William Morris: sufficientarian and capability theorist

by Chris Bertram on October 20, 2005

I happened to be reading a paper by a friend today and came across a lovely passage by “William Morris”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_morris on the principle of distribution that would obtain in a socialist society. The passage is from Morris’s “What Socialists Want”:http://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/tmp/want.htm and I found it interesting in the light of the arguments that go on today among egalitarian liberal political philosophers. Thus spake Morris:

bq. when a family that is comfortably-off sit down to a leg of mutton how do they act? do they bring in a pair of scales and weigh out to each one his share of the victuals? No that is done in a prison, but not in a family: in a family everybody has what he needs and no one grudges it: Mary has one slice, Jack has two, and Bill has four: but Mary and Jack don’t feel wronged, since they have had as much as they wanted: and the reason for this is that enough has been provided, and that the members of the family trust one another. My friends it is for you to choose whether you will live in a prison or a family: we Socialists beg you to choose the latter.

The important thing for Morris is that everyone have enough, and that everyone trusts one another sufficiently to be assured that others are not taking more than they need. And he contrasts this with an attitude of (suspicious) calculation. I’m not sure whether Morris is enunciating a principle of justice here, or whether he would say that justice is inherently calculative and that these are circumstances of abundance where the watchful attitude of strict justice no longer applies. But if (and it’s a big if) this is taken as a principle of justice, then it is notable that he isn’t endorsing a principle of strict equality, but rather one of sufficiency. Indeed this contrast is even clearer towards the beginning of the text where Morris writes:

bq. So you see whatever inequality I admit among people, I claim this equality – that everybody should have full enough food, clothes, and housing, and full enough leisure, pleasure, and education; and that everybody should have a certainty of these necessaries: in this case we should be equal as Socialists use the word ….

Again, a principle of sufficiency and the suggestion of the dimensions of human existence in which we should have sufficient that prefigures some of the lists of essential capabilites that Martha Nussbaum enumerates in various places.



Donald Johnson 10.20.05 at 4:42 pm

How would you go about basing an economy or a political party on this principle today? I love the principle–it’s the way I think things should be. But supposing you were hammering out a party platform or at least a general statement of party principles, what would you say?

In 100,000 words or less.


Delicious pundit 10.20.05 at 4:48 pm

Government-as-family was always a favorite trope of Mario Cuomo’s (see his 1984 convention speech.) But then the Democrats got killed that year.


dearieme 10.20.05 at 4:50 pm

As the biologist Wilson remarked: nice idea, wrong species. A century’s worth of experiment with the politics of wishful thinking ended up with one hundred million dead.


Shelby 10.20.05 at 5:12 pm

The key thing about the family analogy is that all the members either are children, or chose to associate together — often because they trusted one another to begin with.

I’ve got no problem with voluntary communes, but socialists have in practice shown an alarming tendency to force others into their schemes, once they acquire power.


harry b 10.20.05 at 5:17 pm

Sounds extremely close to comments by Sandel in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Can get the precise page reference if you like.

Wow, dearieme, what an incisive argument.


Chris Bertram 10.20.05 at 5:20 pm

Ah yes dearime, it is but a short step from William Morris to the Gulag …. (changes broken record)

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, I’d say to Donald that many of the goals in the UN Human Development report are rather congruent with what Morris says. But I didn’t post this as a bit of practical politicking but merely to share an interesting text with people.


Chris Bertram 10.20.05 at 5:22 pm

Right on Sandel Harry! And of course Morris and Sandel share a good dose of naivety about intra-familial distribution.


Dan Simon 10.20.05 at 5:24 pm

Perhaps this passage explains the historical timing of the rise and fall of socialism and its variants. If Morris characterizes it correctly, then socialism is based on the idea that what is available and what is sufficient are approximately in balance. Such conditions require careful centralized decisionmaking to evaluate needs and direct available goods accordingly. Under conditions of severe scarcity, on the other hand, centralized distribution of goods inevitably involves tyrannical favoritism, whereas under conditions of increasing abundance, the provision of sufficiency becomes a progressively tinier portion of the overall problem of how to distribute goods in general.

