Exploitation, Social Justice

A Feminist Libertarian Dilemma

That the libertarian movement is full of dudes can probably be explained by a number of sociological factors, but there might be a deeper reason that libertarianism doesn’t have more women in the movement. Here I want to address one worry about libertarianism that I’ve heard from some of my feminist friends, the idea that feminism and libertarianism are structurally incompatible. I think that this worry succeeds to some extent, but that on balance libertarianism is still good for women.

The thought is that libertarianism structurally builds in a kind of status quo bias that favors men. As a theory that objects to interference with peoples’ voluntary choices, it therefore objects to interference with the current system patriarchy or male privilege insofar as the current system is a result of voluntary choices. Feminism calls for an end to patriarchy and male privilege, so the two are incompatible.

Consider the following feminist argument against libertarianism:

  • P1: Libertarianism instructs states and individuals not to interfere with people’s free choices.
  • P2: We currently live in a sexist culture where patterns of free choice continue to disadvantage women (e.g. employment discrimination, the gender wage gap and troubling patterns of socialization).
  • C: Libertarianism instructs states and individuals not to interfere with the perpetuation of sexism.

I think this argument is successful, so libertarians who are concerned with women’s interests (lets call ourselves libertarian feminists) are seemingly faced with a dilemma. Either:

  • (a)   States and individuals must interfere with sexist people’s free choices (e.g. states should violate freedom of contract and association to promote equal pay and fair employment procedures.
  • (b)  States ought to respect people’s free choices and thereby tolerate sexism.

What’s a BHL feminist to do? I think that feminists ought to favor (b) over (a) for several reasons.

First, gender equality isn’t the only thing we ought to care about. While sexism is wrong, it’s more wrong to violate a person’s negative liberties (like freedom of association or contract) than to accept a society that fails to provide certain benefits (like equal pay) even if both negative liberties and equal treatment were required by fairness. Like John Tomasi, I believe economic liberties take priority over other public goals, so even though discrimination is wrong, limits on freedom of contract and association are more wrong.

Second, libertarianism only affirms a sexist status quo insofar as limits on liberty are required to combat sexism. But limits on liberty are not required. There are plenty of other ways to further women’s interests without excessively violating liberties. Bleeding heart libertarianism doesn’t rule out public policies that help women with families succeed in the workforce, like affordable public childcare, subsidized family leave, elder care, or a universal basic income. But even if society did provide a generous social safety net, women’s voluntary choices could also perpetuate male-dominated corporate cultures, because women are more likely to favor part time work.

Even bleeding-heartless libertarians can (and should!) discourage sexism, though no one should be forced to refrain from sexism. And of course libertarians should never tolerate any kind of violence against women or coercive sexual harassment.

Third and most importantly, even though libertarianism does structurally tolerate institutional sexism in some ways, libertarianism isn’t necessarily bad for women on balance. As you may have guessed, I think that feminist libertarianism has a lot going for it, and I am wary of wary of any policy that limits citizen’s negative rights ‘for the sake’ of women, especially in light of the sexist history of wage regulation.

Though fair employment legislation may advance women’s interests in the short-run, policy proposals that require companies to hire or promote women or give equal pay also strike me as sexist. These policies require public officials and employers to treat women differently in the market. In this April’s Reason, Veronique de Rugy reviews how the tax system, welfare reforms, maternity leave policy, workplace regulations, and the drug war all disproportionately disadvantage women’s economic prospects. Even feminists should get behind tax reform and deregulation.

I also worry that any legal requirements that aim to correct for problems associated sexism will fail to treat the underlying systemic problems. For example, if a coercive policy corrects for the fact that women don’t negotiate for salary or ask for promotions, it may prevent women from learning to effectively advance their own interests in competitive environments.

The labor market is changing to include more women, but troubling inequalities persist. Many government interventions, like mandatory maternity leave policies, which are seemingly ‘on behalf’ of women backfire to work against us. (PDF) But even if government intervention were the most effective way to shatter the glass ceiling; it would be much better for women if we could do it without state intervention and ensure economic equality for good.


 PS: For those who are interested in a philosophical puzzle related to this dilemma, Javier Hidalgo pointed out to me that Chandran Kukathas describes a similar dilemma for libertarians when he discusses whether libertarianism ought to tolerate intolerant cultures. (PDF)  

Published on:
Author: Jessica Flanigan
  • famadeo

    You make interesting points. I especially agree with you’re stance against wellfare measures that tend to treat women like delicate flowers, harming their prospects for genuine flourishing (please disregard the obvious accidental pun).

    I ultimate dissagree, however (be warned: this is a non-libertarian outsider speaking), with your premise. Since part of the human condition consists of not living in a cultural vacuume, “negative liberty” becomes effectively useless in furthering a genuine culture of freedom.  Negative liberty is *not* a guarrantee for choice. A woman living in an abusive household has as much “choice” as a feudal serf: they can starve to death or suffer the abuse.

    I think it’s necessary to implement a more robust conception of personal freedom which will necessarily be put at odds with certain institutional arrangements we tend to take for granted. By which I mean not just the state but also family and even workplace relations.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I agree that the state isn’t the main issue here, and that a more respectful culture and workplace is also required by morality. That idea will need to wait for another post, but for now let me just point out that a problem with abusive households is that women’s negative liberty is violated, by her abuser and in some cases by the fact that she doesn’t have property rights in the household income. No libertarians should accept coercion or domestic violence, but focusing on negative liberty doesn’t require that. 

