville, that ‘real virtue would mean the collapse of all the benefits that supervene on private vice,’ for ‘society could be prosperous and based on private vices, or poor and based on private virtues–but not both’], in proportions that vary with the details of a person’s market position and personal character. In greed, other people 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 development. [….]

The marketer is willing to serve, but only in order to be served. He does not desire the conjunction (serve-and-be-served) as such, for he would not serve if doing so were not a means to get service [or recompense]. The difference is expressed in the lack of fine tuning that attends non-market motivation. Contrast taking turns in a loose way with respect to who buys the drinks with keeping a record of who has paid what for them. The former procedure is in line with community, the latter with the market.

Now, the history of the twentieth century encourages the thought that the easiest way to generate productivity in a modern society is by nourishing the motives of greed and fear, in a hierarchy of unequal income. That does not make them attractive motives. Who would propose running a society on such motives, and thereby promoting the psychology to which they belong, if they were not known to be effective, did they not have the instrumental value which is the only value they have. In the famous statement in which Adam Smith justified market relations, he pointed out that we place our faith not in the butcher’s generosity but in his self-interest when we rely on him to provision us [‘Mandeville certainly influenced Smith’s economic thought, as Smith picks up the private vice, public benefit paradox in order to claim that one of the original principles in human nature is to barter and trade for private advantage, which then propels commercial society forward resulting in economic advancement and prosperity.’]. Smith thereby propounded a wholly extrinsic justification of market motivation, in face of what he acknowledged to be its unattractive intrinsic character. [….] The genius of the market is that it recruit shabby motives [i.e., private vices] to desirable ends [‘public benefits’], and, in a balanced view, both sides of the proposition must be kept in focus.

Generosity and self-interest exist in everyone.1 We know how to make an economic system work on the basis of self-interest.2 We do not know how to make it work on the basis of generosity. But that does not mean that we should forget generosity: we should still confine the sway of self-interest as much as we can. We do that, for example, when we tax, redistributively, the unequalizing results of market activity. The extent to which we can do that without defeating our aim (of making the badly off better off) varies inversely with the extent to which self-interest has been allowed to triumph in private and public consciousness.3 (To the extent that self-interest has indeed triumphed, heavily progressive taxation drives high earners abroad, or causes them to decide to reduce their labor input, or induces in them a morose attitude which makes their previous input hard or impossible to sustain.)

The market, any market, contradicts the principle which only Marx but his socialist predecessors [e.g., the ‘utopian socialists’] proclaimed for the good of society the principle embodied in the slogan ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ … [T]he unambiguous message of the slogan is that what you get is not a function of what you give, that contribution and benefit are separate matters. [….] [T]he ideal in the primeval socialist slogan constitutes a complete rejection of the logic of the market.

The socialist aspiration was to extend community to the whole of our economic life. We now know that we do not know how to do that, and many think that we now know that it is impossible to do that. But community conquests in certain domains, such as health care and education [and even property!], have sustained viable forms of production and distribution in the past ….”

Notes (mine, not Cohen’s)

1. As Phyllis Vandenberg and Abigail DeHart remark in their IEP entry on Mandeville:

“Mandeville did not claim a paradox of private vice, public virtue. The ‘benefits’ that arose from individually vicious actions were morally compromised due to their being rooted in private self-seeking–one of Mandeville’s starkest challenges to his contemporaries, and a point which makes his fundamental philosophical commitments difficult to interpret. [….] On the one hand, Mandeville wished to imply that common sense views are not as reliant on common sense as they first appear: what looks like virtuous behavior may in fact be disguised selfishness. On the other, those who preach virtue may turn out to be deluded hypocrites: real virtue would mean the collapse of all the benefits that supervene on private vice. [….]

… [T]here was a religious component in Mandeville’s thought. His man was necessarily fallen man: capable only of pleasing himself, the individual human being was a postlapsarian creature, irredeemably selfish and greedy for its own private pleasure, at which it always aimed even if it hid such self-seeking behind more respectable facades (The Fable, Vol. I: 348). Mandeville’s examination showed the ways in which people hid their real thoughts and motives behind a mask in order to fake sociability by not offending the selfish pride of their peers. Ironically, Mandeville’s own honesty led him into trouble: he boldly claimed vice was inevitably the foundation of a thriving society, insofar as all human beings had to act viciously because their status as selfish fallen men ensured that whatever displays they affected, at bottom selfishness always dictated their actions. All social virtues are evolved from self-love, which is at the core irredeemably vicious. Mandeville also challenged conventional moral terminology by taking a term like ‘vice’ and showing that, despite its negative connotations, it was beneficial to society at large.” 

2. Cohen appears to have a fairly pejorative understanding of self-interest. In any case, for a discussion of its “rational” properties and comparatively progressive role in the history of Liberal political thought, please see Stephen Holmes’ discussion in Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Hobbesian “self-interest” in particular has, relatedly, not received a fair hearing, as the original and brilliant work of S. A. Lloyd attests. See, in particular, Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’s Leviathan: The Power of Mind over Matter (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

3. Cohen here notes “his views on this matter run alongside those of John Stuart Mill, who averred that ‘[e]verybody has selfish and unselfish interests, and a selfish man has cultivated the half of caring for the former, and not caring for the latter.’ And one thing that contributes to the direction in which a person’s habits develop is the ambient social ethos, which is influenced by the stance of political leaders.”


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