Jason Brennan, Why Not Capitalism? (Routledge, 2014) 120pp.
In 2009 G.A (Jerry) Cohen’s short book, Why Not Socialism? defending socialism was posthumously published by Princeton University Press. Jason Brennan’s book, just published by Routledge, is a response to Cohen. A more accurate title for the book might have been Why G.A. Cohen is Wrong. However, as Brennan is defending capitalism, and no doubt with an eye on sales, his own choice of title more suits his purpose.
While Brennan’s book can be read and understood by those without the background, it is a work of political philosophy and will be more appreciated by those with at least an elementary background in the work of twentieth century political philosophers, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and G.A. Cohen.
A similarity between Cohen’s book and Brennan’s book is the cover design. If a book defending socialism can have a single red rose on its cover, then a book defending capitalism can have a bunch of roses. Perhaps Brennan’s cover design has a further resonance when one considers his final sentence prior to his concluding chapter. Turning Mao Zedong’s notorious statement on its head, Brennan asserts, “The slogan of a capitalist utopia might be something like, ‘Let a hundred flowers blossom.’”
In defending socialism Cohen came out with a thought experiment. He compares two different types of societies to two versions of a camping trip. In the socialist camping trip everyone mucks in. One person brings a tent, one person catches fish, one person does the cooking etc. Everyone assists each other and it is a wonderful way to live. In a capitalist camping trip, the owner of the tent would charge rent to other campers, the cook would want to charge people for cooking and so it goes on. Capitalism, in Cohen’s world, is awful. Greed and selfishness are features of capitalist society. And these features are morally repugnant. The camping trip thought experiment is a powerful argument for socialism, or so it might seem prima facie. Brennan’s short book exposes a dramatic flaw that he has found in it.
Cohen’s fallacious reasoning is that he is comparing idealised Marxism with a realistic but flawed capitalist system. Brennan is justified in arguing that one should either compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism or idealised Marxism with idealised capitalism. If one were to compare realistic Marxism with realistic capitalism then a simple comparison would be Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China to Truman or Nixon’s America. Capitalism wins. Just as we have not experienced idealised Marxism so we have not experienced idealised capitalism. If Cohen can construct an idealised version of Marxism by using his camping trip example, then Brennan can construct an idealised version of capitalism. He does this by noting that life portrayed in the village of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is akin to idealised capitalism. Brennan parodies Cohen by setting up the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Village whereby the villagers “cooperate with a common desire that everyone have the freedom and resources to flourish under their own conceptions of the good life. Everyone operates on principles of mutual concern, tolerance, and respect. They live together happily, without envy, glad to trade value for value, glad to give and share, glad to help those in need, and never disposed to free ride, take advantage of, coerce, or subjugate one another.”
Brennan notes that there is “an essential asymmetry in the capitalist and the socialist versions of utopia.” An idealised capitalist utopia would allow a group of people to set up a socialist commune. The socialists would be permitted to own property communally just as the capitalists would be able to own property individually. However, in the socialist utopia, all property would be owned communally and capitalist acts such as owning property individually would be forbidden. In part, this is a reason why idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism.
Brennan aims to show that idealised capitalism is better than idealised Marxism and that realistic capitalism is better than realistic Marxism. It is a tall order to suggest that he has managed to do this well enough to convince sufficient amounts of doubters in his short book, but what I think he has done well is demonstrate that Cohen’s argument based on the camping trip thought experiment is flawed.