Before those questions can be addressed, however, it is necessary to define what one means by “socialism”. For Cohen it is not a question of government ownership or central planning: rather, he starts from a consideration of equality of opportunity, of which he identifies three levels.
First, bourgeois equality of opportunity. This involves the removal of “status restrictions, both formal and informal, on life chances”. Serfdom and slavery are examples of “formal” restrictions; racial prejudice is an example of an “informal” restriction. Bourgeois equality of opportunity removes these restrictions (to a greater or lesser degree).
Second, left-liberal equality of opportunity. This seeks to remove social restrictions on opportunity: “those circumstances of birth and upbringing that constrain not by assigning an inferior status to their victims, but by nevertheless causing them to labour and live under substantial disadvantages”. The aim is to ensure that people’s life chances are “determined by their native talent and their choices” rather than by their social backgrounds, through initiatives such as “head-start” education programmes for those from deprived backgrounds.
The third level of equality of opportunity is what Cohen calls socialist equality of opportunity. This “treats the inequality that arises out of native differences as a further injustice”, since differences in native abilities is as unchosen as differences in social background. “When socialist equality of opportunity prevails, differences of outcome reflect nothing but differences of taste and choice, not differences in natural and social capacities and powers”. What this means in practice is, for example, in everyone being paid the same hourly rate for their work, so that differences in income reflect nothing more than different tastes for the time spent working.
To be honest, I feel pretty uncomfortable with this concept. I’m not sure that absolute equality of this nature – as opposed to avoiding extremes of inequality – is what we should be heading towards. I found these sections of Cohen’s book the most difficult and least convincing. Perhaps that just means I’m a “left-liberal” rather than a “socialist”, in Cohen’s terms.