      • famadeo

        Well, if negative liberty is the pervailing concern and property rights as commonly understood are justified, the problem remains. A woman living off someone else is, in a sense “violating” another’s property, thereby granting the owner’s privilage to be abusive. I insist: these sorts of institutional structures need to be rethought.

        • darius404

           It doesn’t “grant them privilege to be abusive.” If someone wants to let someone else “live off of them,” that’s their choice. That does NOT give them some sort of “privilege” to abuse a person physically.

           Also, to Famadeo, you are falsely assuming that the only options are “starve to death or suffer abuse.” There are plenty of people and organizations, such as women’s shelters, that are MORE than willing to help a woman in need. Furthermore, you yourself are assuming that women are “delicate flowers” that couldn’t care for themselves, or find a job if they left an abusive household.

          • famadeo

            “That does NOT give them some sort of ‘privilege’ to abuse a person physically.” 

            That depends on the standard you’re working with. Like I said, if we take into account property rights as classically justified (a sort of non-proviso adaptation of Locke) it does effectively become the owner’s priviledge to treat it’s guests as he/she pleases. This is why I emphasize on a strong and extensive conception of personal autonomy and criticize proerpty rights (or a least certain conceptions of legitimate property) when the two come into conflict.”Furthermore, you yourself are assuming that women are ‘delicate flowers’ that couldn’t care for themselves, or find a job if they left an abusive household.”No. My point is that it shouldn’t have to come to that in the first place.

  • berserkrl

    I worry that, even with the demurrers you rightly go on to add, this way of putting the choice —

    (a)   States and individuals must interfere with sexist people’s free choices (e.g. states should violate freedom of contract and association to promote equal pay and fair employment procedures.
    (b)  States ought to respect people’s free choices and thereby tolerate sexism.

    — essentially encourages people to view the choice as being between a) adopting statist solutions, vs. b) doing nothing.  And if that’s how it looks, no wonder so many feminists choose (a).  

    But there is a third way.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I liked this article a lot and I agree that the criticisms of patriarchy can also be brought against the state. One problem is that this debate collapses a lot of levels of analysis. In ideal theory, right on, I’m an anarchist and I hate the state a lot. In non-ideal theory? Insofar as we have a state that distorts childcare and healthcare and other markets in all sorts of crazy ways we should probably endorse institutions that correct for these problems without violating people’s negative liberties the way that economic regulations do. 

      I agree that a first best option is to reject the state, but it’s one of those political theories that could make things way worse if done halfway (e.g. the messed up system of quasi-market based health care we have in the US, which is worse than universal health care and a fully market based system) I should have clarified that so thank you for pointing out this article! 

      • Micah

        The fact that you so directly stated either state action or inaction as the ONLY two choices in affecting societal change really raises the question of whether you really understand what it means to be a libertarian.

        Although you mention that voluntary association is important to libertarianism, you seem to miss one of the defining aspects of the philosophy. That this voluntary association, community activism, outspoken politics (in a stateless manner), and ostracism are not only the most moral tools for social change, but also happen to be the most effective. THIS is the way sexism should be combated. THIS is what should draw feminists to libertarianism.

        Although, there were a lot of things off the mark in berserkl’s link, this excerpt seems to demonstrate the point I’m trying to make,

        “There is much more to politics than government. Wherever human beings engage in direct discourse with one another about their mutual rights and responsibilities, there is a politics. I mean politics in the sense of the public sphere in which discourse over rights and responsibilities is carried on, much in the way Hannah Arendt discusses it. …. The force of public opinion, like that of markets, is not best conceived as a concentrated will representing the public, but as the distributed influence of political discourses throughout society. … Inside the firm, in business lunches, at street corners, interpersonal discourses are constantly going on in markets. In all those places there is a politics going on, a politics that can be more or less democratic. … Leaving a service to “the forces of supply and demand” does not remove it from human decision making, since everything will depend on exactly what it is that the suppliers and demanders are trying to achieve. … What makes a legal culture, any legal system, work is a shared system of belief in the rules of justice — a political culture. The culture is, in turn, an evolving process, a tradition which is continually being reappropriated in creative ways in the interpersonal and public discourses through which social individuals communicate. … Everything depends here on what is considered an acceptable social behavior, that is, on the constraints imposed by a particular political culture. … To say we should leave everything to be “decided by markets” does not, as [libertarians] suppose, relieve liberalism of the need to deal with the whole realms of politics. And to severely limit or even abolish government does not necessarily remove the need for democratic processes in nongovernmental institutions.”

