G. A. Cohen’s “Freedom and Money” (2001)

In which Cohen argues that lack of money is a lack of political freedom, and that the issue of private property (which is axiomatic to libertarians) cannot be determined independently of issues of political freedom. In other words, you can’t reasonably set aside the issue of distribution of property (i.e. wealth) from your consideration of freedom. This pervasive confusion, Cohen argues, arises because of a misperception of the nature of money, which appears as a real thing, like rocks or even like physical strength, but is actually “social power in the form of a thing” (Marx).

Anyway, it is a great read, lucid and mind expanding, and a great example of political philosophy . I can’t find a journal reference for it, but it is – apparently – reprinted in On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy (2011)

Link to PDF (thanks Josie!)

6 replies on “G. A. Cohen’s “Freedom and Money” (2001)”

I am moved to quote the great conservative thinker Confucius to kick off my comment on Cohen’s article:

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in
helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.”

Cohen defines freedom as a lack of interference/liability to interference, apparently following Berlin and Rawls. But this physical concept of freedom does not correspond with the concept of freedom as used in political discourse. We are all, at
all moments, interfered with, as we are subjects to the laws of nature and we have to respect a certain number of social rules. I suppose that this point is too obvious to need to be elaborated upon. Now, if we apply that physical concept of freedom to our political lives, it is quite clear that we are never free. That of course is not what is meant by the word “freedom” when it is used in political discourse, because if it was, political freedom would be conceptually impossible. But political freedom in fact consists in not being interfered with _unjustly_ (or at the very least, illegally). Hence, any discussion of political freedom which neglects justice fails. I could be a spoilsport and stop here as Cohen does not deal with justice at all, but there are more questionable assertions in Cohen’s piece.

According to Cohen “money is no object because its value is freedom”. Quite honestly, how that syllogism holds up totally escapes me. Moreover, as this supposed nature of money is supposed to be the reason why poverty reduces your freedom, it’s also a circular argument since it takes for granted what it is supposed to be proving.

The argument is also a misunderstanding of the nature and uses of money. First, money is not “a way to avoid interference”. Money is a instrument to make payments, for instance for the acquisition of property or a right to use it (as in a train fare). It’s not the only one; there are lots of ways to make payments that do not require money. You can use other goods (“I’ll give you two crates of apples for that bottle of whisky”) or services (“If you give me that bottle of whisky I’ll help you paint the chicken shack”). Cohen’s definition is also wrong because money more often than not doesn’t protect you from interference at all, as most things and “services” are not for sale. If you walk uninvited in my house for instance, no amount of money will help if you get caught. Most people won’t have sex with someone just because they are offered money in exchange. But then I guess Cohen frames the argument in terms of money because it’s a mysterious subject fit to obscure the real topic, which is of course property. For many people, property is much less abstract than money and consequently you can’t get away as easily with certain statements. If you tell Jack that you are less free than him because he has a house he’ll probably tell you “I worked for that house”. Of course he could have inherited the house, but he’ll say “so what, my parents worked for that money and intended me to have it”. In other words, once you start moving away from the abstractions, the discussion becomes much more complicated, because it’s also much more personal.

So in the end, the real issue that Cohen should be dealing with is not freedom, it’s justice. Is it just that some people make more money than others ? Would it be just if everybody made the same amount of money, irrespective of talent, work or even luck ? Is it right to make money you are not going to use yourself and give to your children or other people that you are close to ? Those are, I think, the real issues. None of them are dealt with in Cohen’s text.

I think it is possible to have a sympathetic reading of Cohen’s article and agree with your point that the real topic of discussion should be justice. As I read it, Cohen’s main effort was to address himself to the philosophical coherance of Berlin’s conception of freedom. I think we could both agree with Cohen and yet reach profoundly different conclusions about how society should be run. Which is to agree with you that issues of property are central, but to agree with Cohen that you cannot just by fiat declare them off limits to discussions of justice.

I’m not sure we understand each other; I don’t declare anything off limits, I just wrote that Cohen’s article makes no sense. I’d be glad to continue the discussion.


“Cohen defines freedom as a lack of interference/liability to interference. We are all, at all moments, interfered with…That of course is not what is meant by the word “freedom” when it is used in political discourse, because if it was, political freedom would be conceptually impossible.”

Infinite freedom would be conceptually impossible. But you could have different degrees of it, from very little to quite a lot. That is exactly how most people do talk about freedom.

“political freedom in fact consists in not being interfered with _unjustly”

In which case, the idea of freedom collapses into the idea of justice. That is exactly Cohen’s point: libertarians have said things like “this society may be less just but it is more free” and Cohen is arguing that freedom cannot be defined seperately from justice, so such a statement is incoherent.

“Infinite freedom would be conceptually impossible.”

Sorry, I mean physically impossible. Conceptually its probably fine.

Josie, I suppose you quote from another of Cohen’s articles, because what you write here is nowhere to be found in this article; he simply doesn’t mention justice at all, much less that “freedom collapses into the idea of justice”.

Moreover, libertarians certainly never say that there is a trade off between justice and freedom; that’s the point.

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