That’s probably enough G.A. Cohen for one week, but to conclude this series of posts here’s an interesting section from the Guardian’s obituary of Cohen (the whole of which is worth reading to get a good impression of both the man and his thought). This articulates my own intuitions regarding the relationship between liberty and equality:
Always open-minded, Cohen found himself “shaken from his dogmatic socialist slumber” by reading Nozick’s argument for the incompatibility of liberty and equality. But, whereas egalitarians tend to attack Nozick’s premises and claim that equality is more important than liberty, Cohen, in Self-Ownership, Freedom and Equality (1995), brilliantly turned the argument on its head. To the libertarian insistence that John Locke’s laudable principle of self-ownership rules out redistributive taxation and thus the welfare state, Cohen responded that it is precisely devotion to self-ownership principles that underlies the key Marxist theory of alienation*, as well as the left’s historical opposition to slavery and oppression. The right, however, are guilty of conceptual confusion. What they presuppose is that the existing distribution of property is somehow part of the natural order of things, like weather or death, and that freedom is distributed on top of that.
[* For a striking illustration of this, compare this comment from an American libertarian about people’s “fundamental right to the fruit of their own labor” with the old Clause IV’s call “to secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry”.]
But surely, urged Cohen, private property is itself already a distribution of liberty, which it necessarily restricts. The owner of something is free to use it – others are not. The left had allowed themselves to be wrong-footed in conceding that only under a socialist system would liberty have to be sacrificed, when in fact any distribution of property, being simultaneously a distribution of liberty, requires a trade-off between these different types of “access to advantage”.
What still needs to be decided, though, is which the best distribution is – socialist, capitalist, whatever. And a good case can be made for saying that unequal distribution destroys, rather than enhances, freedom, and that liberty actually requires equality, and therefore redistribution.
Which is probably a good place to leave Cohen as I start reading the second of my post-election politics book acquisitions, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, which seeks to put empirical flesh on the bones of that last sentence.