K's Reviews > Why Not Capitalism?

Why Not Capitalism? by Jason Brennan
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it was ok
bookshelves: philosophy, economics

Brennan's writing is characterized by a fairly non-confrontational tone and a semi-empirical approach. He accepts the importance of Cohen's political thought and does his best to portray Cohen's views as best as possible. This is an honest work, and some of the arguments offered here are not half-bad. Unfortunately, I think Brennan commits two serious errors that end up undermining everything.

First, Brennan misinterprets Cohen's original argument. The ideal does not consist in the imaginary trip per se -the trip is considered ideal in a restricted sense, similarly to an ideal weekend, or ideal meal etc.- but in the fact that many of us take for granted that any other way of organizing it(especially a capitalist one) would turn out to be a disaster. Hence, many camping trips (some of which I've participated myself) are practicing Cohen's principles of socialist equality and community. The ideal consists in trying to establish an economic system which takes advantage of the trip's ethical foundations. Therefore, Cohen is not actually comparing ideal to real, but, rather, real to real, and this comparison leads him to conclude than since the socialist trip is more desirable than the capitalist, it then follows that a socialist society is more desirable than a capitalist one. Whether this follows remains an open question but I won't pursue this point here. In any case, Brennan's first objection falls apart.

But Brennan offers a second argument, namely that ideal capitalism might indeed be better than ideal socialism. This is a positive contribution that should be examined separately. I suppose one way to debunk it is to claim that Brennan is conflating a political philosophy with an economic system, hence making a category error. Libertarianism might allow central planning and communes, but if capitalism transforms itself to socialism, then it's not capitalism anymore. So, at best, he's making the argument that libertarianism (the political philosophy) is inherently more desirable than socialism (the political philosophy) in ideal circumstances. That might be true but that wasn't the argument made here. Nevertheless, in this light, libertarianism is an incoherent basis for any socioeconomic system since it can spawn practically everything. One can claim that libertarianism is compatible with a corporatocracy. But does that make any sense?

Plus, I seriously doubt Brennan's claim that, on his grounds, ideal socialism will not, at some point, allow private property. Even real existing socialism in the USSR, with its obvious limitations and wrongdoings, established some limited private property in the N.E.P.-era after some years of war communism. If socialism is understood as a political ideal instead of a strict economic system, then it could be viewed as a direct descendant of enlightenment values that aimed at human liberation. A previously socialist collective might change its mind and decide, through a referendum, that the best way to run a society would be under principles of private property and free-trade. If someone disagrees, then she is free to join another collective. I mean why not? Of course, this would mean that the term 'socialism' immediately loses all of its particular characteristics (workers' control over production, values of solidarity, cooperation etc) and becomes an incoherent notion that's just as open to interpretation as Brennan's 'libertarianism' is.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 22, 2014 – Shelved
September 22, 2014 – Shelved as: philosophy
September 22, 2014 – Shelved as: economics
September 22, 2014 – Finished Reading

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