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Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Studies in Marxism and Social Theory) Hardcover – 26 Oct 1995

4 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (26 Oct. 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521471745
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521471749
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.1 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 8,419,253 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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' … Cohen brings formidable analytical and forensic skills, and the book is an outstanding example of the intellectual gains to be won by clear and rigorous thinking about questions that are usually blanketed by idealogical fog.' David Miller, London Review of Books

' … his book stands out among the many studies of electorial history …'. Anarchist Studies

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Let us now suppose that I have sold the product of my own labour for money, and have used the money to hire a labourer, i.e., I have bought somebody else's labour-power. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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By Ben Saunders VINE VOICE on 9 Sept. 2002
Format: Paperback
A comprehensive attack on the libertarian tradition of F. A. Hayek and Robert Nozick (best argued in the latter's 'Anarchy, State and Utopia'). G. A. Cohen argues self-ownership does not give the right-ranging rights that such theorists defend as our 'freedom'. Nozick's account, Cohen notes, is based on a vague notion of acquisition, but it actually relies on the assumption that resources are all initially unowned and up for grabs. If we took a different starting point, assuming they were jointly owned, or held in common, for example, then Cohen shows how we would reach quite different conclusions.
Well worth reading for anyone looking for holes in Nozick's arguments, but I think you have to start with 'Anarchy...' before you read this. Also possibly influential on the 'left-libertarians' such as Michael Otsuka who do take a different view of initial resources.
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Format: Hardcover
I am a libertarian, and I love this book. With enemies like Cohen, libertarians don't need friends! Cohen's arguments here are two-fold: First, he wants to argue against libertarianism, or, more specifically, Nozick; secondly, he wants to justify doing so to his liberal and left wing philosophical colleagues. This requires his showing why libertarianism needs to be taken seriously. As an exempler of this dichotomy, there are Cohen's two chapters on a basic premise of libertarian arguments, self-ownership. The first chapter is made up of several arguments as to why the notion of self-ownership is appealing, coherent, and has content; it not only defends self-ownership as being coherent against Kant, and possessing content against Dworkin, but also the thesis that, if people own themselves, then they cannot be forced to help others, and forcing them, via taxation, to help others as a condition of helping themselves undermines that self-ownership.

But the next chapter turns away from criticising the left to criticising libertarian arguments. Cohen argues that libertarians are wrong to argue that taxation is slavery, or that arguments used to support redistributive taxation undermines self-ownership. He also argues that Nozick's appeal to Kantianism can't support the thesis of self-ownership, and neither can pleas for personal autonomy. He notes that only one argument from Nozick can go through, and that is that taxation undermines self-ownership, as explained above. But, Cohen says, Nozick can't really support that position, since he favours courts and police in his minimal state.