Thus socialism became attractive in the 19th century, once technological progress had replaced the assumption of inevitable permanent scarcity with the prospect of long-term sufficiency. Likewise, its appeal has declined now that technology has shown itself capable of delivering perennial abundance.


Mike Otsuka 10.20.05 at 5:41 pm

they have had as much as they wanted: and the reason for this is that enough has been provided

Note the assumption that if you have enough, you won’t want more. If one sets the threshold of sufficiency so high, it becomes unreasonable to care about inequalities above the level of sufficiency. But no egalitarian would insist on an equal division of resources that nobody wants.

If, moreover, one sets the level of sufficiency so high, then the principle of sufficiency becomes impossible to realize in non-utopian circumstances, and we need to figure out how to distribute resources to those to whom we can’t give people a sufficient amount. A principle of equality will be necessary at this point, I think.


Matt 10.20.05 at 6:51 pm

I guess there is at least a closer rhetorical ring w/ Nussbaum’s view here, but I don’t see how any of this would be incompatible with a “primary goods” approach, either. Basically I think that what’s useful in Nussbaum’s view is not importantly different from Rawls’s, but then there’s a particular comprehensive view of the good (essentially an Aristotelian one, as she’s said in conversation- notice, in particular, that there’s nothing about meaningful work on her account. That’s not an accident.) that’s stuck on top in a way that I don’t think is workable. My own ability to find much to feel happy about in this sort of passage was limited from reading Alec Nove’s excellent _The Economics of Feasible Socialism_. I think it does a terrific job of showing the extent to which such approaches are utopian in the pejoritive sense.


Russell Arben Fox 10.20.05 at 7:33 pm

“And of course Morris and Sandel share a good dose of naivety about intra-familial distribution.”

Perhaps they do, Chris. But that doesn’t make their argument about justice–which is to extent an argument against pure, calculative justice–any less forceful. The communitarian and the socialist share the basic understanding that a “principle of strict equality” is a helpful but ultimately limited to way to get at the real needs of persons; when joined with full recognition of one’s membership and wants in all their variety, as ought to happen in families, “sufficiency” more than suffices.


anon 10.20.05 at 7:46 pm

Note the assumption that if you have enough, you won’t want more.

I wonder if members of an industrialized population who were not universally subject, from the cradle, to the most sophisticated and pervasive forms of advertising, would feel natural limits to their material desires.


Jim Harrison 10.20.05 at 8:04 pm

Most of the arguments one encounters on this site seem to assume that technology is capable of providing an abundant living to everybody. I think a more reasonable assumption is that we’ve already exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet and are in the early stages of a dieback. If so, I expect that the next hundred years will witness a planet-wide game of musical chairs. There are two general approaches to coping with such a situation: seeking an equitable division of available resources or exerting every effort to grab the lion’s share for your own kind.

Obviously I don’t know that science will prove incapable of turning the Arctic Ocean into orangeaide. Maybe universal abundance will moot the old arguments about the haves and have-nots. I do wish the folks who think that everything is going to be peachy keen would at least take a moment to entertain the possibility that they are dead wrong.


eudoxis 10.20.05 at 8:26 pm

“Mary has one slice, Jack has two, and Bill has four: but Mary and Jack don’t feel wronged, since they have had as much as they wanted”I suspect Morris has no children.


antirealist 10.20.05 at 9:19 pm

I suspect Morris has no children.

Two daughters.


Richard Bellamy 10.20.05 at 10:31 pm

I also have two daughters, and this evening took them to a party. The party favors provided by the “party motivators” (teenage girls in black, who are at every child’s party now — where did they come from? consisted of three rubberish items that blinked different shiny colors: a magnetic “pin”, a necklace, and bracelet.

Apparently, the minimum sufficient number of shiny party favors for a young girl is “two”, meaning that at least one girl could not have a “sufficient” number of shiney things, let alone an equal number.

Since in my family I am the relevant governmental agency, and do not pretend to be socialist, capitalist, totalitarian, or otherwise, I currently have three shiney pieces of junk, and the girls have an equal division of zero.

After the initial shock, I think they are much happier.


