Reflections on Cohen and Equality

Like the previous post, this one is prompted by reading Jerry Cohen’s book “If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?” The particular point that interests me is his discussion of equality.

Cohen talks a lot about what is probably the easiest and most common political defense of inequality (of wealth), which goes along the following lines:

1) Human nature is a certain, selfish, way;

2) Because human nature is thus, people (especially talented people) will be productive only if they are offered differential material rewards for their work, hence only if inequality is permitted;

3) This inequality is justified because by motivating people to produce, it improves the condition of the worst-off members of society – they would be even worse-off in a more egalitarian but less productive society.

Cohen explains that in the past he rejected the first two of these, though he now largely accepts the second and is ambivalent about the first. He devotes the greatest amount of energy to the third – his position being that we cannot leave the discussion here, because the principle of justification involved, while it may support the social structure in question, doesn’t support the actions of the talented individuals in question (i.e. if the goal is to make the worst-off as well off as possible, then rich individuals should accept that goal themselves, and be willing to work productively for an average wage). He argues that a good society should be one where the justice of its structure is matched by a just ‘ethos’ motivating its members.

Now I disagree pretty thoroughly with this whole set-up.

To begin with, the ‘human nature’ point seems wrong to me. I’d be very interested to see if there are any studies or experiments trying to show this, but even if there were, how could studies done now in this society tell us how people will act in some other society? It smacks of crude simplistic “because it sounds pessimistic it must be hard-headed realism” thinking. What would we expect to observe if people (or the majority of people) were inherently selfish, vs. if they were malleable or motivatable by a range of factors? Would we expect to see non-productivity producing psychological problems? Would we expect to see able and skilled people going to into low-paid but rewarding jobs? Would we expect that historically, most child-rearing work was done without payment?

Anyway, that’s not the main thing I want to talk about. Until I see the “essential selfishness” claim backed up by some empirical case, I will continue to regard it as dogma.

So secondly, the main point. Let us suppose that differential material rewards are, in some given situation, necessary to prompt sufficient production (I’m happy to suppose there may be such situations – where culture, or traumatic experiences, or a history of communal conflict, have made people cynical and self-regarding). The essential egalitarian point is unaffected.

This is because the traditionally essential egalitarian demand, at least within the tradition Cohen is interested in, socialism, is for collective ownership of the means of production. The idea is that, roughly speaking, each individual will have equal control and influence over what gets produced and how it gets distributed. That is a separate idea from whether the distribution itself is equal. It is about equality of power, not equality of consumption.

To give an example. A society might exist in which housing and the construction industry were collectively controlled. Collective decisions would be made about how many new houses to build, where, and of what type, and collective decisions would then be made about how to allocate houses to individuals. (Admittedly, ‘collective decisions’ raises plenty of questions – I am envisaging a system of direct democracy based on federated assemblies/councils based in neighbourhoods and workplaces) It might nevertheless be true that the people of this society, collectively recognising their own individual selfishness, decided to have houses on a scale of luxury and size, and give the biggest and best ones to the high-performing doctors and scientists and engineers – or alternatively to those who worked longest and in the most unpleasant conditions, to street-sweepers and toilet-cleaners and miners.

However, such a society would be very unlikely to, say, make housing a contingent matter, i.e. leave open the possibility of someone having no house at all. They would certainly be unlikely to do so simply in order to allow others to have multiple houses, including some houses that they never visited but still kept empty and locked.

Such a society would also be very unlikely to allocate the biggest houses to marketing executives, hedge-fund managers, and the lazy children of hard workers, while leaving nurses and child-raisers scraping by in miserable one-room flats. The reason we do this is because there is not equality of power. The power in the housing markey belongs to those who seek to make a profit out of housing, and their interests are better served by having some homeless people and some unoccupied homes than by providing for everyone’s basic needs.

So there are two essential points I’m making. One is that equality of power and equality of consumption are different things. This difference is the difference between socialism and communism: socialism means a society with equality of power (through collective, democratically controlled, ownership) but potentially with inequality of consumption (the term ‘labour vouchers’ is often used – they are like money, but unlike money they cannot be used to buy the means of production, i.e. they can be spent but not invested), while communism means a society with equality of both. Those characterisations are rough but that’s how I understand the issue. Marxists and their ilk would say that socialism is a society where the proletariat is the ruling class (and so where the habits of thought and feeling built up by their experience of wage-labour remain strong), and communism is a society without classes (and so where the habits of thought and feeling appropriate to equality, community, and free self-development have taken over).

There could of course be various intermediate stages – for example, it might make sense to have some goods totally equal (food, electricity, transport, healthcare, education, etc.) and others used as incentives (computer games, silk scarves, champagne, etc.)

The second point is that in a society with equality of power (a socialist one), any inequality of consumption is consciously tailored to producing the desired incentivisation. It is no more than is necessary for this, and it rewards socially useful work, not PR and hedge-fund managing. As a result, it would be vastly less unequal even in this respect than our own society. The degree of inequality depends on how much is necessary to motivate people, but I doubt there would be anyone in what we would recognise as ‘poverty’, and I doubt there would be anyone with ten times as much net wealth as others. In Rousseau’s words, it would likely be a society where “no-one is so poor they need to sell themselves, and no-one is so rich they can buy someone else”.

To explain why this is we need to ask why there is inequality in capitalism. The reason is not as a conscious arrangement to incentivise production. The reason is as an uncontrolled inevitable and indefinitely increasing result of the basic mechanism of capitalism. In a market economy with private ownership of the means of production – in a society with money, i.e. stuff that can be both spent on a kebab and spent on a factory or shares, those with more money are able to pursue money more effectively, and over time the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Rising productivity and successful class struggle may ameliorate the condition of the poor/of labour, but there is a general pressure pushing inequality ever higher. Any given level of inequality, designed to be ideally useful to incentivise people, will be surpassed by the natural dynamic of capitalism. Inequality of consumption produces inequality of power, which in turn augments inequality of consumption, in an ongoing feedback loop.

If a group of people freely and collectively decide to reward some of their members very lavishly, I don’t really see the problem. It makes me think of sporting competitions – the inequality of status between winner and loser is constitutive of what makes the game rewarding to play. What seems important to me is a society that, as I discussed in the last post, is structurally able to make such free collective decisions – and then un-make them. What they decide to do with their social wealth is secondary (that’s not to say it’s unimportant, or that there’s no more to say, but it’s not the primary central point). Consequently, I see the establishment of socialism as a very important thing. It would be nice if that then became communism, in the sense of equal access to all goods, but if it doesn’t, that doesn’t change the essential question of capitalism vs. socialism.

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