Values and Cooperative Socialism

Perhaps -- as a certain kind of Marxist would say -- social values are irrelevant to the broad trends of history. Viewed from outside the process of historical emergence, value systems are determined by class and power structures, not the other way around. But we view the process of history from the inside, and so we need to think of value systems. Values will have an effect on what we do, and what we do will, we hope, have its impact on class and power structures. More than that, social values have roots in human nature. Over the years, social philosophers and economists have made assumptions about human nature, and based their systems of thought on those assumptions. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we need not make assumptions. We have growing experimental evidence that human behavior is shaped by certain kinds of values. These values can be summed up in the word "reciprocity." Social values grounded in these aspects of human nature would not be arbitrary nor speculative. Scientific? Perhaps that would be claiming too much. But more than the arbitrary imaginings of a philosopher or economist.

These essays argue that Cooperative Socialism defines a political economic system superior to capitalism and "communism." The point of the proposal is to provide a focus for action -- action that will probably be motivated not by values, but by a collapse of capitalism. All the same, to say that it is a superior system is to say that it is superior on certain value judgments. (They are the values I would hope to see advanced in a realized Cooperative Socialist Commonwealth, and no doubt they would be central to the ideology that a realized Cooperative Socialism would produce). What are those value judgments? And how would they be advanced by a cooperative economic system? And how are they related to reciprocity, if at all?

The first key value judgment is consequentialism. Consequentialism says that social institutions are justified only by the consequences they produce.

Second, though, consequentialism doesn't answer all the questions. Which consequences count? Which consequences can justify a system or an action as being for the best or indict it as being unjust? One kind of consequences that count for these purposes are the material standards of life of the population. I am saying, in other words, that for an economic system to be legitimate it must support a reasonably high standard of living, and to be superior to another it must support a higher standard of living, all other things equal. Other considerations, such as historical priority and alleged supernatural sanction, do not justify laws, government, property, markets, nor other economic customs and traditions.

Another kind of consequence that counts, another key value judgment, is equalitarianism. The consequences we seek are not just a high average consumption per head. The life chances and standard of living for each human being is an independent good consequence of the economic system. But the poverty of one is not compensated by the wealth of another. The ideal is a high, roughly uniform standard of living, and inequality is a bad consequence that bears against the economic system that produces it, other things equal. Inequality may be justified if it leads to a greater good. For example, allowing educated people to be paid more may motivate more education, so that even poor uneducated people have greater access to the services of the educated people, and are better off as a result. But there is a prejudice against inequality; to be legitimate inequality must be proven.

Of course, this prejudice for equality comes from reciprocity. The value of reciprocity means this: whenever one person assumes a burden, every other person assumes a qualitatively similar and proportional burden. The value of reciprocity also means this: whenever one person gains a benefit, every other person has the opportunity for a qualitatively similar and proportional benefit. If some have to work for a living and a pension, while others can have these benefits without the burden of work, that is a violation of reciprocity. Extremes of economic inequality will violate reciprocity, unless they are the means to much greater benefits -- and this is the essence of the prejudice against inequality.

The fourth key value judgment is environmentalism. Destruction of the environment is a bad consequence that discredits the economic system that generates it. Here again, it is not a simple matter of averaging. Environmental quality is one of the material dimensions of the standard of living. Who is to judge that an increase in the supply of goods and services compensates for a reduction in the quality of the environment? An individual may (or may not) be able to make that judgment on her or his own behalf, but environmental quality is inherently a common dimension of the standard of living of people now alive and those who will live in the future. Thus, we can only say that environmental preservation is an independent value that a good society ought to advance.

For people, now alive, this will secure some benefits, but it will also require some sacrifices. Reciprocity demands that the sacrifices by shared proportionately. One of our deepest values is the shared sacrifice one generation makes in the interest of the future generations -- who cannot reciprocate that sacrifice except by their similar sacrifice for the generations that follow them. In the modern world, environmentalism is an expression of that value of sacrifice for the future generation.

Fifth, the Cooperative Socialist idea is liberal or libertarian. That is, violence and coercion are considered bad things in themselves, and an institution that relies on violent coercion, as government does, has to be limited if not eliminated. There is a tension here with the previous four value judgments, since this is not a consequentialist judgment -- violence and coercion are considered bad in themselves, regardless of their consequences! But it is a value that springs directly from reciprocity. When one person has power over another, when one commands and the other must obey, that is an archtypal violation of the value of reciprocity, and rebellion, the retaliation against the wielder of power, springs from a source deep in human nature.

Some government is necessary. Perhaps we can extend the just war doctrine to a "just government" doctrine: that reliance on government is justified when the aim is to avoid a greater evil, other means of avoiding the evil are not available, and there is at least a reasonable probability that government action will succeed in avoiding the greater evil. Environmental regulation belongs in that category.

Reciprocity also leads us to support democracy. When decisions must be made for a group, or someone must be selected to direct the common action of a group, the one-person-one-vote norm has a character of reciprocity. When you are in the majority, you prevail, but when you are in the minority, you give way -- just as prehuman hunters would share their catch, expecting others to share when they were the ones with a catch. And this analogy shows up the one limitation on the one-person-one-vote norm. When one side is always the majority and the other is always the minority -- as in Northern Ireland, for example, or other countries with ethnic political divisions -- then the fundamental value of reciprocity must be expressed in some other way.