Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for the ‘Nozick’ Category

The Socialist Idea Refuted

In Libertarianism, Marxism, Nozick, Philosophy on June 30, 2014 at 5:23 PM

Book Review

Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? (Routledge, 2014) 120pp.

In 2009 G.A (Jerry) Cohen’s short book, Why Not Socialism? defending socialism was posthumously published by Princeton University Press. Jason Brennan’s book, just published by Routledge, is a response to Cohen. A more accurate title for the book might have been Why G.A. Cohen is Wrong. However, as Brennan is defending capitalism, and no doubt with an eye on sales, his own choice of title more suits his purpose.

While Brennan’s book can be read and understood by those without the background, it is a work of political philosophy and will be more appreciated by those with at least an elementary background in the work of twentieth century political philosophers, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and G.A. Cohen.

A similarity between Cohen’s book and Brennan’s book is the cover design. If a book defending socialism can have a single red rose on its cover, then a book defending capitalism can have a bunch of roses.  Perhaps Brennan’s cover design has a further resonance when one considers his final sentence prior to his concluding chapter. Turning Mao Zedong’s notorious statement on its head, Brennan asserts, “The slogan of a capitalist utopia might be something like, ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom.’”

In defending socialism Cohen came out with a thought experiment. He compares two different types of societies to two versions of a camping trip. In the socialist camping trip everyone mucks in. One person brings a tent, one person catches fish, one person does the cooking etc. Everyone assists each other and it is a wonderful way to live. In a capitalist camping trip, the owner of the tent would charge rent to other campers, the cook would want to charge people for cooking and so it goes on. Capitalism, in Cohen’s world, is awful. Greed and selfishness are features of capitalist society. And these features are morally repugnant.  The camping trip thought experiment is a powerful argument for socialism, or so it might seem prima facie. Brennan’s short book exposes a dramatic flaw that he has found in it.

Cohen’s fallacious reasoning is that he is comparing idealised Marxism with a realistic but flawed capitalist system. Brennan is justified in arguing that one should either compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism or idealised Marxism with idealised capitalism. If one were to compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism then a simple comparison would be Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China to Truman or Nixon’s America. Capitalism wins. Just as we have not experienced idealised Marxism so we have not experienced idealised capitalism. If Cohen can construct an idealised version of Marxism by using his camping trip example, then Brennan can construct an idealised version of capitalism. He does this by noting that life portrayed in the village of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is akin to idealised capitalism. Brennan parodies Cohen by setting up the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village whereby the villagers “cooperate with a common desire that everyone have the freedom and resources to flourish under their own conceptions of the good life. Everyone operates on principles of mutual concern, tolerance, and respect. They live together happily, without envy, glad to trade value for value, glad to give and share, glad to help those in need, and never disposed to free ride, take advantage of, coerce, or subjugate one another.”

Brennan notes that there is “an essential asymmetry in the capitalist and the socialist versions of utopia.” An idealised capitalist utopia would allow a group of people to set up a socialist commune. The socialists would be permitted to own property communally just as the capitalists would be able to own property individually. However, in the socialist utopia, all property would be owned communally and capitalist acts such as owning property individually would be forbidden. In part, this is a reason why idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism.

Brennan aims to show that idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism and that realistic capitalism is better than realistic Marxism. It is a tall order to suggest that he has managed to do this well enough to convince sufficient amounts of doubters in his short book, but what I think he has done well is demonstrate that Cohen’s argument based on the camping trip thought experiment is flawed.

A comment on drug legalisation

In Drugs, Libertarianism, Nozick on January 11, 2014 at 7:13 AM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on January 10th 2014, 3:00 pm.