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  • Aeon Skoble

    I like the post a lot and have been promoting it, but did have one concern.  You say, in consecutive sentences: “But limits on liberty are not required. There are plenty of other ways to further women’s interests without excessively violating liberties.”  So, you’re making this distinction between violating liberties and excessively violating liberties, which raises the question of what defines “excessive.”   All the things you give as examples in that paragraph — “affordable public childcare, subsidized family leave, elder care, or a universal basic income” — seem like things that can only be created with massive violations of liberty.  Beyond the standard negative-liberty violations you can imagine other libertarians making, these all entail perverse incentives and bureaucracy issues.  Pushing for these things is not only ill-advised from a libertarian point of view, but given the argument you’re making in the rest of the post, not necessary.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      This is a great comment- I totally see your point here, and it’s always hard to draw the line between something like a UBI (which I totally endorse) and something like requiring employers to provide maternity leave (a violation of liberty of contract). I think that some kinds of incentives for family leave, e.g. tax breaks for employers who provide it, are probably a good idea, but I’m not sure what economists would say about that so I’m surely out of my depth. I also think that affordable public childcare is probably justified insofar as public schools are, or better yet to my mind, public childcare vouchers. Same with elder care. 

      Maybe you think these are excessive, but I don’t because unlike economic restrictions like wage regulations or mandatory leave policies, they don’t take anyone’s options away from people, they just make some options more available. Also I don’t think that some taxes to pay for these kinds of things, depending on how the tax burden is distributed of course, constitute excessive violations of liberty- maybe you do? 

      I also totally am with you on the scary bureaucracy issues, that’s why I favor a UBI above any of the other policy proposals, which are in some sense more a matter of non-ideal policy.

      • Aeon Skoble

        “unlike economic restrictions like wage regulations or mandatory leave policies, [public schools/public childcare] don’t take anyone’s options away from people, they just make some options more available.”   They make some options more available for Smith by reducing the options to Jones.  Jones may be _less_ able to afford the school she wants to send her kids to if she’s forced to pay for Smith’s kids.  Moreover, 2 questions about your endoresment of a UBI (although this gets us a little off-int w.r.t. feminism):  1, how is that not liberty-violating?  And 2, why doesn’t a UBI have the same perverse-incentives  problem that any welfare state program has?  Just on a simple level, think of the standard arguments against minimum wage laws: they create unemployment at the margins because an employer may not value a certain bit of labor as highly as the law would require him to, even if he would value it a some level.  With a UBI, you’d get the same effect, but in reverse.

        • Aeon, 

          You asked: “And 2, why doesn’t a UBI have the same perverse-incentives  problem that any welfare state program has?”

          Couldn’t a UBI be structured in such a way where the income is so low (providing for basic survival but not a whole lot else) that we can effectively reduce any perverse incentives to a negligible amount? (“Yes, you can certainly exploit the UBI by taking it and not working… if you want to live only a lifestyle where basic needs are met, the kind of lifestyle only a very few would ever want to lead.”)

      • A defense of the UBI would make for an interesting post on its own!

  • Steven Horwitz

    I would add “check your premise.”  Would freed labor markets really discriminate against women in terms of pay?  How much of the current gender pay gap is due to problems with markets per se as opposed to the socialization processes that pattern choices by gender, therefore patterning jobs and pay by gender?  Do men and women equally situated and qualified get paid differently?  I think these are all issues well worth debating and it is not at all obvious to me (as over 300,000 have found out on YouTube   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwogDPh-Sow   ) that the gender pay gap shows some sort of failure of markets/libertarianism. 

    That said, I really like the argument that BHLs should combat sexism (I argue as much in the link above) even if defeating sexism doesn’t and shouldn’t require the state.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I linked to this video too and I really like it! I think we agree about the gender wage gap (I also linked to your BHL post about this video) which is that underlying problems with socialization contributes more to the wage gap than market failure or outright discrimination (though as the wal-mart case shows us, that happens in some cases!) 

    •  If I could suggest a point for future research (or, if you could point me towards research already conducted on this topic): sexism in promotion processes.

      •  Walter Block has also done quite a bit of investigation on the “gender gap” issue, I recommend a YouTube search.

        Copy and paste:

        site:youtube.com walter block sexual discrimination

    • I am reminded here of a point that an author (whose name eludes me) made several years ago. He studied exactly this problem (coming to similar conclusions as Steve). He suggested that he was motivated to look into the issue with the following question: “If companies can really get away with paying women much less than men, then why is it that companies don’t hire mostly women? Wouldn’t that be the better deal?” Needless to say, he found that the gender wage gap issue was much more complicated than many had appreciated. 

    • This might sound off the wall, but I’d like to put the idea out there anyway since I don’t think the unequal pay problem for women lies so much in the workplace, as with the fact that her labor is not properly compensated at home when she leaves the work force (in whole or in part) to raise children.

      My idea is this: when children are introduced to a pair bond, require that employers immediately recognize the marriage or civil union as a partnership under partnership law, and require paychecks to be issued in the names of BOTH parents/caregivers.

  • I’m actually a little ill having read this.  When you write “States ought to respect people’s free choices and thereby tolerate sexism” what I read is “Your ability to disenfranchise me, and systamatically make my life worse for not other reason that your own misconception of the world trumps my right to be an equal human being – not just equal in  your eyes, but equal in front of the law.”
    Lets take fair pay, for instance.  As a woman in our society, I’m disenfranchised because – in most situations – if I negotiate for my salary as aggressively as people tell me I should, I’m seen as a augmentative bitch who can’t work well on the team.  If I play it nice, and fit on the team, then I’m just inept at getting what I want.  I can’t win.  The game is rigged.  