Polybius 10.20.05 at 11:27 pm

That doesn’t sound at all like my family. Back in the day, if my sister got even a little more than I…


Dan Kervick 10.20.05 at 11:47 pm

There is no inherently “sufficient” amount of health, or longevity; no sufficient amount of leisure; no sufficient amount of enjoyment of beauty and sensory delight; no sufficient amount of spiritual ecstasy; no sufficient amount of physical stamina and strength; no sufficient amount of intellectual perfection; no sufficient emount of emotional rapture and intimacy with a beloved; and no sufficient amout of hours in the day.

Many human desires are effectively infinite, and our unsatisfactory finite existence grates perpetually against our infinite longing. And yet these object are bought and sold, traded in the marketplace, and distributed by human social institutions. No criterion based on “sufficiency” will settle these social choices for us, and yet it would be a grave mistake to think that those choices don’t matter much so long as we all start out in some fantastic, edenic state of nature based on universal familial trust.

Consider leisure time; human beings are forced to work to extract their survival from a resistant natural world; and then they choose to work to extract more enjoyment from the world once their survival is ensured. Isn’t it obvious that there is no inherently “sufficient” amount of leisure time, and that our evaluative judgments about the distribution of leisure are relative to the amount of leisure one can reasonably expect, given current social circumstances? And isn’t it the case that settling what is reasonable to expect requires a social choice about how equally one will distribute the leisure time?

What about exquisite wallpapers? Is there an amount of these that is sufficient? Are all wallpapers luxuries, because as long as everyone has four walls and adequate plaster and paint, they have all that “suffices”? Are the vulgar not supposed to begrudge Morris’s set their wallpapers?

I once knew Bill, Jack and Mary. They got along great – it was just like Jules and Jim. Jack and Mary were pretty content for a while to let Bill have his four legs of Mutton. Then there was that year when there was a surplus of Mutton, and every family got an extra share. Bill asked Jack and Mary if he could have five rather than four, and since Mary and Jack already had an amount that “sufficed”, they said “sure…what do we care. We’re all a family – take more if you want it.”

Well it turns out Bill froze the mutton and saved it up for months and months. One day, when mutton was more scarce, he gave a large shipment of frozen mutton to the alderman and his family. Next month, mutton supplies were back to normal – but to their surprise Jack and Mary found that there was a new statute, recently passed by the board of aldermen, according to which people named “Bill” were required to receive an extra share of mutton, to be collected via a levy placed on all people names “Jack” and “Mary”.

Jack and mary still trusted Bill, for a while…until they put 2 and 2 together. Then their trust in Bill was, well, somewhat diminished. They had fallen from the state of gracious nature. That’s the thing about trust…it tends not to last. Human cooperation, commitment and affection compete against self-regarding desires. That’s not evil .. it’s just the way we are. Any social scheme based the perpetual maintenance of universal trust is just as fantastic as a scheme based on the ability of human beings to keep a large disc balanced on a central pivot by standing at equal spaces along the edge. Eventually, someone will fall off, and the equilibrium is disrupted.

Bill, Jack and Mary also shared the beer they made from their surplus grain. Since beer was a luxury – in other words, any amount they happened to have exceeded what they needed and was more than “sufficient” – they tended to divide it up equally at first. But it turned out that there were some people who had an unusually great desire for the beer, and some who had an unusually small desire. The latter, such as Bill, were able to exploit this situation and acquire a lot more of the things that everyone wanted by trading beer to those who craved it. Bill bought a complete set of Pucini operas on compact disc, and he also paid a local kid to do some of his work, so he had more leisure. Jack and Mary tried to maintain their Morrisian spirit of trust…but after a while they became bitter. It didn’t help much when Bill said “What’s your problem? Don’t you have sufficient amounts af all the necessities, and are you “essential capabilities” sufficiently developed?” One night, Jack and Mary beat the crap out of Bill, smashed most of the CD’s, drank a lot of beer and then made love all night La Boheme while Bill moaned in the next room.

