Libertarianism and Modern Philosophers, Lecture 2 with David Gordon - Mises Academy
Libertarianism and the
Philosophers: Lecture 2
G.A. Cohen’s Challenge to
Who Was Cohen?
●G.A. (Jerry) Cohen was a leader of the
analytic Marxists. He always remained
sympathetic to Marxism, but he thought that
the theory of history couldn’t be demonstrated
to be true. The proletariat will probably not, as
Marx, thought, become the majority. (Sombart
made this point.)
●If this is right, the coming of socialism isn’t
inevitable. This raises the problem for him,
why favor socialism?
The Attractions of Self-
●Cohen’s arguments for socialism were
ethical: he thought that inequality was
●He faced a problem. He also thought
that self-ownership is very plausible, but
self-ownership seems to lead to
●He can’t be both a libertarian and a
socialist; what can he do?
●Cohen has two ways of responding to
●The first is to accept self-ownership but
to argue this doesn’t lead to
●The second is to say that, in spite of the
plausibility of self-ownership, this
principle should be rejected.
●Cohen mentions this example, which
has also been used by Ayn Rand. Most
people have two usable eyes, but some
people do not have any. The latter
group would benefit from eye
transplants. People who had two eyes
could still see, though less well than
before. The blind would be much better
off. Should we favor such transplants?
More on Self-Ownership
●Obviously not. Even if some people would be
better off as the result of the eye transplants,
each person has the right to decide what to
do with his or her own eyes, or body in
●Self-ownership seems difficult to reject. Note,
by the way, that nothing turns on the term
“self-ownership”, which some people don’t
like. It’s the concept that’s important.
●If you accept self-ownership, the way to
libertarianism seems clear. Don’t people
who own themselves have the right to
●If they so, there is no room for socialism
or the welfare state to get started. You
have a right to your property that blocks
action to achieve egalitarian goals.
The Argument Continued
●The structure of the argument is just like the
argument against the eye transplants. Even if
eye transplants would make people better off
overall, persons’ rights to their own bodies
blocks this move. In Nozick’s language, rights
are side constraints.
●In a similar way, aren’t plans to redistribute
wealth blocked by property rights? How can a
Cohen’s First Way Out
●Cohen needs to block the step from self-
ownership to acquisition of property by
●He does in a way you might not expect. He
claims that the libertarian view rests on an
●The assumption is that land starts out
unowned. If there is no unowned land to start
with, we can’t get individual acquisition.
●What is the alternative to starting with
land and resources as not owned by
●Cohen suggests that either everyone in
the society owns all the land collectively
or that individuals have a right to an
equal division of all the resources in the
A Possible Misunderstanding
●Cohen is not suggesting that groups,
rather than individuals, homestead
property. That would be compatible with
standard libertarian theory.
●Rather, what Cohen means is that we
start out with persons having these
What Is Cohen’s Point?
●You might wonder, what defense does
Cohen give for either of these views?
But this question misses what he is
trying to do. He isn’t arguing that either
of these two proposals is correct.
●Rather, he is trying to show that,
because these alternatives exist, the
move from self-ownership to
Are the Alternatives
●You might think that Cohen’s first
alternative is totally unworkable. If
everyone owns property collectively,
doesn’t this mean that any individual
could veto any use of land by someone
else? No one would be able to do
anything. Rothbard raised this objection
to this system, although he didn’t have
●Cohen did not have in mind a system in which
anyone could always veto everything. He
thought that in this system, people would
agree on a distribution of resources to
●Cohen suggests that the distribution agreed
to would probably be an equal one. If more
productive people wanted inequality, the less
productive could refuse to agree. The more
productive would have to accept equal
●Tom Palmer objected that Cohen isn’t right.
The more productive could also threaten to
hold out. The resulting distribution would
depend on the bargaining ability of the
●Palmer is right about this, and Cohen can’t
claim that self-ownership + collective property
rights directly leads to socialism. But Cohen
could still say that if you begin with collective
rights, you need not end up with something
that looks like the libertarian solution.
●How can libertarians respond to Cohen’s
point? We can admit that the claim that land
and resources start unowned is not a
consequence of self-ownership. Cohen is
●But does this matter? Why should we think
that people have inherent property rights of
the kind Cohen suggests? Here we have to
make a judgment about plausibility.
Cohen’s Attack on Libertarian
●Cohen’s doesn’t directly argue that collective
ownership is desirable. Instead, he attacks
the libertarian approach. He says that the
libertarian system allows morally bad
●Unfortunately, he selects Nozick’s account as
the only one to examine. Nozick’s system has
a feature that gives Cohen an opening.
Rothbard’s approach doesn’t have this
The Standard Libertarian
●Libertarian theories start from self-
ownership and, as Cohen suggests, the
premise that land and resources start
●Individuals can then acquire property by
doing something to areas of land
(home-steading) There are different
views of what exactly you have to do.
The Lockean Proviso
●Nozick adds a feature to the standard picture.
He follows John Locke here. He says if you
appropriate land, your doing so can't leave
anyone else worse off.
●What this entails is hard to say. One reason
Nozick puts this in is that he doesn’t think
there is a satisfactory principle of first
appropriation. The Proviso in part makes up
●Nozick’s use of the Proviso gives
Cohen an opening for attack. He
reduces the libertarian account of
property acquisition to the Proviso. The
only limit on appropriation is that what
you do can’t make anyone else worse
●Suppose that someone is farming land
but hasn’t said “I appropriate this land”.
Then, Cohen says, it would be all right
on Nozick’s theory for someone else to
appropriate the land, so long as the
farmer didn’t suffer a loss of income.
Imagine, e.g., that a developer can use
the land for some lucrative purpose. He
can compel a transfer. This is like
What Cohen Missed
●The libertarian answer to Cohen is that
the farmer would already be the owner
of the land. His activities would be
sufficient to count as appropriation. You
can’t appropriate someone else’s land
just by compensating him.
●Cohen’s reduction of the libertarian
account to the Proviso leads him to
A Problem for Cohen
●Even if Cohen is right that self-ownership
doesn’t lead by itself to libertarianism, he still
faces a big problem. He is an egalitarian
socialist, and it’s very difficult to reconcile
self-ownership with socialism.
●Suppose we start with individuals who have
equal shares of all resources. Can’t this
situation lead to inequalities, as Nozick’s Wilt
Chamberlain example shows?
●Cohen can deal with this by rejecting self-
ownership. It isn’t up to people to do whatever
they want with their own bodies and property.
●But doesn’t Cohen himself say that self-
ownership seems correct? What about the
eye transplant case?
●He answers that this shows only a right to the
integrity of your body, not full self-ownership.
The state can’t take away parts of your body
to give to others, but it doesn’t follow, e.g.,
that you have a right to control your own