    When you say that this sort of disenfranchisement is worse than the ability to free-contract, you are saying to me that your right to be wrong headed and affect my life directly in an irrational and negative way trumps my right to fair payment for work rendered.  Tolerating sexism is tolerating the ability to harm another person, and I can’t believe that a libertarian is seriously taking that stance.

    You’re wrong on this one.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I agree that the game is rigged. I’ve also seen gender discrimination and I sympathize with women everywhere who struggle to effectively negotiate because of employer’s sexist views. True story, the game is rigged. 

      So what do we do about it? One option is to limit freedom of contract, but I’m afraid that this will treat the symptom, not the underlying disease. Another option is to teach women how to effectively negotiate in light of these stereotypes, and to combat institutional sexism in other ways. Maybe you think I am being naive by arguing that limits on economic freedom are not needed to promote women’s interests, but I am troubled by the sexist history of wage regulations, including those that were advanced on behalf of women. 

      I agree that we should not tolerate sexism in our personal relations, when you see sexism you should call the sexist out on it! So I’m not saying we should tolerate sexism full-stop, only that we shouldnt use prohibitive policies to combat it. 

      • It seems to me that a big part of the problem of sexism (as well as racism and other -ism’s) in the workplace has to do with a lack of transparency wrt pay and promotion. Perhaps we overly fetishize (sic?) financial privacy?

        One of the things that I liked about my time in the military was exactly that kind of transparency. If you knew someone’s rank and time in service you knew exactly how much they were making. And you also knew that race and gender were irrelevant. (Of course women were and are locked out of some combat roles, but that’s a different issue.) You also tend to get that kind of transparency in government jobs.

        So maybe if we were to say, “You know… how much money you make really IS my business,” a great deal of discriminatory practices wouldn’t be able to withstand the glare of scrutiny.

    • j r

      I’m actually a little ill having read this. 

      What exactly does that mean?  What is about someone expressing an opinion that is different from yours that leads to you being physically ill?  It’s not like this post is channeling Rush Limbaugh or anything.  There is nothing nasty or mean-spirited about it.

      You’re implying that your constitution is so weak that reading this gave you a physical reaction.  Did you catch the vapors?  I find it quite strange, and more than a little ironic, when people make feminist arguments in this sort of distinctly Victorian manner.  

  •  “…policy proposals that require companies to hire or promote women or give equal pay also strike me as sexist.”

    Is this true?  Or actually, yes, it’s true that if a law was
    sex-specific such that pay parity was required only
    where women were traditionally under-served but which was mute or even
    antagonistic to other circumstances where men are instead less well paid
    then yes, that would be sexist.

    But how would it be sexist if instead a law said no one who meets all
    relevant job standards should be underpaid based on criteria not named
    in the job standards?

    I mean, sure, such a law might not be libertarian,
    and would thus draw objections from people who’s main interest in
    “libertarianism” is preserving the social status quo.  But it’s hard to
    see how it could be called sexist.


    • j_m_h

      But how would it be sexist if instead a law said no one who meets all relevant job standards should be underpaid based on criteria not named in the job standards?

      I’m not even sure how  such a policy could be implemented in any way that would anything but blindly bureaucratic with no regard for fairness or justice or be so complex as to be meaningless.

      •  Eh.  It’s already been that way for between maybe 30-50 years under the EEOC, which sets basically the same standards for race and religion and country of origin.  And most private businesses big enough to have an HR department already apply similar or identical standards to sex and/or gender.  And if they don’t?  How big a deal is it to include the words “or sex” to existing policies?  And in my personal experience back when I was in corporate it just wasn’t that big a deal either when we were hiring, compensating, or promoting people. 

        So no.  It’s only a bureaucratic nightmare if someone wants to go to the trouble to make it one.

        For the record, though, I only questioned why a regardless-of-gender clause had to be sexist, not whether it would be easy or hard to implement.


        • j_m_h

          And for 30 to 50 years haven’t people been saying there is a problem and differential, particularly in terms or race. We already have something that says you cannot discriminate based on sex as well as the others so what’s to be added?

          In short whatever you claim is already there isn’t doing anything to speak of and providing the teeth would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

  • I agree with berserkrl and, in particular, find the essay linked via his “third way” comment useful.

    The key point for my purposes comes in the essay’s quote from Don Lavoie: in brief, there is more to politics in society than merely deciding how to deploy the coercive power of the state. As Lavoie wrote, “Wherever human beings engage in direct discourse with one another about their mutual rights and responsibilities, there is a politics.”

    This is relevant to the main post here in the premise that  “Libertarianism instructs states and individuals not to interfere with people’s free choices.”

    Yes, libertarianism instructs individuals not to take recourse to the coercive power of the state in interfering with people’s free choices. But still we can “interfere” by voicing objections, by withdrawing from interaction and encouraging others to withdraw from interaction.

    By no principle need libertarian tolerate sexism. To the extent a libertarian contemplates any role for state action, and on these point there is a variety of positions, there is no libertarian principle that says such allowed state actions must tolerate unjust cultural practices.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I agree! The main point (I hope) was that you don’t need to violate economic freedom to promote feminism, but culturally, libertarianism should not tolerate a sexist culture except insofar as it faces a choice between tolerating some sexism or restricting economic liberty. 

