Friday, January 08, 2010

A Failed Rescue

Having recently finished A Theory of Justice I've turned my attention, on the recommendation of the good folks over at Crooked Timber, to Rescuing Justice & Equality by G. A. Cohen. So far I can't say that I'm impressed.

One of the things that really appeals to be about Rawls is the clarity of his argument. I may find fault with his premises and/or conclusions but have no cause to complain about his method; he states his premises clearly and builds his argument from them in an orderly and (relatively) easy-to-follow fashion. The same can not be said for Mr. Cohen; rather than lay out a direct argument upfront he seems intent on coming at questions obliquely with the intent of shanking them when they're not looking. Consider the following passage from Section 2 of Chapter 1:

I am going to comment negatively on the incentives argument, but my criticism of it will take a particular form. For I shall focus not, directly, on the argument as such, but on the character of certain utterances of it. Accordingly, I shall not raise questions about the validity of the argument, or about the truth of its premises, save insofar as they arise (and they do) within the special focus just described1. (p. 35)

He's setting himself up to try disprove the incentives argument through some clever bit of philosophic judo. For example, he applies the following line of reasoning in his discussion of the justice (or lack thereof) of Nigel Lawson's decision to reduce the top marginal tax rate in Britain from 60% to 40%2:

  1. Good public policies must have a comprehensive justification i.e. any policy P claiming to induce a particular behavior in a subset S of the population must also demonstrate that the response of S to policy P is also justified.
  2. An argument purporting to provide comprehensive justification of policy P must pass the interpersonal test; it must justify the policy when uttered by any member of society to any other member of society.
  3. "[T]he incentives argument does not serve as justification of inequality on the lips of the talented rich, because they cannot answer a demand for justification that naturally arises when they present the argument, namely, why would you work less hard if income tax were put back up to 60 percent?"
  4. QED

There are a host of problems with the above, not the least of which is Cohen's assertion that the "talented rich" can't proffer a reasonable explaination for their behavior. Basic (I'm talking highschool-level) microeconomics provides a perfectly rational justification for the cited behavior that centers on the diminishing marginal utility of free time3. It's unlikely that the average individual would be able to rattle off this justification at a moment's notice (though given time to reflect ey may very well come up with something similar) but it seems foolish to treat their inability to spout microeconomic theory as grounds for invalidating the argument itself. The closest he comes to tackling this issue is on Pp. 60 - 62 where he has at set of talented rich strawmen justify themselves to the badly off by saying that it just wouldn't be "worth their while" to work more under such conditions. He goes so far as to conceed that such reasoning is convincing when the "power to produce is conceived as fully private property".

As opposed to what, partially public property? On what grounds does the public lay claim to a portion of the talented rich's labor, and what say did the talented rich have in the bargain? I suppose I should stop hounding him about such trifling details... no, on second thought, I'm not. C'mon man, don't hide your light under a bushel. Be proud, shout it from the rooftops: "I support forced labor!". I wanna see that in letters 5 feet high and luminous.

In all seriousness, though, if Cohen takes exception to the notion that one's labor is one's own then it seems like quibbling to talk about the incentives argument. If he departs from Rawls on such a fundamental principle its no wonder that he has an issue with Rawls' conception of justice and equality. Dude should be justifying the appropriation of labor, but fails to even provide a cite to somewhere that does.

Another issue is his persistent use of the word "rich" in this context, which makes me think that he's conflating two related, but distinct, concepts, namely "income" and "wealth". The response of the rich to an income tax, where "rich" is understood to be a synonym for "wealthy", is indeterminate; the rich may have a large income stream or no income at all and, as such, their responses to such a tax will likely vary. Far from being mere nitpicking this distinction has moral ramifications as well. Person A and Person B may have the same income over a period of time but Person A might choose to spend it while Person B chooses to save it. At some point Person B will be "rich" in comparison with Person A but, if you accept that people have free will, is perfectly justified in telling Person A to shove it when ey comes looking for a slice of Person B's pie.

But the biggest problem is that his interpersonal test appears, by definition, to lack a comprehensive justification; he fails to impose the constraint that the response of the listener to the speaker be, in itself, justified. He doesn't define with any precision what it means for an argument to "serve as a justification" when uttered by one party to the other. Given the various statements that he puts in the mouth of his rich strawmen, and the causes he finds to reject them, the ability for an utterance to serve as a justification is intimately tied up with both the speaker's and the listener's assessment of the morality thereof. Basically, does the justification make the speaker appear to be a good and moral person?

Honestly, part of the problem is his patronizing attitude towards the badly off. In their dialogues with the talented rich they are treated as a monolithic entity that responds with one voice and one opinion. Cohen doesn't stop to consider that two members of this class might come to different conclusions regarding any particular justification. Whose opinion are we supposed to consider authoritative in such a situation? Similarly, members of this class have different capacities for reason, different emotional reactions to wealth disparities, and so on. I'll go so far as to posit that the interpersonal test simply cannot be applied meaningfully; assessing how one group of people (or a single representative thereof) might respond to a particular statement is simply an excercise in projection.

Anywho... that's what I've got for Mr. Cohen so far. We'll see if he improves through the remainder of the work.

1 Under the influence of several glasses of wine I characterized this to my wife as "I'm going to come, but not in your mouth as is the typical custom. Rather, I'm going to come on your tits, or maybe, perhaps, your glasses".
2 Pp. 41 - 42
3 Basically, the more you have of anything the less utility an additional unit of that thing has to you; the 24th free hour in a day is less valuable to you that the 23rd free hour. Conversely, as your stock of daily free time shrinks that time which remains has increasing utility; if you only have 4 free hours a day you'll value each hour more than if you have 24 free hours a day. This utility function defines your personal supply curve by which you'll trade free time for a wage. At the same time there is a corresponding demand curve; people will trade money (in the form of a wage) for a claim to some number of hours of your free time. The wage you make and the number of hours you work is determined by the intersection of these two curves. It follows from there at if you make less money per hour by virtue of an increased income tax you'll work less; the utility of some portion of time you would have previously works exceeds the utility achieved by trading it for your new wage and thus it is rational for you to work less.


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