Art Carden  

Why Not Capitalism?, Indeed: You Should Read Jason Brennan's Latest

France to ban e-cigs... Unpersuaded...

A few years ago, Princeton University Press published G.A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism?. I reviewed it for The Freeman and found it unconvincing. I also appreciated these reviews from David Gordon and James Otteson. I wasn't impressed or convinced, and I thought it clear that the blasted rubble of the socialist project remains just that.

In Why Not Capitalism?, the insightful and prolific philosopher Jason Brennan (who blogs at Bleeding Heart Libertarians) argues that some of Cohen's critics miss his fundamental point, which is that if socialism were possible, it would be preferable to capitalism. Brennan goes on to seize the moral high ground and destroy Cohen's argument through a combination of parody and careful analysis. He makes a convincing case for an ideal theory in which capitalism is preferable to socialism. He cripples Cohen's case for socialism by noting that Cohen is comparing an ideal world of perfectly benevolent people on a socialist camping trip to a non-ideal world in which selfish, grasping, and vain people are on a capitalist camping trip. Brennan notes (rightly) that Cohen is confounding different dispositions and different economic institutions.

It's certainly worth a read, and I hope to write a more extensive review later. In the mean time, Jason is blogging some of the main points at BHL.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Tom West writes:

While I haven't read either book, I will say that the conversation that surrounds the book ignores the fact that perceived motives matter. They matter a lot, and in fact, they can easily matter *more* than the actual outcome.

While we don't depend on the benevolence of others to put food on our table, the fact that we can't depend on that benevolence makes a lot of people feel fundamentally less secure.

Capitalism almost certainly produces better economic outcomes, but when failure occurs, as it will under any system, the bitterness of the blow falls harder when one feels that the system doesn't "care" whether you succeed or fail rather than the system tried to help but failed.

When it comes to human happiness, economic outcomes matter, but they're only one factor among many others. Perception matters a lot and focusing solely only on outcomes is to risk not understanding the value of socialism to many.

Socialism doesn't mean everyone suddenly becomes more benevolent, but it makes many people feel that way. That fact alone is important to many people's happiness. (And truthfully speaking, the perception of other's benevolence is likely to make people slightly more benevolent in turn.)

awp writes:

Tom West,

Then you are missing the main point of the current debate. Brennan's point is that you can't compare one system with a benevolent and altruistic populace to another composed of malevolent and selfish populace, a la Cohen. If you do that then you are also comparing the populaces and not just the systems. He argues that capitalism would be better than socialism, if you held benevolence and altruism constant.

For a long time people have argued like you did that in practice, in the real world, capitalism is materially superior, but then have ceded the moral high ground to socialism by arguing if we were angels, socialism would be the way to go.

In the real world I would argue differently than you. When all the false promises of socialism were revealed I would be much more bitter.

Pajser writes:

I've read that book. Jason Brennan constructed imaginary anarcho-capitalist society, "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village" and claims that it is better than Cohen's imaginary anarcho-communist "camping trip" society. Then Brennan proceedes to prove that his model is "feasible." I think Brennan's essential and particular error is in this paragraph describing "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village":

"The villagers allow one another the freedom to pursue their respective visions of the good life. They do not interfere in one another’s projects. This does not mean they are aloof, diffident, or standoffish, of course. They are always willing to lend one another a hand."
Although it is nice, it is not good enough. Donald Duck might need cure for his disease, and Mickey might really want to help him, but it is too late - drug is not developed; instead, Mickey's yacht was built. More generally, if Mickey really wants to help others, he should center his activity around that from beginning, not only lend his hand.

So, even if such anarcho-capitalist model as Jason Brennan wants it is "feasible" (and that's another issue), it is morally inferior to Cohen's anarcho-communist "camping trip." (Don't hurry to conclude that in Cohen's "camping trip", someone enforces his vision onto others. It is imagined, utopian society.)

James writes:


How is capitalism morally inferior in your example? You are just assuming that failure to begin developing a new drug in time to save Donald is unique to capitalism.

awp writes:


Are you sure Donald didn't prefer the ability to ride around with Mickey in Mickey's yacht for a few years, instead of lowering his chance of dying from "some disease" by .01%?

Pajser writes:

James: In Brennan's anarcho-capitalist Village people occasionally use their resources to help others in need. For Brennan, it is both effective and virtuous behavior. Nothing to disagree here. However, effectiveness of such help must depend on the amount of invested resources. My example shows one such situation. In Cohen's anarcho-communist camp, people invest resources in helping others systematically, not only occasionally. Without additional assumptions, Cohen's camp is more effective in helping those in need. It is also morally superior because larger moral effort is invested. (Probably it is less "feasible" also.)

Awp: Brennan's assumption is that Mickey pursues his vision of good life without consulting Donald and others. If it happens that Mickey came across something (yacht) that Donald wants more than something he wants independently (drug) it is happy accident.

Tom West writes:

awp, I understood the point of Brennan.

My point is that if you hold benevolence and altruism constant, capitalism would likely produce the better economic outcomes, but if the difference in outcomes was not too great, people might actually be happier under socialism because of the *perception* that their fellow citizen cared for them more. (The perception arising from the fact economic systems cannot be divorced from the cultural freight that accompanies it.)

And that if you perceive that people care for you, you're likely to care more for other people as well, so to a small degree, the system influences benevolence.

D.Khimatch writes:

We all know that socialism is concerned with redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, where capitalism is unconcerned about equity. In socialist societies everyone has both equal opportunities and equal outcomes. In capitalist systems inequality is essential to encourage innovation and economic development. Socialism is about to use Universal mind. Universal mind is also the human nature, when one has access to all knowledge, known and unknown and share this knowledge with everybody for a sake of nature. Capitalism is about to use Rationality. Rationality in Capitalism is where one accepts a model in which benefitting oneself is optimal. It seems to me a natural way as well. For me the differences between socialism and capitalism we can correlate with the differences between Hinduism and Christianity, many G-ds vs. One. I cannot chose which religious way a want to go, but I can follow Confucius:“Don't do unto others what you don't want others to do unto you.” Same with socialism and capitalism. I cannot chose with system is better, apparently, I used to live in both systems, but I can figure out where is my family is better off.

Ann S writes:

"We all know that socialism is concerned with redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, where capitalism is unconcerned about equity"

No, by the standards of most people in practice, it is socialism that is not concerned with equity or fairness. Capitalism follows the standard of equity that most people come to believe in after having socialism (equal outcomes regardless of effort or contribution) forced on them.

I recommend the book Hungry Ghosts by Jasper Becker, about China's Great Leap. Among other fascinating sections, it talks about the communes and the fact that they tended to fail precisely because most members felt that the distribution was unjust. If one person worked harder than another, they felt that it was not fair that the other person got just as much.

Capitalism (at least ideally) aims at equality of opportunity, while socialism (ideally) believes in destroying opportunity in order to force equality of outcome. People may find forced redistribution tempting if they expect to gain from it, but ultimately the inequities of such a system tend to drag it down.

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