Really, if you are going to be socialists, please put some spine into it, and don’t settle for the welfare liberalism that always seems to appeal to those who have much larger than average shares of a whole lot of good things. These good things, the priveleged convince themselves, do not need to be shared more equally because they are “extras”, and by having more than average they not depriving their inferiors of “sufficient” quantities of the baser goods that are deemed “essential” or “necessities”

Wealth consists in those ojects of human desire which people are capable of possessing. To have control over wealth is to have control over the objects of human desire; and to control the ojects of human desire is to control human beings. So wealth is power. There can be no society of political equals – that is, no society in which all people have roughly equal influence over the social choices that are made and the direction the society takes – unless that society is also a society of economic equals. Economic egalitarianism is necessary for genuine and durable democracy.

I say bring out the scales.


Chris Bertram 10.21.05 at 2:36 am

Mike O.

If, moreover, one sets the level of sufficiency so high, then the principle of sufficiency becomes impossible to realize in non-utopian circumstances, and we need to figure out how to distribute resources to those to whom we can’t give people a sufficient amount. A principle of equality will be necessary at this point, I think.

I don’t read Morris as setting a sufficiency standard at a point where people simply don’t want more. Rather, I think his assumption is that once people’s reasonable needs for a range of goods are provided for, they just won’t want more. But his standard for meeting reasonable need is an objective one, their not wanting more than what is reasonable to satisfy their needs amounts just comes in as a psychological assumption.

If this objective sufficiency threshold could be defended, I don’t think your point would hold. Since it might very well be that we can give everyone sufficient to meet their needs for nutrition, leisure, creative labour etc in non-utopian circumstances.

Of course I’m suspicious of Morris’s psychological assumption. There’s also the problem of goods which are by their nature ineliminably scarce, positional goods. For these I think you are right that we need some kind of principle of fairness. But I’m sure that Morris would (rightly) lament the amount of wasteful competition for such goods that currently goes on and wonder whether we wouldn’t be better employed honing our wood-carving skills instead (or whatever).


Chris Bertram 10.21.05 at 2:38 am

Most of the arguments one encounters on this site seem to assume that technology is capable of providing an abundant living to everybody.



ingrid 10.21.05 at 2:54 am

When a family is comfortably off, the real scarce good is not food, but time (and thus issues such as paid vs. unpaid work, total work burden, discretionary time etc.). In contemporary post-industrial societies, time is the ultimate scare resources. And it is an illusion, now as well as in the past, that the allocation of leisure time within families happens on a sufficiency basis. There is some very interesting empirical work being done in the last decade(s) about “time budgets” which document who gets what in term of different types of time activities (mothers with small children being worst off of all – surprise, surprise). Incidentally, I don’t think that capabilities that have time as their primary input figure on Martha Nussbaum’s list of capabilities, except if you strongly strech your imagination (which is possible since her list is so general/vague).


Chris Bertram 10.21.05 at 3:18 am

Maybe this should figure as part of another (future) thread. But I’m a bit suspicious of those time budgeting studies for the following reason. Suppose the time budget study shows that of the two members of a couple partner X spends twice as much time on housework as partner Y. There’s a temptation to conclude that there’s an inequitable division of domestic labour from the time figures alone. But (and see Harry B’s favourite reality tv show WifeSwap for evidence!) there’s a massive variation in people’s attitudes to mess, tolerance of disorder etc. (both within and between households). If the fact that X does twice as much as Y merely reflects the fact that X has unreasonably high standards whereas Y has the right appreciation of the balance between leisure and tidying, it is hard to conclude that there is unfairness.

[I was hissed by a leading professor of social policy for making just this (purely theoretical) point at a conference recently!]


chris y 10.21.05 at 3:50 am

I was hissed by a leading professor of social policy for making just this (purely theoretical) point at a conference recently

What’s theoretical about it. It applies in my own household, where XX tolerates more mess indoors, so XY does most of the cleaning, but XY tolerates more mess in the yard, so XX does most of the gardening.

Seriously, isn’t Ingrid’s point simply a factual description of the difference between the cultural norms for work/leisure balance between Europe and the United States?


SamChevre 10.21.05 at 5:25 am

Another point that may be part of a bigger thread, but on a social scale, you have to have both production and consumption, and some way of balancing them. Sufficiency works as a criterion for justice in consumption, as per the example. It seems to work less well as a criterion for justice in production. I have never known a family where the division of chores among children was not the source of considerable unhappiness.


