Politics & Policy

Capitalist Utopia

A review of Why Not Capitalism? by Jason Brennan

‘Utopian” can be a damning word. But, as the late socialist philosopher G. A. (“Jerry”) Cohen noticed, the word also carries a positive valence. Who, after all, wouldn’t enjoy eating pie in the sky?

In his very short 2008 book, Why Not Socialism?, Cohen capitalizes (if you like) on this point. In dismissing socialism as utopian, conservatives are tacitly acknowledging its appeal as an ideal — indeed, as something that is too good for us.

Jason Brennan, assistant professor of strategy, economics, ethics, and public policy at Georgetown University, has recently published a pithy, nearly-as-short rebuttal titled (what else?) “Why Not Capitalism?” In it, Brennan attempts not only to refute Cohen’s arguments, but to show that a capitalist utopia would be even better than a socialist one. 

Cohen’s book begins with a fictional story of a camping trip. Friends go into the woods, taking things like fishing rods, pots and pans, and canoes, which are treated as “under collective control for the duration of the trip.” Cohen writes, “There are plenty of differences, but our mutual understandings, and the spirit of the enterprise, ensure that there are no inequalities to which anyone could mount a principled objection.”

Cohen expects that most of his readers would prefer this “socialist” camping trip to a “capitalist” one. Imagine the clingy wilderness-goers having to barter with one another every time somebody wants to use the potato peeler! Not only is such a market system inherently less appealing (in Cohen’s eyes), it would also be less efficient, since nobody would be able to do anything without engaging in irksome market transactions.

Why not organize all of society around the socialist ideals realized in this camping trip? Cohen anticipates some answers. For instance, it may be the case that the possibilities of human camaraderie are too limited to extend beyond a small group of friends. Even if true, however, that observation doesn’t undermine socialism as an ideal. It only shows that the ideal is not achievable — for now. Cohen optimistically believes we may yet “design” better “social technology” to make the ideal a reality.

“Every market, even a socialist market, is a system of predation,” Cohen writes in the concluding lines of Why Not Socialism? “Our attempt to get beyond predation has so far failed. I do not think the right conclusion is to give up.”

For Brennan, the right conclusion is satire. In Why Not Capitalism? he amusingly draws on the world of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, an animated series on Disney Junior, in order to parody Cohen.

The pre-schoolers who are that show’s target audience are unlikely to appreciate the anarcho-capitalist structure of Clubhouse society. Minnie Mouse owns a “Bowtique” (bow factory), Clarabelle Cow owns a “Moo Mart” (sundries store) and a “Moo Muffin” factory, and Mickey Mouse owns the clubhouse. No government interferes with their free exchanges.

What would happen if these happy villagers moved from capitalist principles to socialist ones? The results, as Brennan describes them, aren’t pretty: “Donald [Duck] decides to forcibly nationalize and control all of the farmland, murdering millions in the process, and causing a massive famine that murders tens of millions more.”

From this tongue-in-cheek parody Brennan distills two serious morals. First, Cohen’s camping story invites us to fallaciously compare something ideal to something non-ideal. “Cohen asked us to imagine a fictional socialist microsociety in which all of the participants are stipulated to have (more or less) perfect moral character and behavior,” Brennan writes. “He then compared this to what he took to be a realistic depiction of capitalism, with nasty behaviors we actually see in real-life capitalism such as greed, callousness, and status-seeking competitiveness.”

Second, Cohen equates regimes with motives. Socialism — government ownership of the means of production — is equated with compassion and camaraderie, while capitalism is equated with selfishness and greed. (Indeed, Kindle readers of Why Not Socialism? can do a word search and see that the book contains no occurrences of the word “government.”) In fact, socialism may be nice, but it isn’t niceness.

Brennan could have ended the book there, having dialectically knocked Cohen into the next commune, but he felt he had one more task to accomplish. In the final chapter of Why Not Capitalism? Brennan tries to convince the reader that an idealized capitalist society is superior to an idealized socialist one.

Brennan seems to think defenders of capitalism have overlooked something terribly important by not making this kind of argument. I’m not sure I agree. It might be satisfying to beat Cohen at his own game, but it’s hardly a pressing concern for conservatives and libertarians who think Cohen has been playing the wrong game all along. If you don’t accept Cohen’s ideas about justice, you probably don’t need to bother comparing two unachievable utopias.

Brennan notes that agents who are morally ideal but not all-knowing would benefit from the information conveyed by market pricing. He adds that even in a utopian society private property would help solve coordination dilemmas and allow people to pursue their creative projects, which human beings believe are central to a meaningful life.

Some of his points are unpersuasive. Couldn’t Minnie Mouse pursue her creative projects while paying her workers a living wage and giving them partial ownership of the company, as some forms of “market socialism” might demand? If successful creative projects require laissez-faire conditions, none of us has any hope.

One point Brennan makes in this final chapter, however, is persuasive. “There is an essential asymmetry in the capitalist and the socialist visions of utopia,” Brennan writes. “Capitalists allow socialism, but socialists forbid capitalism. . . . A capitalist utopia would allow people to form communes, but a socialist utopia would forbid Minnie from owning a factory by herself.”

Indeed, capitalist America has long been fertile soil for socialist utopias such as New Harmony, Ind., and the early Mormon settlements. How did capitalist utopias fare in the Soviet Union? Not well. With this observation, Brennan succeeds in showing the moral superiority of capitalism over socialism.

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.


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