  • This post reminds me of an interesting Dr. Phil show where a stay-at-home mom had serious issues with her husband insisting that he was entitled to a certain percentage of “me money” out of his weekly paycheck, and of course, he got to decide what percentage that should be.

    Dr. Phil reminded the husband that even though stay-at-home moms often earn little or no wage money: (1) studies show that they often work the equivalent of two full time jobs, and (2) in a marriage there is no such thing as “me money,” only partnership money.

    I wanted to mention this because women seem to suffer greater discrimination when they’re not the major source of income, and more important, when the income of the breadwinner is not fully viewed as the money of the partnership, which is a completely different legal entity than either spouse in their capacity as individuals.

    Courts seems to do a better job at leveling the playing field during divorce proceedings, but perhaps spendthrift spouses need to be monitored more closely when child-rearing is happening, and well before a divorce scenario approaches.

    • As a practical matter, I think both partners deserve and need a bit of “me money” as well as other kinds of personal “space”. If only to keep from killing each other.  😉

      • Rod, you have a point there, but as in a business partnership, all the money should into the partnership first, then comes out as “me money.”

  • eselpee

    “I believe economic liberties take priority over other public goals, so even though discrimination is wrong, limits on freedom of contract and association are more wrong.”

    Why should economic liberties take priority over my personal freedom to access “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” so that some greedy power monger can scoop up more that his white, male cronyistic fair share? All I can see this BHL saying (in distancing academic jargon) is let the cracken out and we will try to push a few measly social justice programs in the way to protect the vulnerable IF the white, male cronyistic mogals do not feel their ” negative liberties” too impinged upon. 

    Everytime I read this blog, I feel less safe. NOBODY has good answers.

    • 3cantuna

      And cronyism has what exactly to do with economic liberty?

  • j_m_h

    You do make some very good comments here. I think one might even ask the question can the state really be used to change social culture? I suspect to some minor extent it can but think the impact of state action is as you describe in one of your follow ups: something of a bandaid for symptoms that does little to assist in the healing.

    • I’m reminded of an account from the Jim Crow South after passage of the ERA. There were not a few businessmen — shop owners, restauranteurs, etc. — who felt LIBERATED by the ERA because it gave them social cover to do what they had wanted to for a long time — treat black people equally.

      I also think that Truman’s racial integration of the military has fostered a great deal of positive social/cultural change. I know I grew up in an environment that was largely “white” simply because we didn’t have any black people around. Not really for overtly racist reasons but it was just a rural, small-town, culture and there wasn’t much opportunity for inter-racial contact. Consequently, n***** jokes were “safe” as there was no one around to be offended. When I served in the Navy I found myself working alongside folks of different races for the first time, and even working under people of different races (division chiefs and a lieutenant commander). After a while I didn’t even SEE the skin color; it was just irrelevant, as it should be.

      Btw, that also goes for gender as I served on a mixed gender ship and the best division chief I worked with was female as well as the Executive Officer (second-in-command) who was female. The XO later went on to become the first female in the Navy to qualify for command duty and get her own ship. History!!

      I guess the point is that the state can do two things: lead by example and create an atmosphere where it safe to do the right thing contrary to cultural pressures.

      • j_m_h

        I would suggest that it’s the interaction as equals that’s removes the sigmas and prejudices. 

        Integration generated a lot of violence in many places and you’ll find plenty or racism in the military — just as often against whites so your experience in the Nave probably says more about you, and people with tolerant mind-sets, than the policy itself.

        What’s had more impact on breaking down the black-white racial walls has been success of blacks in sports and entertainment, which has also lead to success in business. Now blacks and whites, as classes, are facing one another as equals and  most of both classes are more than happy to ignore skin pigmentation as they should — which you also note.  Jessie Jackson was on target with his green is the color that matters. 

        Free markets will promote that type of treating others as equals better than government policy and legislation. This is not to say “free markets” will produce such results in the presence of differential public policy that favors one class over the other. Note, I’m not saying that legislation and public policies aimed at mitigating individual prejudices in public interactions (which are different than private social interactions) will have no impact.

        • I don’t really disagree with any of what you said and, in particular,  your first statement is absolutely correct in the long term.

          But the point I was trying to make in my first paragraph was that you had “good guys” who were being coerced by some of their neighbors into doing harm (arguably, at least) to other neighbors.

          So here’s the deal: Assuming states exist — and despite the fondest wishes of anarchists I don’t see states evaporating any time soon — there will inevitably arise in such a situation calls for a legislative remedy. At that point you have a binary choice: support or oppose the legislation. If you support the legislation you are, at the least, putting the “bad guys” on notice that their behavior is unacceptable while supporting the “good guys” in doing the right thing by providing social “cover” for them (“I have to serve the n*****, Joe. It’s the law.”) On the other hand, if you oppose the legislation you are sending the message that the “bad guys” aren’t really SO bad after all, while providing no support at all to the “good guys”.

          Is it coercive? Yes, sure. But it’s reactive coercion, not initiatory coercion. The “bad guy” neighbors are the one’s initiating the coercion. So the only real issue is effectiveness. Will it help, or will it do more harm than good? And that’s just going to be a judgement call informed by historical experience.

