Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

scarcity situation that we will be able to determine the correct distribution of
resources. Gerald Cohen is unusual amongst Marxists in his engagement with liberal
(libertarian) thinkers such as Rawls and Nozick. What makes his argument
interesting is that he attacks liberals on what they believe to be their strongest
ground: freedom.

Cohen contra Nozick

Cohen does not deny that capitalism gives people freedom to buy and sell labour,
but he argues that defenders of capitalism make the illegitimate claim that their
society is comprehensively free: they falsely equate ‘capitalism’ with the ‘free society’.
Cohen maintains that liberals – both left wing (egalitarian) and right wing
(libertarian) – are wrong. Capitalism does not guarantee the maximum amount of
freedom possible. He argues that a moralised definition of freedom is used – the
validity of private property rights is taken for granted, such that freedom comes to
be defined in terms of private property, and any infringement of it is a reduction
of freedom. Cohen provides an example to illustrate his point: Mr Morgan owns
a yacht. You want to sail it for one day, returning it without any damage done to
it. If you take it you will be violating Mr Morgan’s rights, but which situation
creates more freedom, Mr Morgan’s exclusive use of the boat, or your one-day use
combined with his 364-days-a-year use (Cohen, 1979: 11–12)?
Cohen argues that for one dayMr Morgan is prevented from using his yacht
and is forced not to use it – his freedom has indeed been restricted. But Mr Morgan’s
private property rights prevent you from using the yacht for 365 daysin the year,
and force you not to use it (Cohen, 1979: 12). Capitalism – the exercise of private
property rights – is a complex system of freedom and unfreedom. One could, of
course, maintain that the difference between Mr Morgan’s use of the yacht and
your use of the yacht is precisely that it is hisyacht; but then we need to justify
Mr Morgan’s acquisition of the yacht – to say Mr Morgan ought to own the yacht
because he does own the yacht is a circular argument.
A more restricted defence of capitalism is then discussed by Cohen: capitalists
do not maintain that their preferred economic system promotes freedom in general,
but merely economic freedom. So Mr Morgan’s property rights do not restrict your
economic freedom, and a capitalist society is better able than any alternative to
maximise economicfreedom (Cohen, 1979: 14). To grasp Cohen’s response we
need to refer back to the important distinction made earlier between use value and
exchange value:

(a) If economic freedom is defined as the freedom to usegoods and services then
it restricts freedom whenever it grants it – Mr Morgan’s freedom to use his
yacht correlates directly to your unfreedom to use it.
(b) If economic freedom is the freedom to buy and sell – that is, exchange products

  • then this looks better for capitalists, but it is an extremely restricted definition
    of economic freedom.
    Is there then an alternative to capitalism and – crucially – one that increases
    freedom? Cohen gives a ‘homespun’ example. Persons A and B are neighbours and
    each owns a set of household implements, such as a lawnmower, saws, paintbrushes

Chapter 4 Justice 91
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