“After the Revolution, You Will Like Going Camping!” G.A. Cohen’s Camping Trip Reconsidered

A communist revolutionary was giving a speech one day about the glorious future in front of the people. “After the revolution,” he said, “the land will flow with milk and honey!” A lady in the middle of the crowd piped up and said “What if I don’t like milk and honey?” The revolutionary looked at her and said “Comrade, after the revolution, you will like milk and honey!”

David Henderson’s recent post at EconLog reminds me of that story. Henderson has an obvious objection to the philosopher G.A. Cohen’s “camping trip” thought experiment in his slim defense of socialism Why Not Socialism?; namely, that Cohen assumes everyone wants to be camping. I reviewed the book in 2010 for the Foundation for Economic Education, and I keep coming back to it when I think about arguments defending socialism. 

Cohen’s thought experiment asks about the characteristics we would want in a camping trip and concludes that a camping trip where all our interactions were price-mediated would not be desirable. Cohen’s book inspired a couple of refutations: Jason Brennan’s Why Not Capitalism? and James Otteson’s The End of Socialism (which I reviewed here). As Otteson concludes, “The socialist grapes…seem impossible to harvest, have nevertheless induced numerous but destructive attempts, and yet seem sour in their moral core. Perhaps it is time to give up on the socialist grapes.”

I agree with Otteson. Cohen assumes away the important problems, assuming that people just have “facilities with which to carry out our enterprise: we have, for example, pots and pans, oil, coffee, fishing rods, canoes, a soccer ball, decks of cards, and so forth.” Beyond the assumption that everyone on the camping trip wants to go camping, there are also questions about different preferences about how to camp. Does everyone sleep in a tent? Can people have air mattresses? The absence of private property seems to rule out lightweights like me who enjoy hanging out around the campfire but who want to wake up in the morning to a hot shower and a waffle at the Hampton Inn. Maybe I could own a camper–a consumption good–but as Brennan argues in his critique of Cohen, I wouldn’t be able to rent one.

Comparing actually-existing capitalism with utopian socialism is a common mistake. He concludes, not surprisingly, that a world of non-jerks is preferable to a world of jerks. Brennan, however, argues that if we adopt Cohen’s utopian assumptions and assume everyone is a non-jerk, the argument actually breaks in favor of capitalism. If people don’t cheat, shirk, or lie, then we should have private property and free markets. Moreover, asserting that markets make us crass graspers is at odds with empirical evidence. Brennan quotes the economist Paul Zak: “Exchange is inherently other-regarding.” If we should follow the science, then we should conclude markets make us more virtuous rather than less.

“What about family? What about friendships? What about…” There is room for all of this in Brennan’s capitalist society. I draft this while my nephew is sitting on my lap: we are watching him for a little bit, and hardly anyone would think it proper for us to charge his parents for the service. Families are little quasi-socialist enterprises operating according to the “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” principle. As people get farther from us culturally, politically, geographically, genetically, ideologically, linguistically, and so on, “abilities” and “needs” become a lot harder to discern.

The “socialist” rules governing families do not scale well in part due to our cognitive and moral limitations. Some commentators (like Eugene McCarraher in The Enchantments of Mammon) criticize economics and economists for assuming we have limited capacity for love and virtue. McCarraher objects and argues that love is like a muscle that becomes stronger with use, but this, I think, misunderstands muscles, how they work, and what they do. Muscles get stronger when they repair themselves after being worked to exhaustion. Our muscles have limited capacity in the short run; training and building them takes time and effort, they can be exhausted, and just because one person develops abnormal strength and a chiseled physique during a lifetime of highly specialized training doesn’t mean it’s practical for everyone to do the same. I suspect this is also true of our moral and spiritual development: we can admire and strive to emulate people like Mother Teresa, but I suspect that we become pale imitations at best without lifetimes of concentrated, dedicated effort. Even then, not everyone agrees that Mother Teresa was a moral exemplar; Christopher Hitchens is a notable dissenter. A free, capitalist society has room for Mother Teresa and Christopher Hitchens.

I have always found it interesting and instructive that Cohen builds his case for socialism using a camping trip as a thought experiment. Socialism’s track record is ignominious: socialist governments sent millions of people on “camping trips” to gulags, prisons, and killing fields, never to be heard from again. The camping trips we take under socialism are a lot more likely to be like those than they are to be like the idyllic camping trip Cohen describes. Unfortunately, these regimes were the toast of the intelligentsia until their crimes became too numerous, grotesque, and obvious to ignore. Once it became clear that the New Socialist Man du jour was running a butcher shop, it became “not actually real socialism.” Along these lines, Kristian Niemietz calls socialism “the failed idea that never dies;” I review the book here.

Capitalism has room for everyone, including people who don’t want to go camping. Brennan points out an important difference between capitalists and socialists: “Capitalists allow socialism, but socialists forbid capitalism.” Walter Williams has said that his problem with communists is not that they want to be communists. If that’s what they want to do, it’s their business. Williams’s problem is that communists want him to be a communist, as well. They offer a version of what Deirdre McCloskey calls the Bolshevik Deal. It can be stated pretty simply: “Be ‘liberated,’ or be liquidated.”

Cohen describes the free market as “A casino from which it is difficult to escape.” This, too, is apparently something he writes without irony. Casino design is fascinating in that casinos are designed so that it’s easy to lose track of time and difficult to find one’s way out. However, people are not literally chained to the roulette wheel at the Tropicana or the Bellagio or Harrah’s. Meanwhile, the socialist workers’ paradises literally built walls and fences to keep people in and shot people who tried to escape. 

It has been twelve years since Why Not Socialism? was published. Cohen’s argument has not fared well, and I think there’s a very strong argument that someone choosing from behind a veil of ignorance should choose actually-existing capitalism over actually-existing socialism. This doesn’t require a thought experiment: people vote for capitalism and against socialism in droves by trying to move to freer and more prosperous countries. Socialists might have laudable goals like feeding, clothing, and sheltering everyone–and I agree with these–but I would no more suggest socialism to treat poverty and inequality than I would prescribe leeches, mercury, and bloodletting to treat cancer.

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This article, “After the Revolution, You Will Like Going Camping!” G.A. Cohen’s Camping Trip Reconsidered, was originally published by the American Institute for Economic Research and appears here with permission. Please support their efforts.

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