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Capitalism with Morality.

This is a bold and a worthy book. Not for Haslett the painful clamber up the rock-strewn gully toward the summit; rather, the leap from crag to crag. His range is wide, and his footing mostly sure. He first defends his political philosophy (a variety of rule utilitarianism) against the skeptics and the libertarians and then applies it to a number of contending social systems, winnowing their features to come up with a welfare-maximizing version of what he still calls capitalism. This winnowing is achieved with a nice disregard for stereotypical clusters of positions; one might say that in Haslett's utopia there is something for almost everyone. He is against central planning but for workers' control, in favour of the market but against inequality, against minimum wages but for income credit, against government interference but in favour of universal welfare provision, for capitalism but against the inheritance of property, against Marxism but in favour of the Marxist agenda. The only social character he thoroughly disapproves is one who is, by choice, unmotivated by the work ethic (p. 201). Haslett can be impatient, too, with those who do not see things quite his way. Those who have spent their working lives puzzling over the holism/individualism problem might feel disheartened to be told not to "waste . . . time with such nonsense" (p. 96). But with so much virgin territory to cover, it is perhaps inevitable that Haslett will sometimes eschew the scalpel for the axe.

He proposes a "compromise" utilitarianism (actually a synthesis of preferential and experiential versions) that measures well-being by the degree of preference satisfaction people enjoy in respect of the preferences they have over their experiences, the best social system being the one that arranges its institutions to maximize the equal well-being of its citizens in this sense (pp. 27-33). Now, Haslett argues persuasively that in the business of weighing up social systems, it is as well to take account not only of the desirability of institutions but "the social pressure system" that will be required in practice to ensure the adherence to institutional norms (p. 11). This is a welcome precaution against excessive idealism (it is presented as a necessary concession to human fallibility), but it creates difficulties for other parts of Haslett's analysis.

First, in order to guard the preference formation process against the effects of "irrational impulses, superstitions, prejudices and the like," agents are assumed to possess perfect insight into the experiences of which they are to form a preference (p. 29). Second, the attention to norm compliance embeds the norms in the context of a social system, and it is the complete working model of this system that is now subject to comparative evaluation. We might then wonder, if this - I dare say it - holist impulse were pushed too far, whether it might not call for an historical (or at least a sociological) analysis of what makes social systems hang together or might not imply the creation of distinctive personalities or preference structures in the populations of two social systems that would vitiate the basis for welfare comparisons between them, on the grounds that the well-being of different folks is served by different strokes.

Forging ahead, Haslett nevertheless argues that the four values that conduce most to the overall well-being of his archetypal Any person are (1) equality of access to the goods and services necessary for a decent life, (2) equal opportunity, (3) freedom, and (4) economic productivity (p. 42). He unsurprisingly finds actually existing capitalism wanting in respect of values 1 and 2 and central-planning socialism wanting in respect of values 3 and 4. The heart of the book therefore consists in the attempt to construct in the mind's eye a social system that combines its features in order to maximize the joint realization of values 1 and 4. Markets are in because central planning is out; but worker control (i.e., work-place place democracy) is also in, because it is much better than corporate control on values 1-3, without being much different on value 4. Haslett prefers a breed of workers, control with decentralized investment decisions, which he calls worker-control capitalism - a slightly strange locution, given that means of production are collectively owned and controlled by (distinct) groups of workers and that it is "the closest we can come to a classless society" (p. 189). But the classless mode of production also needs backing by antipoverty measures, public provision of child care, and state funding of educational, medical, and legal expenses. There is a thorough discussion of the merits of earned income credit in alleviating poverty without damaging incentives, although a comparison with an unconditional basic income (the leading proposal in this field in Europe) would have been welcome. I was less impressed by the discussion of health (and, to some extent, higher education), because systems better in respect of values 1 and 2 than any Haslett proposes and not obviously inferior on values 3 and 4 are currently being destroyed before our eyes in Britain. But he returns to form near the end, with a no-nonsense demonstration that capitalist principles demand the abolition of inheritance laws, coupled with an elegant proposal to limit not bequests themselves but individual receipts from inheritance.

I hesitate to enter any criticism derived from a man and works cast aside so briskly (p. 188), but two points of Marxian provenance did strike me. First, Haslett speaks of economic productivity as if it includes the intensity and duration of work, so that enhancing incentives ipso facto makes the economy more productive by inducing workers to work longer and/or harder. But why should productivity in this sense enhance well-being I would have thought, if anything, the reverse. The appropriate productivity value is surely labour efficiency - being output per labour input as the Marxists contend. Second, Haslett at various points seems to underestimate the problems of transition to a morally defensible capitalism, which are largely the problems of unmoral capitalism's vested interests (e.g., pp. vii, 133, 154, 166, 189). I am not sure that even in the long run, the best argument will always combine with political democracy to create the social system that is in the best interests of the majority, even supposing we can agree what that might be. Rather like libertarianism itself and despite Haslett's admirable efforts, bad practices can sometimes persist for less-than-intellectual reasons.
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Author:Carling, Alan
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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