And that is one of the benefits of Cohen to libertarians - many of such counter arguments are very weak: Nozick did support a minimal state providing courts and police and national defense.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a philosophical attack on capitalism. It is obviously written by a highly competent philosopher and I must admit I found it quite useful, but to my mind the tone is unpleasantly spiteful. It is as if the author is so committed to his political view (and so virulently opposed to the work - of Robert Nozick - that he is criticising) that the philosophy has to follow in order to justify. The author is not exploring with an open mind. I found some of the sentences tediously long with far too much comment in parenthesis - as if he is talking down to a simpleton. Some of the generalisations were, I felt, based on rather weak and unlikely counter-examples, yet the author seemed perfectly happy to rely on these as proving those generalisations.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x8b058a14) out of 5 stars 4 reviews
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8b2020cc) out of 5 stars Worth Reading for Interesting Criticisms of Libertarianism 21 Mar. 2004
By Greg Feirman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I am a libertarian and so I read Cohen's book with some interest. I was assigned it for a graduate seminar in Political Philosophy as a "refutation of Nozick". So I was curious to see how he went about refuting Nozick. I think that his arguments are interesting and it is a good excercise to understand them, and what is wrong with them since I don't think they ultimately work.
He criticizes the claim that voluntary transaction are just and preserve justice. He says that ignorance, unforeseeable consequences and accidents show that voluntary transactions can lead from just to unjust distributions. But the former criticism is unworkable since ignorance and unforeseeable consequences are inherent to all human action and any political scheme. Accidents are also inherent to human life and not the subject of justice: justice simply concerns relations between men. He also claims that market transactions are not truly voluntary because of constraints imposed by the market i.e. wages for labor of your kind are set beyond your control, prices of goods, opportunities for work or entrepenuership, etc.. But voluntary, in this context, simply means the absence of coercion. It does not mean the absence of all constraints. The latter is in fact impossible: constraints are set because we live in a world that works in a certain way, whose entities have a certain nature and behave accordingly.
He also has many criticisms of the Lockean/Nozickean rule of original acquisition. He claims that it assumes that things in their natural state are unowned and that the proviso (doesn't worsen the situation of others compared to the objects remaining in its natural state) should take into account alternative uses of the object besides for capitalist appropriation and its remaining in its natural state.
Chapter 10 criticizes the idea of self ownership claiming that it is appealing because of its association with autonomy and true freedom but that it in fact is an obstacle to their realization.
His conclusion, "Future of a Disillusion", reflects on the demise of Socialism in Russia and the future of Socialism. He positively presents Market Socialism as a worthy goal in the short term.
The book is clearly written and I enjoyed reading it as an opportunity to see what a well respected critic had to say about Libertarianism. Ultimately, I wasn't persuaded but it was worth reading.
Greg Feirman (gfire77@yahoo.com)
14 of 28 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8c7960a8) out of 5 stars GA Cohen decimates right-wing libertarianism. Brilliant! 4 April 2012
By Ken Lunce - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I often despair about the future of humanity when I see so many right-wing libertarians swarming around cyberspace, like fevered zombies after the apocalypse. I'm comforted, though, by the lack of electoral support for their beloved Ron Paul. Gerald Allan Cohen was undoubtedly one of the most talented, and alas neglected, philosophers of the last century. This book, like all his work, is supremely well argued, like Gauss or some other prodigious mathematician painstakingly developing a proof for the law of quadratic reciprocity. I must add that he writes in that almost invisibly good and clear English that I thought had begun to die out of our academia. Cohen has an easy, winning ability to combine normative philosophical analysis with a kind of hauntingly beautiful conception of justice. What right-wing libertarians don't understand, as they surrender more and more freedom to corporate tyrannies, is that we egalitarians find it impossible to live but by our conscience. Self-determination is about so much more than choosing what brand of trousers to wear. Anyway, a book about philosophy cannot always be expected to raise acute questions about the world today, but the power of this book is immensely persuasive that it does. It is a book that needed to be written. A knock down, knock out riposte to all the Nozick nonsense which has so tragically dominated our political discourse in these last years. If you are a liberal, a socialist, an egalitarian or just an average wage-earner who believes in fairness and justice, this book is a MUST read. Trust me, you will not regret stumbling upon this author.
18 of 49 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8e13cf54) out of 5 stars Reasons for skepticism about Cohen's criticisms. 28 Jun. 2005
By Eudaimonia - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I don't want to do a thorough review of content. I just want to show why you should be very skeptical about this book:

The phrase "self-ownership" appears on 217 different pages in Cohen's critique of Nozick.

The phrase "self-ownership" appears exactly once in Nozick's book, on p. 172.


Every political philosopher should read this book, but they owe it to themselves to take Nozick seriously. Try as he might, Cohen fails to do so. If you're interested in a basically knock-down response to Cohen, check out Eric Mack's "Self-Ownership, Marxism, and Egalitarianism", parts I and II, in the journal Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.
5 of 22 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8b202474) out of 5 stars Another brilliant piece of work by Cohen 31 Mar. 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Cohen does it again. In a work that defies brief summary, Prof. Cohen's arguments have sound logic, are truly provocative, and have profound normative implications. Few political theorists, especially if marxist, have such an admirable combination of analytical power and deep respect for the integrity of normative theory. Political philosophy at its best.
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