          By and large I’d say we’re now at the point where the reactive coercion has done its job, is no longer necessary, and is likely doing more harm than good in many instances. But if there’s one thing that the election of Pres. Obama has proven it’s that racism is still alive and well. It’s an ugly beast that’s going to be damn hard to kill.

  • Alvincente

    Admittedly this is an important issue that you, Ms. Flanigan are approaching seriously, but I find your argument bizarre, assuming we are living in a democratic society.  If that society is sexist and dominated by patriarchy, and even if P1, P2, and C are all correct, then (a) is impossible.   (a) can be imposed on society only if society is *not* sexist, because a society dominated by patriarchalism would make that patriachalism illegal.  Thus, logically, if (a) can be imposed, that shows that P2 is false, and there is no need for (a).

  • DavidGross

    The premise I’d like to check is that the libertarian movement is dude-dominated. I think that the American libertarian movement, or at least that stream of it that I find myself canoeing in, has been much more influenced and shaped by women than most comparable schools of thought. Folks like Voltairine deCleyre and Emma Goldman, to start with, Ayn Rand and Vivien Kellems and Rose Wilder Lane along the way, and nowadays folks like Claire Wolfe and Wendy McElroy.  Maybe I’m peculiar in my influences, but I’m struck with how many of the most influential figures in this strain of libertarianism are women.

    • Sharon Presley

       I am a great admirer of the women you name and am well aware of their contributions [considering that I co-edited one of the anthologies of de Cleyre’s works] but however important these contributions may be, it does not speak to the issue that Jessica was actually raising.  In the “day-to-day” activities of the libertarian movement, Jessica is absolutely and unfortunately correct.  I know because I have been observing it all for 48 years.  For many years, it was hard to even find a woman speaker at libertarian conferences. Even today they are still a minority at any conference. The neglect of so-called women’s issues is conspicuous. How many conferences ever deal with any of them???  You have to really hunt around for relevant information. That’s why I’m  editing a libertarian feminist anthology on current social issues of concern to women.  It shouldn’t have taken this long for such a volume to be in process. Now, at least, there are enough people to write the needed articles. [Matt Zwolinki is one of them :)]

      Back in the 90s the late (great) Joan Kennedy Taylor wrote an an article on why there so few women in the libertarian movement [see http://alf.org/morewomen.php%5D. The essence? Because many lib men don’t take women seriously, treat them badly, continue to neglect them and their issues, and are often sexist, if not outright misogynist. But hey, other than that…  

      I do see some improvement since she wrote that in the 90s but I still see lots of sexism and misogynism among those who call themselves libertarians. I could write a whole article on it and I probably should (though 10 of us did write a commentary on Facebook on Molyneux’s misogynist and pandering video “Is Feminism Socialism in Panties?”).
      Bottom line: If you did a survey of libertarian women, I guarantee that the majority of them would agree with me, not you. I know because I’ve been talking to other libertarian women for a long time. I’ve been watching and participating  in the movement since 1964.  It still has a lot of growing up to do.

      Sharon Presley
      Executive Director
      Association of Libertarian Feminists

  • That “insofar as” covers a lot of ground.  There are left-wing libertarians who say the status quo results not primarily from voluntary choices, but from coercive state intervention on behalf of big business, plutocrats, employers, landlords, patriarchy, racial oppression, and authoritarianism in general.  The very fact that workers are slavishly competing for jobs and employers have the whip hand in the hiring process results from state intervention to make land and capital artificially scarce and expensive compared to labor, erect entry barriers to self-employment, impose artificial costs on comfortable subsistence, and otherwise reduce the amount of competition employers face from self-employment. 

    • 3cantuna

      But but but… Removing state power is idealism, admirable but unrealistic.  We must work with what is in place. Besides, if enough of the state is operated by individuals educated in higher standards concerning race, class and gender, then its coercive power could be manipulated into reaching progressive goals. A BHL elite, from Brown, Princeton, Arizona, whatnot, could simultaneously ensure market processes to go long with the antidiscrimination limited welfare agenda. Goodbye High Liberalism. Hello Hayekian-Progressive revolution within the form.

      • j_m_h

        That seems as idealistic and romantic an idea as the one you reject. Over on The Agitator there was a great story about the demise of a bad, apparently, state prosecutor.  It’s got an interesting insight to the psychology of, in my opinion, the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

        • 3cantuna

          I was playing devil. I reject the state as appropriate means to ends.

  • While individual preferences exist, the state cannot change them. All the state can do is build resentment.

    Walter Block’s investigation into discrimination in wages is quite interesting, I recommend it highly. Here’s one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty0QXqHcQHo

    Incentives matter. A bigot (someone who discriminates one way or another based upon non-work-related attributes) is at a competitive disadvantage. The bigot will hire and promote based upon preferences that put less qualified people in responsible positions.

    More qualified people will have the same incentives as any situation where they are not compensated commensurate with their abilities, to go where they are so compensated.

    Legislation is the result of people’s changing attitudes. As such, the legislation itself is not actually needed. What is needed is to get the state out of the way. Many forget that the Civil Rights Act was “needed” because of the LEGAL artifacts of Jim Crow laws that were not otherwise getting repealed “fast enough”.

