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I just managed to pick up the short pamphlet/book from philosopher Jason Brennan called Why Not Capitalism? 

I think to get the most out of this book you would have wanted to have already been familiar with some basic economics, some elementary philosophy as well as some of the debates that have happened since Rawls wrote his magnum opus some 40 years ago. That notwithstanding, the point Brennan is making in this book is to directly respond to the (very popular) work of GA Cohen, who in writing, “Why Not Socialism?” seems to have staked out a very appealing and seemingly powerful argument that we should at least strive for socialism.

Now, I am not going to retell the Cohen story or provide any details on socialism at the moment, or the kind of socialism the younger generation of students seems to prefer right now (sort of a version of the Euro welfare states), but rather just wanted to provide you with the two bullet point summary of Brennan’s argument, and a brief criticism of part of it.

His argument in Why Not Capitalism is based on two foundational errors Cohen makes in his advocation of socialism. Brennan says that Cohens arguments for socialism fall flat because:

  1. The Nirvana fallacy
  2. The Inclusion fallacy

He doesn’t call them this of course. Argument 1 is that when Cohen says we would all prefer to live in a socialist world, he is comparing an IDEAL socialist world comprised of morally perfect and non-opportunistic people, with the current world we live in – a psuedo=capitalistic world inhabited by God’s actual creatures with all of their failings. Of course this is a rigged and unfair argument, Brennan correctly points out, and that if we were comparing Capitalism in a perfect world with Socialism in a perfect world, then people would vote for the capitalist world – it is just better. Again, I am not here to make the argument about it, just to point out that this is a legitimate line of questioning and one that we fall prey to all of the time – for example, think about Earth Day – we talk of “bespoiling the planet” as if humans, living in any decent way, can possibly live at all without having any impact on the planet. The idea to live sustainably is NOT, emphatically not, how we can live without making an impact but rather what tradeoffs make the most sense to make in order to give all of us a chance to live a flourishing life.

Brennan does not say it, but I don’t think you could ever ask people in a survey or set them up in an experiment to choose “capitalism” versus “socialism” … the worlds have too much embedded meaning. In order to figure out what world people would prefer, you would need to come up with a very deep and broad array of questions and situations and determine how people felt about them. For example, you might ask people if they think it makes sense for you to own a lawn mower so that you can keep your grass a neat and pretty looking length (powered by clean, green energy of course!). Then you can follow-up, would it be permissible to use your lawn-mower to cut a neighbor’s lawn should she be too sick or busy to do it herself, as a favor? Then you may ask, would it be permissible to own a lawn-mower and for you to maintain both your grass and your neighbor’s grass, and as a thank you, your neighbor would own a snow-blower and in the winter she could clear your driveway as well as hers. And so on … I think we know how many people would answer these kinds of questions abstracted from what they think the “isms” imply about what they should believe.

The second line of attack, and it is one that is not often considered, is to think about what each system “allows” for people who disagree with it. Brennan argues that socialism is inferior because in a socialist society, there is no room for people who disagree, there is no room for little capitalist enclaves. In fact, if you don’t like it, either tough, or perhaps off to the gulag if there is no way to voluntarily extricate oneself. On the other hand, there is nothing in a capitalist society that excludes dissenters, heterogeneous ideas, and so on. In other words, in a world of private property and voluntary association, a group of neo-socialists would have no problem at all creating their own little socialist paradise (like Vermont?) while not in any way infringing upon the ability of the rest of us to engage in capitalistic acts. Everyone gets what they want. Therefore, capitalism is superior.

I think the second defense of capitalism is a stronger one than the first, and it is attractive to me. Yet I think it is also open to more criticism than the first. The first, as an empirical matter, and as a theoretical matter, seems much easier to get a handle on. However, think about the problems with the second argument. Sure, capitalism allows little enclaves of socialism, but that is making two assumptions about the world. These may be agreeable assumptions, but they are nonetheless assumptions. The first assumption is that some groups of people do not get to exercise agency over others. I feel like one reason people like socialism is that they have an inherent desire to tell others what to do. In the capitalist world, even though it “allows” for socialist enclaves, it does not in any way allow for anyone in that socialist enclave to tell the capitalists how to live.  Second, and more difficult to reconcile, is the idea that there would never be a need or reason for the socialist enclave and capitalist donut surrounding it to have to negotiate or talk to one another. Maybe I am wrong here – after all, the socialists can speak “as a group” whereas they would have to negotiate with each and every capitalist in order to make agreements. The point is that there may be issues of resource scarcity, or common governance issues like defense and international foreign policy that has to be dealt with collectively by all people, and so it is not really possible to have happy little socialist enclaves and happy large capitalist donuts – at least not fully.

The book is a quick read, so I do recommend it, though again you’d want to read some Rawls, Hume, Nozick, Cohen and others to really get the most out of it. Just as in most books like it, I do not think it is ever going to persuade people on one side of the fence to suddenly straddle it or hop on over, but it does at least put out in the open two very serious intellectual challenges to Cohen’s ideas and the ideas of his socialist supporters. Let no idea be unchallenged, whether favorable to your view or not, I think Brennan would have had a better chance to persuade some people if he had in fact included a broader attack on his own views in this short work.


One Response to “Why Not Capitalism, by Jason Brennan”

  1. Scott says:

    I can’t accept the idea we all want to live in an ideal socialist world. I feel no desire for equality, I’ve never felt a desire for someone else’s money, just a desire to make it for myself. I’m not sure ‘capitalism’ can be defined, and therefore it can be difficult to defend. But liberty, regardless of the economic and political consequences, is the my most basic desire, so I defend liberty, not because it makes us all richer, not becuase it permits a more effective political dialogue, not because it prevents genocides, not because it alleviates poverty better than allegories of charity or governance, but because of my selfish and basic human desire to be free. So when a Bernie fan is talking about something called ‘economic justice’, I can’t but feel a certain degree of rage – but it’s clear no amount of reasoning will amount to any difference – sort of like when the sculpter in he fountainhead describes his fear of being locked in a room with a hungry dog, becuase no amount of reasoning or logic will ever stop the dog from eating you – their plan is that I send in more of my money or throw will throw me in jail at the point of a gun. The greatest economic justice would be of they just left me alone.

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