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)
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