    It’s easy enough to say that because I’m a white male I can’t understand the issue. What I can understand, because I’ve been in the work force a long time, are the circumstances where not being a white male has been beneficial due to quotas that are used to “balance the work force” rather than people being hired and promoted because of ability.

    I would much rather have prejudice be tolerated and dealt with, rather than trying to hide it under legislative fiat. Then I can choose to do business with those with whom I agree.

    Scratch any problem, you will find govt causing it in the first place, or making it worse.

  • Libertarianism denies that states should interfere with people’s free choices. However, it is compatible with the view that individuals should seek to influence other individuals’ free choices through non-coercive methods. It seems to me feminist libertarians should say that individuals have an important role to play in reforming sexist social institutions, but this is best done without involving the state. Individuals can advance the feminist cause in numerous non-coercive ways, including activism, consciousness raising, boycotts and changing their own personal practices.

    In short, there are many effective libertarian tools of social change. Libertarian feminists certainly need not tolerate sexism. Additionally, a good case can be made that state sanctioned efforts to promote feminist goals have often failed to secure real social change and, in some cases, have backfired. The types of methods consistent with libertarianism may turn out to be the most effective ways of changing sexist social institutions. The involvement of the state crowds out such approaches.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I totally agree with this, it’s just that in some sense, libertarianism says that the state should tolerate some sexist choices rather than limiting freedom of contract or association to forbid sexist hiring and promotion practices. This doesnt mean that libertarianism tolerates sexism ::full stop:: but in some sense it does tolerate some sexism more than a more interventionist policy approach. But even then, it’s more just to tolerate sexist economic practices than it would be to limit economic freedoms. This is a great comment though because what you say is totally right– usually when the state tries to promote feminist goals it’s a massive fail. 

  • LIBIntOrg

    Thanks for the article.

    Women make up some 60% of the Libertarian movement, and have led in women’s issues.

    For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see http://​www.Libertarian-International.org  ,  the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization…

  • purple_platypus

    “if I negotiate for my salary as aggressively as people tell me I should,
    I’m seen as a augmentative bitch who can’t work well on the team. If I play it nice, and fit on the team, then I’m just inept at getting what I want.  I can’t win.  The game is rigged.  ”

    I am white, male, straight and basically on the supposedly-powerful side of nearly all the traditional groupings people talk about, yet this dilemma sounds exactly like my own experience of such situations. The grass is nowhere near as much greener over here as you appear to think. I’m not at all convinced this is a gendered problem so much as a human problem. If anything, most women seem better than most men, including me, at understanding the interpersonal dynamics that go into figuring out who it’s wise to ask about such things and at what times.

    Now, there are at least two general sorts of strategies for coping with this reality, and I accept that men tend to favour one and women the other. Why that happens is a valid and interesting question, as is whether one is more effective than the other, but it seems to me those are significantly *different* questions than you take yourself to be raising.

  • I just think it is terrible that society is forced to incur the expense of private, unregulated breasts and their selfish owners.

    Thanks god for Obamacare. Soon we will be able to mandate prophylactic radical mastectomy, at least for high risk cases, and get rid of these superfluous, primitive, distracting, obsolete accoutrements.

    This will produce massive health care cost savings. And also be a blow for equality.

  • Jessica,

    I know my comment only speaks  to the first part (the least consequential) of your very excellent post. But I wonder if you’ve looked into the care ethicists like Nel Noddings, Virginia Held, and Michael Slote at all to possibly explain some of the reason that more women do not tend toward libertarianism. Basically, in the 1980’s, psychologist Carol Gilligan (working under Lawrence Kohlberg) began realizing that, at least to a decent degree, women tended to work through ethical dilemmas a bit differently than men (again, as a general trend). Men, for instance, would base many of their moral decisions based on abstract rules to do with autonomy, rights, etc, where women would often base their positions on ideas like care and empathy. And while these two may overlap (one can respect a person’s autonomy out of care for that person), there was significant divergence (when a person is choosing carelessly, respecting their autonomy may require us to refrain from stepping in and exercising our care). 

    And, maybe not so surprisingly, care ethicists like Noddings, Held, and Slote ALL either criticize the liberal tradition (that it overvalues autonomy, that it fosters impersonal dealings between people) or seeks to (in Slote’s case) ground the liberal tradition on the idea of care (we respect autonomy and rights out of a generalized care for people) in an unconvincing way. 

    I, personally, have been struggling with questions of whether the ethic of care is compatible with the idea of liberalism. But, at very least, Carol Gilligan’s work on care ethics and women (“In a Different Voice”) may be an interesting read to explain at least some of the male-heaviness of libertarian ideas. 

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  • Like John Tomasi, I believe economic liberties take priority over other public goals, so even though discrimination is wrong, limits on freedom of contract and association are more wrong.”


