A difficult dispute divides some libertarians who advocate "from each according to ability; to each according to need" and other libertarians who advocate participatory economics but reject the idea of "from each to each." Can we clarify or even resolve this difference?
From Each, To Each – Yet Again
Sticking to the words above – it certainly sounds eloquent and attractive. I remember over the tone of it, on first reading. But I think I was celebrating a loose and broad desire, not a clear meaning, and I suspect this is true for most advocates.
For example what does "after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor" really mean? Since there will always be a division of labor – some people who do this, other people who do that – getting rid of our current "slavish subordination" can't mean that we all do everything. Perhaps it means: getting beyond a particular division of flavor that forces people to be less than they can and ought to be. Okay – I like that aspiration.
And what does after "the antithesis between mental and physical labor has vanished" really mean? Certainly there will always be some tasks that are more mental and other tasks that are more manual. So maybe it means: after we get past some people doing mostly or exclusively mental tasks while other people are left with mostly or only manual tasks so that mental and manual are no longer divided among different classes of people. It's another very worthy aspiration, I think. Though an interesting wrinkle arises. Just exactly why shouldn't some do only mental or do only manual tasks?
What about "labor becoming life's prime want?" That sounds good too, but what about relating to friends or family? What about play? What about hobbies? What about enjoying nature? What about… well, anything other than creating outputs that others will benefit from, which is what I assume the word labor refers to – assuming it means something other than "activity"? I am not sure why we should think producing for the social product will be our prime want above all other activities – but I certainly resonate with the idea that if labor is shared fairly, defined sensibly, and rich in both manual and mental aspects, it will be among life's prime wants.
And then comes the phrase "wealth flow more abundantly." What does that really mean? I suspect that if Marx saw the volume of output per employed worker in the developed world, he would say that as far as the level of productivity per worker goes, abundance has been achieved and surpassed. Yet, he would also be horrified at how much pain accompanies the result. So I think maybe "flows abundantly" meant, rather cryptically: spreads fairly while being conceived humanely for need and undertaken with attention to negative byproduct effects.
Then comes the central slogan… "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" where we of course drop the "his." But like the preconditions addressed above, this too is very vague. For example, we might interpret the phrase as meaning that we should each work at what we can do best in a manner generating as much as we are able to generate. But what if you would be most productive doing some combination of tasks built around medicine, and you instead want to do some combination of tasks built around musical performance? If you are sufficiently able at doing the latter – but not most able – shouldn't that be okay? But wait, what does "able" then mean? Do I decide what I am "able" at? If I think I am "able" at medicine or music, but in fact I am horrible at each, can I do one or the other anyhow? And surely we don't have to do all the work we are able to do – not, say, 16 hours a day, six days a week – do we? But if not, then how much? Surely we shouldn't just choose an amount to work, willy nilly, based only on our own internal priorities acting as a kind of isolated atom without social connection and responsibilities, should we? It seems a lot is up in the air, though the turn of phrase is certainly inspiring.
Now let's consider the current difficult dispute. Advocates of participatory economics say that people should get a share of the social product correlated to the amount and the character of their work so that the combination of income and work for all people in society sums to an equitable overall pattern including conveying information that permits society to invest in new capacity according to what people desire, but also insuring that each individual's personal combination of work and consumption is fair. The norm that summarizes this is that each participant should receive a share of the social product proportionately to the duration, intensity, and onerousness of his or her socially valuable labor. There is, however, a caveat. Suppose I am sick and not able to work, or only able to work some. Or suppose I am too young or old to work. Or maybe I need lots of medical care. Or suppose some calamity befalls me – a natural disaster demolishing my home, so I need to replace lost possessions. In such cases, my unusual needs should of course enter the calculation of what my claim on social product can be. In parecon, therefore, we get more income if we work longer, harder, or at more onerous tasks doing socially valuable work – or if society grants us benefits beyond what our own efforts warrant because of special needs we have that society respects.
At any rate, many libertarians reject parecon's approach because they feel that for people to have any structure at all limiting their work and consumption options is coercive. These "from each to each" advocates reject that a healthy person who isn't claiming "insurance" needs, health needs, or other socially respected extra needs can have a desired amount of stuff only if he or she works at a sufficient level to justify that amount. They reject that a person cannot consult his or her own inner self, pick any work level and work type that he or she likes, and then also claim any products he or she wants without having to balance his or her work and consumption. They claim restricting the unlimited option to do whatever work we prefer and take whatever social product we choose is coercive.
The pareconist finds this troubling. Do these particular advocates of "from each, to each," believe that even while attending only to their own needs and inclinations and taking anything they want as well as independently doing any work they want, nearly all actors will spontaneously choose a fair and sensible combination? If not, society would collapse from a mismatch of production and consumption or would at least suffer lots of unfairness. But the pareconist then notes that the only way to know if I am taking more stuff than I deserve, or if I am giving of my time and capacity less than I should, or, for that matter, at tasks that I should not be doing, is to have some socially agreed standards as well as some information that reveals what the relative values of items are and thus what the full value of the items I would like to have are, and thus what kind of workload is needed for society and what is my fair share of work and product, as well as, where I can be doing socially valued work given my particular abilities. In the absence of such information I can't make informed choices.
