This book is a reply to Gerald Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? I have not been able to read that book, but Brennan offers a brief summary, and I presume it is trustworthy. Basically, Cohen presents an idyllic fieldtrip where everyone shares resources, and nobody has more property than anybody else; in other words, a socialist fieldtrip. Cohen admits this dream may be unachievable for the time being, but his point is that it is the most desirable scenario.
Brennan, instead, says that the true utopia is capitalist, not socialist. Utopia would be something akin to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: everyone would have private property, there would be free cooperation, and everyone would trust everyone else. Once again, whether or not it is achievable is not the point. The point is, if we had a magic wand, should we choose the socialist or the capitalist utopia? Brennan chooses the latter.
So do I. I suppose that, in Cohen’s fantasy football, no team would win the Superbowl; ala John Lennon, he would imagine no winners or losers, and actually, whoever tried to win, would be suppressed. Instead, I suppose that in Brennan’s fantasy football, some team would be a winner and the rest would be losers, although there would be plenty of respect and sportsmanship. Frankly, very few people enjoy draws in sports, and for very good reasons. This, it seems to me, is enough proof that the real utopia would be Brennan’s and not Cohen’s.
There are plenty of problems in Cohen’s utopia, and Brennan aptly points them out. First, there is the problem of incentives: if everyone receives the same share of the pie, what keeps their motivation to work. And then, there is a more technical (but also more profound) problem: if commodities are not sold at their price based on supply and demand, how can the State aptly gather information to decide where to allocate resources?
Brennan continuously reminds us that his essay (very much as Cohen’s) is about a comparison of utopias, not of real regimes. This is not about whether Pinochet (a capitalist dictator) was worse than Castro (a communist dictator). It’s only about whether we would want to live in the socialist fieldtrip or in the capitalist Mickey Mouse land, regardless of whether or not human nature actually coheres with these fantasy places, and whether or not they are actually achievable.
And, precisely, by so reminding us, Brennan warns of a huge fallacy in Cohen’s reasoning: he wants to compare his socialist utopia with the capitalist real world. This is not fair. One must compare like with like. We should compare Miami to Havana, or the communist utopia with the capitalist utopia, not the communist utopia with Miami. I couldn’t agree more with Brennan on this point.
Furthermore, I frequently encounter yet another fallacy when discussing these issues: socialists will typically say that the Soviet Union was not really socialist, and we shouldn’t judge socialism by that monstrous regime. This is the old “No true Scotsman fallacy”. Apparently, for many of these socialists, anything short of immense happiness is not socialism. Well, if we are going to play by the rules of that game, then capitalists may well argue that Hong Kong or the US are not capitalist countries either, and anything short of immense happiness is not capitalism.
So far, so good. But then, when it comes to the real world, Brennan begins to draw a caricature of the virtues of capitalism vs. the vices of communism, to the point of appearing Manichean. According to his view, in countries such as Venezuela, people do not cooperate willingly, but only out of fear of being punished by the State. Well, I’m no fan of socialism, but as a Venezuelan, I must say this is obscenely wrong. Probably for biological reasons, human beings everywhere are prone to some degree of cooperation. I have had flat tires on Venezuelan roads, and I have been helped by plenty of people who have never done so out of fear, and have asked little in return (some have even rejected any compensation completely).
Brennan also claims that in real communism, greed, envy and depredation are the norm, whereas in capitalism such things are not frequent. I agree that, under Stalinism, bureaucrats were eager to seize peasants’ property through State depredation, and make themselves fat, all in the name of equality. But, I’m not so sure capitalism has been all that different (not so much in the name of equality, but surely in the name of liberty). After all, who made famous the “greed-is-good” slogan? Does the name Gordon Gekko ring a bell? (Hint: it’s Michael Douglas). Frankly, I’ve never heard a commie say “greed is good”. At any rate, is there no depredation when some qualified middle-age man holds a miserable MacJob because he was recently fired due to cuts, whereas a 21 year old Wall Street broker can become extremely rich through some housing bubble?
Brennan, largely as response to Cohen, focuses almost exclusively on the economic and social aspects of the dispute between socialism and capitalism. But there are many other aspects that are deeply relevant, and Brennan remains silent about them. What about the environment? Sure, capitalism may be an utopia where everyone keeps private property, and everyone helps each other without the State forcing anyone. But, can we trust that entrepreneurs are able to put limits on their own productivity in order to rationally administer natural resources? Brennan seems to think that capitalism is actually good for the environment, as private property allows us to avoid the tragedy of the commons, and private owners will never overfish, as it hurts their own businesses. I am not convinced by this theoretical explanations; it seems to me global warming (as a consequence of aggressive industrialization) speaks for itself, and this is a much more robust empirical reality.
What about the degradation of human relationships? Can we be sure that in the capitalist utopia where everyone is seeking a profit, friendship retains its value, and it doesn’t degenerate into just one more commodity? It will suffice to read Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy to be disturbed about how far the economizing of society is taking us, from selling spots in queues for doctors’ appointments in China, to paying desperate poor people to tattoo corporate logos on their bodies, as a new form of guerrilla advertising. What about art? Walter Benjamin famously argued that, whenever performances become means to make money, and not really art for art’s sake, real aesthetic emotion is lost. These cultural Marxist arguments may be flawed (and something tells me that, indeed they are), but I just can’t put my finger on their flaws, and I wish Brennan would have tackled more these issues. Today, one strand in the critique of capitalism is not so much that it generates inequality or explotation, but rather, that it dehumanizes and alienates, as the world becomes a gigantic profit machine (Chaplin’s Modern Times is much more about this, than about poverty or inequality). Brennan leaves these matters largely untouched.
If we had the magic wand, then yes, I very much would choose the capitalist utopia delineated by Brennan. But, I think that, for the most part, this is a moot exercise. We would profit more from having our feet on the ground, and wonder: is real capitalism what we really want? I think there is plenty of room for reforms.
In Brennan’s utopia, capitalists would not exploit workers; but Brennan insists, they would achieve this moral ground on their own, no State enforcement would be necessary. I do not think this is achievable in the real world. If human beings have the opportunity to exploit, they will surely do so. That is why I believe the State must step in, to enforce some sort of regulation; perhaps minimum wages and price control in some vital commodities. Furthermore, I am deeply convinced by John Rawls’ arguments that some sort of social safety net is needed for the least benefited in capitalism, and this is only achievable through taxation and wealth redistribution. Thus, certainly the capitalist real world is better than the socialist real world, but I have come to believe that regulated capitalism works better than absolute laissez faire capitalism. It’s very easy to compare South Korea with North Korea in order to defend capitalism; but it seems to me we should also compare Malasya with the Scandinavian countries, and hopefully, this comparison would allow us to appreciate that regulated capitalism seems to work better than laissez faire.
Brennan acutely points out that there is a major moral difference between socialism and capitalism. In capitalism, socialists are tolerated, and communes are allowed, as long as they are voluntary and never enforced; whereas in socialism, private property is not allowed. That is the beauty of capitalism: you are free to do as you wish (including living in a socialist commune), as long as you don’t push it down other people’s throats. This is a very seductive libertarian argument, but I think the world is more complicated than that. Some sort of coercion is necessary in roder to avoid explotation that has the appearance of voluntary transactions. Many market transactions are voluntary in the sense that nobody has a gun to his head, but oftentimes, they are driven by desperation, and this is a subtle form of coercion.
Justice is usually represented as a woman with the weight balance in one hand, and the sword in the other. In utopia, sure, people know what is just, and no force is necessary. In the real world, however, there will always be opprsive robber barons, and some sort of protection must jump in. This protection is enforced only through the sword.