  • This reads like libertarianism without a complete understanding of the free market’s versatility. Take for instance paid maternity leave for woman. One, companies have a certain allocation of resources, and mandating a certain amount of paid maternity leave requires the reallocation of those resources FROM someplace to another. Does that mean the company will lower take-home pay? Does it mean they will cut down on part-time workers? These are the broken window concepts that mandated benefits like paid maternity leave or childcare don’t take into account. Further, if we lived in a free-market, which admittedly we don’t, demands are often met organically from the mutual contract of two parties. For example, if immigration didn’t receive such a reactionary force from people afraid of losing their jobs, they might realize that increased immigration would likely lower the cost of childcare because unskilled female workers would be willing to nurse/look after children for lower cost. This would offer women more options without restricting the options of any other party. This would be a fairer government policy, because it does not violate the choice of any of its citizens while allowing them the freedom to better their situation. In short, the goal of feminism ought to be equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, and that is the disconnect between classical liberal feminism and 3rd-wave feminism in many instances.

  • Bagawk bwagak!

    On the workplace part:
    Considering that women have only been really widespread and “equals” in the workplace since about the late 70’s [if that long] I’m not surprised that many gaps still exist. This is really the first full generation of women who have been raised to seek employment for money and self support as a norm, so there is a bit of blind leading the blind and a lot of social/educational bits still to be overcome.
    (I think fairy tales of princes and so on are one of the biggest subconscious burdens you can put in a girls head, leading to a life of disappointment and confused priorities. Boys are still raised from very early to know there is no sugar-daddy option, if you don’t pursue your career(including retirement) aggressively; seeking raises, promotions, and overtime; than you might end up working on the factory floor until the day you die . Most girls still aren’t raised with this tough-love mental prep.[not that girls have it easy, it’s just different and not appropriate prep for the modern adult])

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  • Free Sex

    Your rants against sexism are just puritanism repackaged. You are an enemy of freedom.

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  • Alex Gentry

    Economic liberties are JUST AS important as social justice. This is the point that libertarians miss and that is why I am neither a libertarian nor a left-winger but a middle ground between the two. That is where I disagree with you. If you dare condone sexist behavior, you let sexists infringe on the rights of women.

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  • William Baker

    It’s important to make a distinction between the western gender feminist cult of hate -the establishment and current mainstream- which anyone “libertarian”(left or right or elsehwere} should vehemently oppose: the Orwelian, authoritarian, fasistic, gynocentric and misandric “gender feminism/feminists” and “equity feminism”{or simply Womens rights activism or suffragettism/1st wave type feminism- allthough why even use this gender cult term? except as a temporary short-hand/synonym when and where applicable as a temporary}; to understand this distinction one should read Christina Hoff Sommers books “who stole feminism” and “the wara against boys” and check out her youtube channel “The Factual Feminist”, and check out Camille Paglias stuff, like her book “sexual personae” and ‘sex, art, and american politics”. Dissident feminist/equity feminism should be supported by “libertarians”{left, right, or otherwise}- in the context for say women in Islamic countries/cultures/communities and other countries or cultures that are patrairchal, but todays west does’nt ened feminism at all really, but it does currently need MRA’-ism and all people, but so we should also equally support western MRA-ism alongside WRA-ism where applicable. Amnd be gender egalitarians, not gender cultists; gender cultism must be opposed at all costs, it is a dangerous poison

    I also reccomend the new documentary by former gender, noq equity feminist Cassie Jaye; a award winning documentary film-maker, and actress, etc. Her new doc “the red pill” on the MRA movement and also feminism and gender issues is an important documentary EVERYONE should see, a historically important doc. Youtube it’s ‘extended preview” on youtube.

    But one thing is certain, all enlightned, democracy and liberty and truth and fact loving people, libertarian or otherwise, left or right should vehemently oppose the gender feminists and their puppets in the other social justice movements which they have co-opted and corrupted and now control{these other movements will only regain legitancy if they divorce themselves from the gender feminist cult and regime; until then..they’re all just puppets of the radical gender feminists and their new femtriarchy and gyocracy}. Left libertarians and all libertarians need to make sure that they do not get sucked in by these orwellian, authortarian gender fascists and their influence and their lies. Left libertarianism will only show itself as legitimate if it refuses to bow to them and openly opposes their agendas and methods and ideology{half truths and lies}.

  • Masta Kush

    You make a few assumptions that have been discredited. One is the gender wage gap. It has been proven that there actually isn’t one or it is highly negligible. I won’t post sources because Google, but that statistic has been debunked. Another is that only women are abused and men are always the abusers. The biggest victims (and perpetuators) of CDV are actually lesbians.

    I think these points are a lot of what turns off people to feminism once they actually read what mainstream feminists of today are saying. I know they are no where near the majority of feminists, but they are by far the most vocal. So their narrative has become the narrative of the feminist movement. I have trouble supporting anything that requires a distortion or outright lie of the facts to actually prove a point. If feminism today was truly about equality, such as not changing the definition of rape to always being men hurting women, then others and I would support it. The problem is that feminism today is about elevating women and putting down men. My wife is no longer a feminists after I showed her the hate speech that mainstream ‘feminists’ spew on a daily basis, especially towards traditional women like my wife. It’s disgusting how much mainstream feminists hate women that aren’t part of their group. I think this is the main point that you seem to have missed along with the outright lies about statistics. I saw one feminist claim that 1 in 3 women suffer from being molested IN AMERICA. That is an outright lie, but still other gems defend her…

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