If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? By G. A. Cohen. Harvard University Press, 233 pages, $35.00 and Philosophy and Social Hope by Richard Rorty. Penguin Books, 288 pages, $13.95.

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W. H. Auden said that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and Marx said the same thing (though not in so many words) about philosophy.The latter opinion would seem to place a Marxist philosopher in a curious position, especially one who is a leading exponent of historical materialism, which aims, with unrivalled ambitiousness and decisiveness, to explain what, if not philosophy, does make things happen. According to historical materialism, what makes things happen is the development of the productive forces. Hence, wrote the brash young Marx of The German Ideology, “the study of the real world is to the study of philosophy as romantic love is to self-abuse.”

Whether or not “Marxist philosopher” turns out, on investigation, to be an oxymoron, G. A. Cohen, successor to Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, is undoubtedly the most illustrious member of that species at present. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense (1978) applied the methods of analytic and “ordinary language” philosophy to the interpretation of historical materialism. It has been widely praised and widely debated; History, Labour, and Freedom (1988) collects Cohen’s further reflections and responses to criticism. In Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (1995), Cohen engages with the leading liberal and libertarian political philosophers in the English-speaking world: Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, and John Rawls. (His demolition of Nozick will be highly gratifying to anyone who, like this reviewer, has long found the prestige of Nozick’s arguments both inexplicable and exasperating.)

If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? is neither a treatise nor a collection of articles; it is the 1996 Gifford Lectures – the granddaddy of all distinguished lecture series. Cohen ranges very widely. One lecture compares religious and political conviction. Another charmingly recounts his “Montreal Communist Jewish childhood.” Another contrasts “utopian” and “scientific” socialism, correcting the vulgar disparagement of the former and showing how the latter is compromised by the “obstetrical” motif of classical Marxism. (E.g.: “New higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.”) Still another lecture, “A Lighter Look at the Problem of Evil,” was a songfest. “The audience accepted my invitation to sing with me, to the accompaniment of tapes, a set of American popular songs that illustrate how bad things can be good.” Alas, this lecture is not reproduced. (I don’t see why Harvard University Press couldn’t – especially considering the book’s price – have included a CD of this lecture, as they did of Helen Vendler reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets to accompany her book on that subject.) These introductory or digressive chapters are witty, vivid, and – particularly Cohen’s discussion of Hegel, who actually begins to make sense under the ministrations of analytic philosophy – illuminating.

The theme of If You’re an Egalitarian … is the failure of historical materialism and the resulting “turn to normative political philosophy” by Cohen and other Marxists. With admirable lucidity and lack of fuss, Cohen acknowledges that “inevitabilitarian” Marxism – on which he had built his reputation and founded his hopes – was mistaken. That doctrine was based on two predictions: the growth in size, organization, and insecurity of the working class, and the prospect of a limitlessly increasing material abundance. Both these predictions have been falsified. The working class is too diverse, geographically and occupationally, to be anywhere near as well organized as international capital for the foreseeable future. And the social welfare policies of the industrialized countries have so far prevented an increase in misery beyond the crisis point. The other half of the inevitabilitarian pincer movement – the supposedly irresistible force of limitless growth – has run into an immovable object: the limits to growth. Cohen asserts flatly that the attainment of a present-day European or North American standard of living by everyone on the planet is an absurd and dangerous fantasy. He is quite right to disdain arguing this point in detail; it is indeed so obvious that only a diehard opponent of income redistribution and ecological sanity (e.g., a Wall Street Journal editorial writer) could disagree.

If inevitability is off, then philosophers must argue for equality on moral grounds. The most successful and influential of such arguments is that of John Rawls. In brief, Rawls says that if we’re setting up a society and want to be fair, we’ll look for arrangements that don’t give anyone or any group an advantage. Any possible basis for such an advantage – brains, brawn, looks, charm, character, energy – is merely the luck of the draw, genetically or environmentally. But since we care about liberty as well as fairness, we can’t prohibit inequality outright – that would be too intrusive. So Rawls proposed the “difference principle”: the only justified inequalities are those that improve the condition of the worst off. If unequal rewards are required to motivate the most talented people to produce more, and if some of that additional production can be redistributed, then the extra rewards are justified. In practice, this means progressive – but not too progressive – taxation and generous – but not too generous – social provision.

If you’ve taken any notice of political philosophy in the last three decades, the foregoing paragraph is old hat. Rawls’s theory has given rise to a vast body of interpretation and commentary, but Cohen has apparently managed to come up with an original criticism of it. To avoid infringing liberty, the “difference principle” applies only to the basic structure of society, defining a set of rules. Within that structure and those rules, people are free to make whatever choices they please, yet because of the difference principle the outcomes will be just: the worst off will be as well off as possible.