The "from each to each" advocate may reply that even if we need the information, we must avoid all restraints on free choice. In that case, the pareconist will say two things. First, without limits, we can't determine valuations. The point is, if I can have anything I want irrespective of other people's preferences and also my work, then my different desires for things will have no bearing on my actions and thus never be revealed. Even I won't know how much I want one thing relative to my desires for other things, or relative to other people's desires. I will only know that I want something or not, and thus that I take it, or do it, or not. The pareconist also wonders, more philosophically, why my being able to consume only in tune with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of my socially valued labor is deemed coercive, supposing that that norm is agreed by my society to be fair and socially sound.
The pareconist reasons that the "from each to each" advocate would not deem a rule that you cannot kill your neighbor coercive but would instead see that its aim would be something everyone should abide of their own accord, so that if someone wouldn't abide it on their own, then limiting their options would be proper. So why call a rule, or really just an institutional arrangement that gives you no means to consume more than your share of work (or your special health or other circumstances) warrant, coercive? The no murder rule and the no gluttony rule both produce conditions society deems desirable. If the rules constrain someone rather than simply facilitating the desirable outcomes we all seek, then it will only be because that person should be constrained.
Having gotten that far, the pareconist is typically frustrated but so is the "from each to each" advocate. The pareconist thinks – I made a case (at far more length than here) that we need the information pareconish remuneration and participatory planning convey, and that the associated limits are essential for arriving at equitable outcomes, so what is the critic's problem unless he or she really thinks it is okay for everyone to consult only their own inclinations to decide what work they will do in what amount, as well as what they will consume in what amount? Do they believe there is no such thing as unfair economic outcomes? Do they believe we can all have what we want and do what we please? Do they think there is automatically enough for everyone and that our work is automatically valuable? Or is it that they think all people will always automatically arrive at fair choices, even without relevant information? The pareconist feels such beliefs are not even utopian so much as silly – and wonders, why is anyone sticking with them rather than opting for institutions that generate the desired results?
On the other hand, the "from each to each" advocate is thinking, what are the pareconists all agitated about? Why can't they understand our simple stance? Of course we agree that fairness is critically important. But our point is that we should attain fairness without adopting structures that force us to be fair. We should not assume the worst about people and constrain them as a means to prevent unfairness. We should assume the best about people, and free them to act desirably as our means to attain fairness. And we should do that even if some unfairness inevitably creeps into the results. Honest errors or even malicious or selfish violations by a few will be much less harmful than all of us succumbing to constraints. More, there is something degrading about thinking that one needs an incentive to work. We will work because it is "life's prime want," at least when work is unalienated, self managed, and needed for all to have fair conditions and prospects.
The pareconist repeats that people can't arrive at just choices – freely or otherwise – without relevant information – and now adds, as well, that even when we make work self managed and orient it to real needs – as we do in parecon via balanced job complexes and self managed decision making – we will still have other personal and social pursuits we want to enjoy that might cause us to opt to do less work than our desires for outputs warrant. Moreover, we may still want to do things that we like – surgery, basketball, engineering, or whatever – but that we are not personally good at. And even if we are perfectly socially inclined and also naturally want to work only at tasks that are desired and that we are good at, then why wouldn't we celebrate having institutions that give us the needed information to do just that?
The pareconist thinks "from each to each" is anti social because it allows and in some sense even trumpets that acting independently of one's social context is fine. It at least implies that full freedom requires totally unrestricted personal choice regardless of other people's desires. The "from each to each" advocate, in turn, thinks the pareconist must believe people are intrinsically anti social because the pareconist advocates structures that make being social the only sensible and in some ways the only possible choice by ruling out anti social choices – thus celebrating a narrowing of choice.
Suppose we try to engineer a compromise. What might that look like? A pareconist could say to a "from each to each" advocate, suppose you are correct that even without clear valuations and budgets people will automatically arrive at socially and personally fair and just choices so that parecon's norm becomes extraneous. Okay, in that case even if due to being cautious we had initially adopted the parecon approach, in time we would discover it was not needed, and we could then dispense with it. I would have no problem with and even celebrate that result. I should admit, however, that instead of that happening, I expect that without structures to convey information and limits there will be a mess, so that even when people are incredibly well motivated and infinitely socially inclined, allocative structures like parecon's will remain necessary as a tool for revealing people's desires. The allocative structures of the future, with future citizens, are thus like stop lights at intersections. They are not solely or even mostly – or you might even say, even at all – to limit those who would otherwise violate good sense. They are overwhelmingly to facilitate essential collective communication and agreement.