Mike Otsuka 10.21.05 at 5:45 am

Chris B,

In saying that Morris sets the sufficiency threshold at a level so high that people won’t want more, I didn’t mean to be saying that he was necessarily defining sufficiency as that point at which people won’t want more. And I think, moreover, that your non-definitional interpretation of Morris is the right one.


ajay 10.21.05 at 5:57 am

Key insight from my mother when I was a child – “I realised we must be rich when I no longer have to count out the strawberries for pudding” – ie there were enough that everyone could have sufficient without the need for rationing. A post-scarcity strawberry economy, asyermightsay.


abb1 10.21.05 at 7:13 am

Well, authoritarian communism obviously is not a good idea, but libertarian communism based on free association a-la Kropotkin – why not? But before this happens, why not try something more modest, less far-fetched, even if it’s not the absolute paradise.


anon 10.21.05 at 10:27 am

Many human desires are effectively infinite, and our unsatisfactory finite existence grates perpetually against our infinite longing.

Spoken like a person who has never tried eating chocolate at every meal to see what would happen. I have, and I needed a break after a few days. You could say that you desire to have every bite of chocolate taste like the first one, forever — but we are now outside the realm of any reasonable discussion that starts with William Morris.

And isn’t it the case that settling what is reasonable to expect requires a social choice about how equally one will distribute the leisure time? What about exquisite wallpapers? Is there an amount of these that is sufficient?

Yes. Enough to cover the interior of your entire house. And how big should your house be? At maximum, no larger than you can walk across in a single day. There, wasn’t that simple?

Back to William Morris. The McMansion/SUV lifestyle may be an expression of “desire”, but why then are its practitioners striving to remodel and decorate according to the “Tuscan farmhouse look” or whatever else is the “authentic” fad? The originals of all the authentically gorgeous world-heritage lifestyles turn out to have required very little, comparatively, in the way of material. But they did require a good deal of intrinsic aesthetic judgment, whether conscious or unconscious. Which nearly nobody has got, in industrialized societies, for some strange reason.

Along with the visible bands of injustice which hold industrialized society back, there are also invisible bands, namely: the astonishing vulgarity of everybody’s taste. If people understood how garish and abominable their fat greedy houses were, we would have less political confusion. William Morris wasn’t just a do-gooder who also made pretty wallpaper. His ideals fit together.


gkurtz 10.21.05 at 11:06 am

I agree that the parallel with Nussbaum’s capabilities argument is striking, but the crucial difference between Morris and Nussbaum here seems to be that Nussbaum says we (philosophers? citizens? I can’t remember exactly which “we” she’s writing about, or if she is clear on this) can list capabilities in advance, while Morris seems to be saying that they can only be determined (1) in context and (2) by people who trust each other. The “trust” element is the most interesting thing in his position, not least because it raises all kinds of political problems. (Casting Morris as a proto-Stalinist, as some commentors above seem to be doing, seems to me to be just a lazy way of sidestepping those problems.) Several of the posts here seem to be directed at those problems by way of an attack on Morris’s image of the family. He does seem to dodge a lot of tricky issues by using that trope; I don’t see any reason to think that his implicit question (How can we have a polity in which trust is a central principle?) is uninteresting, just because he hints at but then dodges the question. That said, I’m not sure there’s a practicable answer to the quesiton. But it’s an intriguing and, I think, atypical entry into questions about justice. If nothing else, the question of trust seems like a good pedagogical tool for generating discussions about the conditions under which justice is possible, and that’s nothing to dismiss lightly.


CM 10.21.05 at 11:09 am

So according to Morris, socialists want lots of ponies.

Seriously though, studies have shown that a person judges what’s enough based on comparison with his/her peers. So your perception of whether you have enough depends on the lifestyle of other people in your neighborhood, your income bracket, and your society as a whole. So “enough” is probably not the word to use here. It might be better to set some measurable threshold and then ensure that no one falls below that threshold, but leave it to people to decide whether they are satisfied.


mikmik 10.21.05 at 4:24 pm

With rights comew responsibilities. We’ll see who gets four slices next time if they don’t do the dishes!