But, Cohen objects, there is a logical difficulty here. Either most people in a society accept the difference principle or they don’t. If they do, then they can’t reasonably demand extra rewards for being more productive, since the only justification for extra rewards, according to the difference principle, is that some people (i.e., some other people: to wit, those who don’t accept the difference principle) will refuse to be more productive without them. On the other hand, if a majority don’t accept the difference principle, then they can and will set their demands for extra compensation high enough to deny a decent minimum to the worst off. (A related question, which Cohen does not address, is why any society a majority of whose members did not accept the difference principle would adopt a basic structure modelled on that principle.) As Cohen concludes: “A society that is just within the terms of the difference principle … requires not simply just coercive rules, but also an ethos of justice that informs individual choices.” In other words, a society will be no more decent than those who make it up. You may be surprised, as I was, that no other political philosopher has thought of this since the publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971. But better late than never.

Having shown that neither from History nor from philosophy but verily out of the heart of man cometh justice, Cohen proceeds, in the book’s final chapter, to probe the hearts of rich egalitarians. If you have more money than most people, he asks, and you believe in equality, how can you justify not giving most of your money away? I admit that this question got my back up at first. I am Sicilian, and as D. H. Lawrence remarked about one of his characters: “He was a Sicilian who feels he is being done out of his money – and that is saying everything.” But Cohen seems to mean rich egalitarians, not freelance writers with a tiny condo and a modest IRA. After much painstaking and ingenious argumentation, Cohen persuaded me that rich people should indeed give a lot of money away. With commendable circumspection, and a bow to his fellow philosophers, he adds that “there is a great deal more to be said about the problem.”

I’m not sure Richard Rorty would agree. At least, I’m not sure he’d agree that there’s a great deal more to be said by philosophers. As he observes in Philosophy and Social Hope, some people “still think that … being right about philosophical matters is important for right action. I think this is important only occasionally and incidentally.” Normative philosophers like Rawls and Dworkin think that “liberal societies are bound together by philosophical beliefs.” Pragmatists like Rorty think that what binds societies together are sentiments, memories, images – “common vocabularies and common hopes.” It is not any philosophical doctrine about human nature or obligation that produces solidarity, but the ability to grasp imaginatively other people’s capacity for suffering or joy. As Rorty put it in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989): “Detailed descriptions of particular varieties of pain and humiliation (in, e.g., novels or ethnographies), rather than philosophical or religious treatises, have been the modern intellectual’s principal contributions to moral progress.”

This certainly answers to my own sense of the futility of political philosophy, even in the hands of a brilliant and high-minded practitioner like Cohen. When Cohen writes …

I do not say that because everyday choice cannot be, as the basic-structure objection says it is, beyond the reach of justice, simply because it is everyday choice, it then follows that everyday economic choice is indeed within its reach; that would be a non sequitur. I say, rather, that it is not an objection to my argument for the claim that justice evaluates everyday economic choice that everyday choice is (in general) beyond the reach of justice, since it is not.

… I cannot help wondering how many rich egalitarians will take his point (whatever it is) to heart. As many, I would guess, as have been spurred to heroic sacrifices by reading Rawls or Dworkin.

In Philosophy and Social Hope there is a jeu d’esprit, “Looking Backwards from the Year 2096,” which gently twits Rorty’s egalitarian philosophical colleagues.
Here, in the late twenty-first century, as talk of fraternity and unselfishness has replaced talk of rights, American political discourse has come to be dominated by quotations from Scripture and literature, rather than from political theorists or social scientists. Fraternity, like friendship, was not a concept that either philosophers or lawyers knew how to handle. They could formulate principles of justice, equality and liberty, and invoke these principles when weighing hard moral or legal issues. But how to formulate a “principle of fraternity”? Fraternity is an inclination of the heart, one that produces a sense of shame at having much when others have little. It is not the sort of thing that anybody can have a theory about or that people can be argued into having.

The sort of thing that might, instead, elicit an impulse of fraternity is a small jewel of an essay in Philosophy and Social Hope, entitled “Love and Money.” In half a dozen elegiac pages Rorty muses on the bleak prospects of the unfortunate global majority. Even assuming a significant increase in rich egalitarians, “nobody who reads the statistics about the unthinkably poor of the South can generate any optimism.” It is a quiet but intense lament, not thunderous or coruscating; just the melancholy reflections of a wise, decent, literate man. But even its pessimism is an act of fraternity.


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George Scialabba