Marxism’s Quarrel with Reality

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I had an interesting lecture on GA Cohen, a socialist political theorist. Cohen believes that Rawls’ theory of justice is more egalitarian than Rawls himself believes it to be–he has an interesting reason for this, but one which is ultimately flawed in a way that sheds great light on the problems with Marxism more broadly and with the utopian left as a bloc.

To briefly review where we’re starting from, the bit of Rawls with which Cohen is concerned is Rawls’ difference principle, which is the notion that wealth inequality can only be justifiable if it is to the advantage of the worst off. So if in scenario A, Bob and Jill both make $40 a day, and in scenario B, Bob makes $42 and Jill makes $80, scenario B is preferable from a Rawlsian point of view. Rawls concedes that it might be possible for inequality to make everyone better off if the inequalities inspire the best off to work harder, with the benefits of that increased output trickling down to the worst off through higher employment rates, additional income available for redistribution, and so on.

Here’s where Cohen comes in. Cohen argues that the incentives only benefit the worst off because the best off would refuse to work as hard otherwise, and that this behaviour is an indictment of their individual justice. Rawls traditionally only applies his conception of justice to the state and broad societal structures; Cohen thinks every individual has an obligation to be just in their day to day dealings, and consequently Cohen thinks you have a responsibility to maximise your effort for the benefit of the worst off regardless of whether or not you are offered incentives for doing so. Cohen claims that the very people who usually make the argument that incentives are necessary are the people who benefit from them and demand them in the first place. These individuals make their own argument true through their behavioural choices.

Imagine a banker who argues that bankers need incentives to work hard. If those incentives don’t materialise, the banker’s argument becomes true only if the banker himself (and others like him) choose not to work hard as a response. The banker is choosing to punish society for not acceding to his demands. For Cohen, there is no justification for this behaviour–it is an unjust behaviour on the part of the banker, and society’s willingness to give into the banker’s demands via Rawls’ difference principle is not justice, it is a compromise of justice. Consequently, our willing compromise with the banker (through incentives) is itself a violation. Justice for Cohen requires just behaviour on the part of all individuals, so Rawls’ difference principle should apply to individuals in their own lives. If you believe that our society should maximise the position of the worst off, then Cohen believes you should personally act in accordance with this goal.

Now some of you reading this post do not agree with Rawls’ difference principle in the first place–suspend your Nozickian notions for the moment, as this is not a comment on Rawls’ position but on the manner in which the socialist response to Rawls arises and what it means. If we, for the purposes of argument, accept Rawls’ difference principle, that the worst off should be made as well off as possible, and we accept that individuals have moral obligations beyond the communal and the political, then it stands to reason that yes, Rawlsians should be committed to Cohen’s view.

Of course, there’s an obvious problem with this–no one actually behaves this way, aside from a very small number of hippies living in communes. Most people, even if they endorse politically left wing organisations, still seek out the highest possible wage for their work; they still behave as free marketeers. Cohen’s response to these people is that they are phony leftists and that they are a source of injustice rather than its cure. He claims that even if his theory of justice is not empirically possible, it is nonetheless normatively true–it describes what we should do, even if we ourselves are too awful and self-centred to do it.

I sometimes find myself making a similar argument with regard to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism often places demands on people ethically that they are unlikely to meet–it does not necessarily make utilitarianism wrong, it merely serves as a comment on human morality, or lack thereof. However, while we might say that human beings are not as just or as good as they should be, where I believe that Cohen goes wrong is his suggestion that our political institutions should reflect ideal ethical behaviour rather than the ethical behaviour we have in evidence.

Let’s use an accessible example. Consider basketball. Shaquille O’Neal is seven feet one inches tall. He is a tall man. In basketball, the rim is ten feet high. This is a reasonable height because it reflects the height and leaping ability of the people who play basketball. Now along comes NBA Commissioner GA Cohen. Cohen says that seven feet one inches is not very tall, that he can imagine a person who is seventy feet tall, and that consequently the rim should be one hundred feet high. Never mind that none of the actual athletes we have in front of us can actually play on a one hundred foot rim–our definition of tall, Commissioner Cohen argues, is independent of factual realities.

It may very well be true that Shaquille O’Neal is not, in absolute terms, tall. He is, however, tall relative to most people, and it is not possible for human beings to grow to be significantly taller than he is. We design the game to suit the heights we have, not the heights we’d like to have or might have at another time. The same is true for our political structures and policies–we design them to suit the societies we have, not the societies we’d like to have or might have at another time. Perhaps human beings are finitely just rather than absolutely just. There is some maximum on how justly (at least in Cohen’s sense) human beings are likely to behave. Our society is better served by planning for human beings to behave unjustly and compensating for it than it is by pretending it does not exist simply because it should not exist, just as basketball is better served by the ten foot rim.

This is the fundamental flaw with Marxist solutions in general. The Marxists are furious at how unjustly people behave,  but rather than design a system to get as much justice as we can manage out of the human beings we have in front of us, Marxists would prefer to deny the existence of constraints on human nature, assert that we can just educate everyone to think differently, and push forward with ideas that, historically, tend to fail. Part of the business of political theory is compensating for human failings systemically. Pretending those failings don’t exist, or that we do not have to confront them, is a losing strategy–it will not produce the desired result for the theorists in question. If Cohen and the Marxists were really concerned with justice, they would pursue the most logical course, the path of least resistance, toward the largest amount of justice they can find. What their lack of concern for empirical realities demonstrates is that they are fundamentally more concerned with their own intellectual and moral purity than they are with the plight of the very people they purport to be serious about assisting.