Jon Pike 10.21.05 at 5:45 pm

Didn’t Aristotle get there first? ‘Between friends there is no need for justice, but people who are just still need the quality of friendship; and indeed friendliness is considered to be justice in the fullest sense. It is not only a necessary thing, but a splendid one.’ (Nicomachean Ethics 1155a26)


sPiNcYcLe 10.21.05 at 6:35 pm

Why not just introduce a salary cap? No one person is allowed to be worth more than 100mil and no one company more than 10bil? Anything above that level of wealth generated by that entity is to be redistributed.


mpowell 10.21.05 at 7:21 pm

Wow. My politics are usually pretty liberal, but this issue does a pretty good job of explaining why I just don’t quite see eye to eye w/ a lot of liberals on economic issues. I don’t really want to argue the point, I just want to say: damn, there is a big difference in our understanding of how these things work. It helps to know where people are coming from; and sometimes agreement is just not going to be possible.


Seth Edenbaum 10.21.05 at 7:57 pm

You’ve made the intellectual’s usual mistake of equating description with prescription. Calculating an argument against calculation destroys Morris’ thought.

Literature, unlike philosophy, describes without prescription, and Morris’ is as much a literary as a philosphical statement. The 19th C. was good for that sort of stuff. I’ve made the same point to Henry about Marx.

The question you should be asking is how to construct and communicate in such a way that might attempt to do justice not to the ideas of ‘friendship’ and ‘trust’ but to the facts of them.
I’m not claiming there’s an answer to the problem- strictly speaking there isn’t- only that the problem exists. In fact it’s the central problem of contemporary intellectual life.
What exactly is ‘art’?


Dan Kervick 10.21.05 at 10:34 pm


I don’t think you have addressed the question.

Suppose there is a certain amount of ordinary, garish wall paper in existence. There is just enough to wallpaper every person’s house, and no more. And everybody exactly possesses that amount. That is, everybody possesses an amount of wallpaper that suffices to wallpaper their house.

Now suppose some artisans design and produce a limited amount of exquisite wallpaper, enough to paper the houses of a few thousand people but no more. What would Morris say about how the wallpaper should be distributed? Should it be distributed equally because, as yet, nobody has an amount of exquisite wallpaper sufficient to paper their house? Is it permissible to distribute it only to a few, because everybody already has a sufficient amount of ordinary wallpaper, and that’s all they have a right to expect – since only ordinary wallpaper, but not exquisite wallpaper, has been deemed “essential” or a “necessity”? Or should it not be produced at all until it can be produced in amounts sufficient to wallpaper every house?

Suppose we live in a society with national health care. That health care provides every person with a certain amount of longevity. I now invent a device that doubles life expectancy. Supplies are limited, and I would like to sell my device to the very wealthy who can pay the most for it. Is this permissible? Would Morris say that once everybody has a “sufficient” amount of longevity, any extra longevity that is produced can be distributed unequally? Is there any such thing as a sufficient amount of longevity? Morris seems to put a lot of weight on “what one needs”, or “what one wants”. But surely what one wants is in part a result of socialization. Having “all one wants” is a function of the expectations one has settled upon; it reflects one’s estimate of how much one can reasonably expect to obtain.

As I said before, for many of life’s greatest goods – unlike chocolate perhaps – there is no “sufficient” amount. We would all like more of them than nature and human work provide. In such cases, the distribution of the good cannot be decided on the basis of sufficiency or “everybody having as much as he wants.” since nobody has as much as he wants. So on what basis is it to be distributed?


abb1 10.22.05 at 4:39 am

classical theorists of libertarian communism specifically excude luxuries of life from their ‘to each according to the needs’ model. Read this, for example: The Need For Luxury

We have already mentioned that by working 4 or 5 hours a day till the age of forty-five or fifty, man could easily produce all that is necessary to guarantee comfort to society.

