G.A. Cohen's Obsession With The Irrelevant

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on June 29, 2010


This appreciation of the late Marxist philosopher G.A. Cohen is fawning in all of the appropriate places–apparently, being an “analytic Marxist” means never having to say you’re sorry for Marxism–but leaves the reader wondering what all the fuss is about with Cohen. I mean, consider this:

. . . In the 1970s analytic philosophy rediscovered political questions. A major figure in the reawakening was Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick. Nozick was like Cohen in that he sought to employ philosophical tools on behalf of a political tradition anglophone philosophers had ignored—only in Nozick’s case the tradition was fire-breathing libertarianism. Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia argued for counterintuitive political proposals, such as the abolition of all welfare programs, with great ingenuity and force. Nozick was profiled in The New York Times Magazine and Anarchy won the National Book Award. A young conservative I once knew said that if you agreed with Nozick’s premises then all his conclusions followed as a matter of simple logic. My friend was a social conservative rather than a libertarian, but the fact that he worked until recently in the office of the prime minister of Canada is testament to Nozick’s relevance and reach.

The genius of Nozick’s approach was that it made a case for libertarianism based on moral principles most people already accept. Like many libertarians, Nozick suggested a philosophy of small government was justified by a commitment to freedom. He also appealed to the idea of self-ownership. Most of us feel we have a special authority when it comes to decisions involving our own bodies. If so, Nozick suggested, reason obliges us to take the same view of the fruits of the labour we perform with those bodies. Redistributing wealth, he concluded, is not far removed from slavery.

Cohen wrote a devastating critique of Nozick that had a wide impact. One of Cohen’s simpler points had to do with libertarian-style property rights. Their enforcement requires limiting a great deal of freedom. If I pitch a tent in your backyard, for example, you can call the police to drag me away. If that is the case, libertarianism cannot be justified as a philosophy of pure freedom, as it is actually a complex mixture of freedom and unfreedom, much like other philosophies. Cohen’s analysis of Nozick’s self-ownership argument was more technical, but it showed that more than one arrangement regarding resources was consistent with self-ownership, which was enough to derail Nozick’s claim that once we grant self-ownership libertarianism swiftly follows. Introductory texts in political philosophy now routinely direct students to the 1995 book where Cohen’s critique of Nozick is found, Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality. If there has never been another breakout work of analytic libertarianism, Cohen’s cool and unruffled takedown of Nozick is an important reason why.

But all of this is daft. First off, libertarians generally believe that the state may enforce property and contract rights; indeed, many libertarians believe that this is all the state is good for. Perhaps (let’s assume this for the sake of argument) Nozick introduced his philosophy as constituting one of “pure freedom,” and erred in doing so. But I highly doubt that Cohen’s demonstration that there are unfreedoms mixed with the freedoms was responsible for any particular lack of works concerning “analytic libertarianism,” whatever that is; there are enough philosophical and political works on libertarianism out there to think that Cohen really didn’t do much to stem the number of writings on libertarianism, and just about everyone knows that there are limits to freedom in a libertarian society (as the famous saying goes, for example, my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins).

As for Cohen’s claim that there is more than one arrangement out there that involves and brings about self-ownership, why is it that for all of the work done by “analytical Marxists,” there has been no acceptance by the Marxist political movement of the philosophy and doctrine of self-ownership? At best, this lack of acceptance implies that analytical Marxism is stuck in an ivory tower. At worst, it means that its ideas are utterly ineffectual. And in any event, if after all of this, analytical Marxism still represents an idea worth celebrating, I’ll eat my hat.

  • Andy_L

    Aristotle said that it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it. The hyperbolic language in this response to my article on G.A. Cohen suggests it is primarily meant to reassure people who are so committed to libertarianism, they cannot entertain criticisms of it.

    Many of the points in this post do not really address what the article says. I never say for example that people stopped writing books about libertarianism. I say there has never been another breakout work of analytic libertarianism. If you read the article, it explains what analytic philosophy is, and the quoted passage notes how successful Nozick's book was. There has never been another work on libertarianism by an analytic philosopher with the same success. Cohen's critique has something to do with that.

    The post states: “just about everyone knows that there are limits to freedom in a libertarian society (as the famous saying goes, for example, my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins).” This type of restriction however is not a good example of a limit on freedom. A restriction on swinging your fist preserves my freedom, which is compromised if I am being assaulted. Hence such restrictions are often, by Nozick and many other libertarians, justified in the name of preserving freedom. Cohen's point is that private property cannot be justified this way, as enforcing property rights can curtain someone's freedom, without an equivalent gain in freedom on the part of the property owner. Hence his point that libertarianism, with its commitment to property rights, cannot be justified by a commitment to freedom alone.

    The final paragraph of the post has no bearing on the article or anything Cohen has written. Among other reasons, many Marxists consider Cohen not to be one of them, so it is no surprise they would not be influenced by him. But more importantly, Cohen's ivory tower approach was one of his greatest strengths. Rather than a defect, his detached perspective allowed him to be a rigorous and careful thinker, as many libertarian philosophers have noted.

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