James Bloodworth has an interesting article on Left Foot Forward making the case for the legalisation of cannabis. His major points are utilitarian and libertarian. His utilitarian argument is this: “The illegality of drugs (and the criminal activity which is funded by drugs) causes vastly more misery than the use of drugs.” His libertarian argument is a rhetorical question: “If someone wants to put a substance into their system, then why should it be any of the government’s concern?” He clearly wants his readers to infer from the question that the government should not be concerned with what people do with their own bodies. This libertarian position was expressed eloquently by Michael Huemer last year. He argued that drug laws are unjust because “they violate a substantive moral right, the right to control one’s own body, that individuals possess regardless of the decisions of the state.” (Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, [Palgrave Macmillan, 2013], p.172.)

The general libertarian argument about controlling one’s own body does not just work for cannabis use, it also works for the use of any other drug including crack cocaine and heroin.  Depending on the services the state provides it is not at all clear that the government should not be concerned with what people do with their own body. In the UK we have a government (tax payer) funded National Health Service. If someone wishes to start injecting themselves with heroin then it does become the concern of government if that person gets addicted and wants to avail themselves of government funded support services such as rehabilitation, withdrawal programmes, prescription methadone and any other services.

The National Health Service is funded by the tax payer which is a payment extracted from people with coercion. If James has the view that people should be able to do what they want with their own body, does he accept that this should be universally applied and not selectively applied? If so, then how can he justify taxing person A to pay for the drug treatment of person B? If James wishes to make the libertarian argument then he should really consider Robert Nozick’s point that “Taxation of earnings is on a par with forced labour.” He explains it thus: “taking the earnings of n hours labour is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing a person to work n hours for another’s purpose.” (Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, [Basic Books, 1974], p.169.) In order to be consistent with his argument, James should be of the opinion that someone who started using crack cocaine and became addicted has no right to use the tax payer funded National Health Service for addiction treatment. If this is not his position then his position is that a drug user can control their own body and they can also force others to work for their benefit if that benefit is required. This means that others cannot control their own body as they find themselves having to work extra hours to pay for the treatment of the addict. It is a logical contradiction as it means not everyone can control their own body.

Fruits of Labour, Entitlement, and the Road to Ruin

In Libertarianism, Nozick, Philosophy on December 12, 2012 at 10:32 PM

Normblog, the weblog of Norman Geras, is one of my favourite blogs. He has recently written a series of ten blog posts on the subject “Fruits of Labour.”[1]

I wish to pick up one point that Norm has made in his tenth post in the series: his example that he calls “Wilt who?” It is quite clear that Norm has loosely based his example on Robert Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain example which Nozick used for a difference purpose to that of Norm.[2] Both Nozick and Norm have a very talented basketball player, Wilt, who is a draw to the game. Spectators are happy to pay extra if Wilt plays. In Norm’s example there is a dispute between Wilt and the fans as to who is entitled to the money from the additional gate receipts. Norm has Wilt believing he is entitled to the additional money, but the fans are of a different opinion: they think that perhaps some of the additional money can go to Wilt, because in Norm’s case, Wilt is having difficulties, but the balance should be used on improving spectator facilities. This dispute does not come up in Nozick’s example for a key reason: Nozick have the fans drop 25 cents of the admission price into a separate box that has Wilt’s name marked on it. The implication is clear: the 25 cents is to go directly to Wilt and not to the club. Nozick is explicit:

Each of these persons chose to give twenty-five cents of their money to Chamberlain. They could have spent it on going to the movies, or on candy bars, or on copies of Dissent magazine, or of Monthly Review. But they all, at least one million of them, converged on giving it to Wilt Chamberlain in exchange for watching him play basketball.[3]

One wonders if Norm would agree whether Wilt would be entitled to the 25 cents from each fan for each game if his own example were in line that of Nozick’s.

A further point that is explicit in Nozick’s example is that Wilt is a free agent. Nozick is also explicit that “Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams.”[4] This means that if Wilt does not get the 25 cents from each fan for each game, he would be free to find another club to take him on at his terms. Norman Geras does not really deal with this matter in his dispute between the fans that turn up to Wilt’s games and Wilt himself. The fans, in Norm’s example, can argue as much as they want that Wilt’s value “depends on them” but what would Norm have them say if Wilt turns round and says “If that is how you feel, I will leave the club and go and play for a different team.” Would Norm, or the fans in his example, restrict other basketball clubs from offering Wilt a contract on terms that both the club and Wilt could agree?