The "from each to each" advocate could conceivably reply okay, I get that you think participatory planning plus connecting income and work plus balanced job complexes are needed if we are to have classless, equitable, self managed outcomes – so, okay, I agree that out of caution we can try your structures for a time. But i have to add that I think those structures will be steadily and rapidly replaced by free association. That would be an agreement, albeit with conflicting expectations. But now comes the fly in the ointment that I think so far has prevented this happy outcome.
Just like the pareconist thinks there is a downside to adopting "from each to each" because of its built in lack of accurate information leading to poor and unjust choices that would be disastrous, so the "from each to each" advocate thinks there is a down side to having pareconish structures constrain choices due to a tendency for all constraints to pervert our natures, alienate us, and grow steadily more intrusive and coercive as time passes.
One thing to immediately note is that to think that some approach intrinsically leads in a bad direction and then rule it out as an option on that account makes sense. Take ruling out Leninist forms of organization. We know that in some context top down approaches can accomplish various needed results. , to say that they should be avoided in the large because their intrinsic logic leads inexorably to growing authoritarianism at the top and passive acceptance below, makes sense. In fact, this same way of thinking is why I reject "from each to each" as an allocative norm. I see that it has virtues in many contexts, but that adopted for a whole society it would be disastrous. So why don't I accept the same reasoning for rejecting parecon's institutions? The reason I disagree with the "from each to each" rejection of pareconish structures is not due to rejecting the logic of the argument, but is because parecon's institutions do not, in fact, intrinsically lead toward negative outcomes.
In fact, parecon's institutions not only get the allocative tasks accomplished justly, they they also facilitate desirable personal and social commitments and habits – and, indeed, they were conceived precisely with that in mind. Thus, not only are parecon's institutions good as an immediate means to the particular end of fair allocation, which most "from each to each" advocates even seem to admit, they also propel wider ends by being "schools" of desirable behavior. That is, engaging in balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, participatory planning, and self managed councils, produces in and for people social ties, solidarity, empowerment, diversity, etc.
The "from each to each" advocate thinks that we should only have free choice, totally unconstrained, and should take as a given that the free choices people make will somehow sum together to a fine mesh that admirably meets needs and develops potentials. The pareconist thinks "free choice" in a form that rules out social structures is individualist and anti social in addition to not being able to yield just outcomes. In reply, the "from each to each advocate" thinks having balanced job complexes and remunerating for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor seeks good outcomes but does so by imposing that some choices are not possible, and by thus introducing a constraining power above the individual – even if it is only the social community – and believes that such limits are a stairway to disaster. The pareconist says, no, those institutions and the limits they establish orient people toward solidarity, self management, empathy, participation, and sociality – not away from those aims.
I hope I have been fair, above. I certainly empathize with the "from each to each" desire to promote free association, and, indeed, freedom in all its myriad forms. I also fully accept that a vision ought to be rejected if it intrinsically violates our values, even if that violation would occur only in the long run. But I also think that life is not magic. Large numbers of people have to arrive at some minimum relationships which persist and facilitate desirable results. To think it is coercive to adopt structures that limit some people who would violate those structures if doing so was not operationally precluded, and which would facilitate other people arriving where they would wish to arrive even if the structures were absent, is a serious confusion. Freedom for any one person has to respect that other people have the same freedoms, and this has to be true not just at the outset, but after all choices are made.
To my thinking, the needed relationships for lasting shared freedom in economic life are that we have a way of apportioning responsibilities so that the benefits that accrue from sensible work and consumption foster solidarity, preserve and extend diversity, attain equity, permit and utilize self management, and account for effects on the natural environment as well as on whole populations, while they of course also meet participants' needs and develop their potentials. Institutions to accomplish such aims should be kept minimal, I agree, but they must establish sufficient means to attain the maximal benefits. For pareconists such institutions are workers and consumers self managing councils, an apportionment of tasks so that all workers have equally empowering conditions called balanced job complexes (which are needed to eliminate class division due to some people having power over others), remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor (so our combination of tasks and consumption is equitable and viable), and collective and cooperative self managed negotiation of economic inputs and outputs (called participatory planning) that accounts for personal, social, and ecological implications.
I believe that to reject coercion of each individual by higher powers as well as of any one individual by another, we need institutions that not only don't themselves coerce people, but that establish a context that precludes coercion – including even coercion by mistake or ignorance. Looking one-sidedly at that one value, however, could lead to failing to fulfill even just it, as well as others. I believe that the positive virtues of "from each to each" are met by parecon – and not just by parecon's equitable remuneration, but by all its central features working together to ensure that we escape "the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor," that we overcome the "antithesis between mental and physical labor," that we turn work into one of "life's prime want[s]," that we ensure that "all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly," and that we together, collectively and cooperatively and with self management, guarantee that we can each work for the social good at tasks we are able to fulfill, and which we choose, and that we receive an equitable share of society's products, including provision for any special needs we may have.