Markets, Distributive Justice and Community: The Egalitarian Ethos of G. A. Cohen

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(2) 376 –388
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918791567
Markets are often lauded as efficient mechanisms for allo-
cating scarce resources. For most goods, it is widely
accepted to let supply and demand determine both the dis-
tribution and the price. The demise of the planned Soviet
economy strengthened such beliefs. In 1991, Bowles
remarked that Time magazine would have declared the
market Person of the Year if anyone had known how to
depict it on the front page (Bowles 1991, 11). Perhaps,
such an award is less of a shoe-in today. At least, the moral
limits of the market, the question of what markets cannot
and should not do, receives increased attention.
Tirole highlights that there might be economic reasons
for limiting the market. University degrees and Nobel
prizes would lose their value if they were commodities. If
they could be bought, they would no longer function as
signals to the public or potential employees (Tirole 2017,
37). Furthermore, Tirole argues that markets should per-
haps not be utilized, when exchanges negatively affect
third parties through externalities, or when the exchang-
ing individuals are themselves very badly affected
through internalities (Tirole 2017, 37–38).
Others address the limits of the market from an explic-
itly moral perspective. Satz proposes a typology of four
parameters for when markets are problematic, or, as she
prefers, noxious. While some of her parameters are simi-
lar to Tirole’s, Satz maintains that there is more to the
issue than what economics can deliver (Satz 2010, 94).
Two of the parameters relate to the consequences of mar-
kets, while two relate to those participating in the market.
The parameters regarding consequences are extreme
harm to individuals and extreme harm to society (Satz
2010, 94–96). A market in a good is considered harmful
to society, if it eliminates people’s opportunities to relate
as equals. The two parameters regarding market partici-
pants focus on the weak agency/insufficient knowledge
of sellers and the vulnerability of market participants
(Satz 2010, 96–97). In his book, What Money Can’t Buy,
791567PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918791567Political Research QuarterlyAlbertsen
1Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
Corresponding Author:
Andreas Albertsen, Assistant Professor, School of Business and
Social Sciences, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University,
Bartholins Alle 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark.
Markets, Distributive Justice and
Community: The Egalitarian Ethos
of G. A. Cohen
Andreas Albertsen1
While markets are widely lauded as efficient and attractive allocation mechanisms, their moral limits remain a source of
controversy. The writings of G. A. Cohen provide an important contribution to this debate. Cohen offers two critiques
of the market. One is a distributive critique, which maintains that markets fail in eliminating the influence of differential
luck on people’s lives. The other is a community critique, maintaining that market relations fall short of a community
of mutual caring. These critiques differ in important ways from critiques developed by Satz and Sandel, and suggest a
need to assess markets beyond desperate exchanges and the adverse effects of incentives. Cohen’s work also points to
how we can realize distributive justice and community. His solution utilizes the supply and demand mechanism of the
market as a signaling device rather than an allocation mechanism. High wages signal the importance of a specific job, but
wage differences are subsequently taxed away. This peculiar market arrangement relies on moral rather than economic
incentives and only works if it is combined with a communitarian ethos. This ethos solution is evaluated in light of recent
criticisms that it would compromise the freedom to pursue personal projects, that incentives may express community,
and that the competition it utilizes mitigates against community. In the end, these critiques are not deemed persuasive.
markets, distributive justice, community, luck egalitarianism, G. A. Cohen, ethos, moral incentives, egalitarian
trilemma, egalitarianism

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