I now wish to use my own example, but to make a point similar to that Nozick made with his Wilt Chamberlain example: that liberty upsets patterns.

Consider two families that live next door each other: the Adams family and the Brown family. The Adams family comprises Mr and Mrs Adams, and two children aged ten and eight. The Brown family contains Mr and Mrs Brown and two children of identical ages to that of their neighbours. Mr Adams and Mr Brown work in the same factory in an identical job earning an identical salary. Likewise Mrs Adams and Mrs Brown both work part time in identical jobs earning identical salaries. At a given point in time, the value of the assets of the Adams family matches that of the Brown family to the last penny. The egalitarians can look at these two families and smile at the equality that exists.

Now consider the lifestyle differences. Mr and Mrs Adams both smoke whereas Mr and Mrs Brown do not. Mr and Mrs Adams and their children spend their weekends lazing at home watching television, whereas the Brown family spend quite a lot of time cultivating a vegetable patch in their garden, the produce of which they consume thus reducing their weekly grocery bill. Finally, the Adams family have a weekly night out to a cinema or a pizza restaurant, whereas on that night of the week, the Brown family bond with each other via playing Scrabble or a card game together. The net difference is that Adams family spend on average £150 a week more than the Brown family. After a few weeks, the Brown family have accumulated enough money from saving to purchase an iPad for their children to share. The Adams family do not have one. The two Brown children are continually arguing as to which one of them can use the iPad and their parents, fed up with the constant arguing, a few weeks later purchase a further iPad so both children can have their own.

The point Nozick would have made with this example is that nobody has done anything wrong; it is not unjust that the Brown family now has two iPads whereas the Adams family has none. The egalitarians, on the contrary, might wish to interfere. They could claim that it is unjust that Brown family has two iPads whereas the Adams family has none and insist that the Brown family give an iPad to the Adams family. Nozick’s point is that if you set up to create an egalitarian society or any other society whereby there is a “pattern” of the distribution of assets for justice, there has to be “continuous interference with people’s lives.”[5]

I now wish to go a stage further and discuss the consequences of such interference. Imagine, in my example above, the Brown family continually have to give things to the Adams family to keep the planned distributional pattern. After a while one might expect that they get tired of it. On Saturday afternoons while the Browns are toiling away at their vegetable patch, they can look over their garden fence and see through a window to the Adams family’s sitting room where the family are all lazing around watching television. Mr Adams has even cracked jokes to Mr Brown telling him to pay particular attention to the output from the vegetable patch as his family will be entitled to the benefits of half of it. The Browns might begin to feel that because they only get the benefit of half of their savings from not spending money like the Adams family and they only get to benefit from half their labour in their vegetable patch, that they will simply not bother continuing their more frugal lifestyle.

While Mr and Mrs Brown do not take up smoking, they decide to go out with their family once a week to a decent restaurant and a further night to the cinema and also to jack in the vegetable patch so they can sit at home at weekends and watch television like the Adams family. By changing their lifestyle to spend as much money per week as their neighbours, they now do not have to make any regular transfers to their neighbours. By having some of the benefits of the fruits of their labour – the vegetables they grow in their garden – taken away from them, they lack the motive to grow the vegetables. In other words, they lack the motive to work at weekends. If this is replicated on a bigger scale around the country, it seems to me that it is the road to economic ruin.


[1] The link to the tenth in the series is
This post provides the links to the earlier nine posts.
[2] Norman Geras admits in footnote 48 that his own example is used for a different purpose to Nozick.
[3]Robert Nozick, Anarchy State, And Utopia, (Basic Books, 1974), p.161.
[4] Ibid., p.161.
[5] Ibid., p.163.