Will Wilkinson quotes Herb Ginis, commenting on Jerry Cohen

“The market” says Cohen, “is intrinsically repugnant…Every market, even a socialist market, is a system of predation.” (pp. 78,82)

Rather than lamenting the incompatibility of socialist community and human nature, Cohen faults our meager social technology; there is simply no known machinery for harnessing natural human generosity. He calls this an “insoluble organizational design problem.” “In my view,” he remarks, “the principal problem that faces the socialist ideal is that we do not know how to design the machinery that would make it run.” (p. 55)

I think there are two problems with Cohen’s argument. First, there is a reason why we lack the organizational institutions that harness human generosity, and it has to do with a side of human nature that Cohen does not recognize. There is a great deal of heterogeneity among people in the degree to which they privilege the personal, including self and family, over the social.

Most people are instinctively repulsed by the notion of selfishness, however, its immutability becomes clear when you move from selfishness about the self to selfishness about the family.

Perhaps we can all imagine that in a world where there is scarcity but nonetheless we are willing to give up something for ourselves, for the greater good. Yet, will we be willing to give up something for our children?

If food is limited, will you be willing to let your child go hungry so that someone somewhere else that you had never meet could have more. Would you let your child go without shoes, without medicine, without school supplies?

Would you not, in the absence of stringent property rights, be tempted just this once to take a little a bit more for your kid. Especially, if you suspected that your jerk of a neighbor might be doing the same? Few people are strong enough to hold to communal values in the face of sad and sullen child.

Indeed, most people will begin to suspect, even without evidence, that their neighbors are cheating. This subconscious effort to justify taking extra for the support of your own children is ingrained in everyone for the obvious evolutionary reasons. And, once the suspicion starts holding a communal order together will be impossible.