But the day’s work of a man accustomed to toil does not consist of; hours; it is a 10 hours’ day for 300 days a year, and lasts all his life. Of course, when a man is harnessed to a machine, his health is soon undermined and his intelligence is blunted; but when man has the possibility of varying occupations, and especially of alternating manual with intellectual work, he can remain occupied without fatigue, and even with pleasure, for 10 or 12 hours a day. Consequently the man who will have done 4 or 5 hours of manual work necessary for his existence, will have before him 5 or 6 hours which he will seek to employ according to his tastes. And these 5 or 6 hours a day will fully enable him to procure for himself, if he associates with others, all he wishes for, in addition to the necessaries guaranteed to all.

You can get all the ‘necessities’ you want, but you’ll have to work extra for you special wallpaper.

BTW, Mr. Kropotkin specifically rejects this ‘family’ model – to him it’s not much better than Mr. Morris’ prison, not libertarian enough:

Communism and Anarchy
…The second mistake lay in the desire to manage the community after the model of a family, to make it “the great family” They lived all in the same house and were thus forced to continuously meet the same “brethren and sisters.” It is already difficult often for two real brothers to live together in the same house, and family life is not always harmonious; so it was a fundamental error to impose on all the “great family” instead of trying, on the contrary, to guarantee as much freedom and home life to each individual.

That’s the difference between Socialist and Anarchist, I guess.


abb1 10.22.05 at 5:14 am

Hey, and notice, btw, Kropotkin’s example of real-life communism – buffet breakfast in a hotel (apparently they already had those back then) – how so much better it is than Morris’ Mary and Bill crap – you come, you eat what you want, you leave. No need to trust anyone.


Dan Kervick 10.22.05 at 6:25 am


So suppose, as Kropotkin imagines, some people use their extra four or five hours a day to work together in free association to produce some goods that go beyond those needed for the “comfort of society” – luxury goods in other words. Are they allowed to trade them for other luxury goods made by others? Are they allowed to set the terms of these exchanges themselves? If so, don’t we just kave a full-blown, laissez faire capitalist economy floating on top of the socialist one below? And since some are more skilled in the arts of production and exchange, and do better in these exchanges than others, doesn’t that mean that a social structure of economic classes is replicated? How is this communism?

What about those who end up in the lower classes. Do they no longer experience resentment, or engage in class warfar, because some level of basic comfort has been achieved?


Seth Edenbaum 10.22.05 at 11:00 am

Again, since no one listens, here’s the question: how do you construct a ‘model’ as complex as what preceeded it? Morris is describing family relationships as they exist, using givens and generalities. He is describing a system after its genesis. That’s what literature does. A model on the other haand is a precursor.
There’s a contradiction here, and if Morris is on one side everyone here is on the other.
I prefer Morris if only because he is more interested in his way in the complexity of things than of ideas.


abb1 10.22.05 at 12:33 pm

Dan, on the anarchists’ planet you are allowed to do anything you want, there’s no authority to stop you; you da man.

Well, those 19th century anarchists are proponents of simple life – of poverty, actually. I think their ‘comfort’ means ‘necessities’. They make a distinction between ‘poverty’ and ‘pauperism’ and consider poverty a good thing; I suppose they would say that a truly free person just isn’t gonna want any special wallpaper.

This is silly, of course. Can’t do without some sort of coercion. Although, to be fair, they do suggest a pathetic sort of solution to freeriders, greed and other anti-social phenomena – communal ostracism. See, if you start acquiring all that fancy stuff your comrades will refuse to associate with you – they’ll still feed you, of course – but becoming the leader of the bowling team is out of the question.

Yeah, most of them spent too much time in Jura, it’s lovely there, very peaceful.

Come to think of it, many European welfare societies already have this two-tier system; IIRC Germany has minimum guaranteed income instead of minimum wage. Minimum guaranteed income is, I think, a form of communism.


Ben 10.22.05 at 5:35 pm

I didn’t read all the comments (though I was pleased someone raised Aristotle) but I’m not sure Morris is clearly a sufficientarian any more than Frankfurt. If “Mary has one slice, Jack has two, and Bill has four: but Mary and Jack don’t feel wronged, since they have had as much as they wanted” it sounds like they received different resources for different needs. Quite compatible with equality of (access to/opportunity for) advantage. Or Nagel’s point about how treating children equally might mean buying one a piano and the other a baseball…

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