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Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Studies in Marxism and Social Theory) Paperback – 15 Sep 2010
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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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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. But nowhere in his libertarian workd did he defend taxation to fund that minimal state, and even if he did, many libertarians don't - Cohen's argument here shows that commitment to self-ownership should commit you to radical libertarianism, ie, voluntary statism, or market anarchism.
In all, Cohen is essential reading for any student of libertarianism, either for or against it, since he provides great and tough arguments against libertarianism for opponents of it, whilst also providing tools and arguments for libertarians to refine their own arguments and their own positions against their opponents.
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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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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.