(This post is co-authored with Sarah Skwire)
Several years ago we co-authored a post on women and libertarianism that we titled “No Girls Allowed” and it kicked off something of a kerfuffle. Well thanks to Jeet Heer and Kevin Drum, this topic is back and we’re back too, this time trying to explain Heer and Drum’s claim that even though libertarianism would be glad to have them, supposedly the girls don’t want in.
The question Heer raises is why Rand Paul polls so poorly among women, which then leads him to suggest that perhaps the problem is not with Paul per se but rather his libertarian political philosophy. Let’s put aside for the moment the question of whether Paul is best described as a libertarian (a claim about which we have our doubts), and let’s ask whether either Heer’s or Drum’s explanations for libertarianism’s lack of appeal to women make sense.
We start by agreeing on the facts: yes, women are underrepresented in libertarianism. Women are underrepresented in many radical political views held by small numbers of people, not to mention various sorts of unconventional views in general. It’s possible that the male dominance of libertarianism isn’t about libertarianism per se.
That said, women are far more involved in libertarianism than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Steve has been around long enough to remember the virtually female-free environment of libertarian groups in the early 80s. Looking at the number of women attending International Students for Liberty Conference, or the growing number of female academic libertarians (even in the male bastion of economics), as well as the leadership positions at Reason or the Institute for Humane Studies or Students for Liberty that have been held by women, and the new Libertia Society, suggests that change is taking place.
Nonetheless, the gap is real. Heer, who did his homework and interviewed several libertarian journalists as part of his story, offers this explanation for it:
While libertarianism is rarely explicitly sexist, it is hostile to collective efforts to challenge sexism: anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, paid leave, and the broader net of social services that are particularly necessary to those who have historically been tasked with care-giving jobs within the family. No wonder women as a whole find little in libertarianism that appeals to them.
(He also suggests that libertarianism is nostalgic for a past when white men ruled the world. Katherine Mangu-Ward effectively deals with that claim over at Reason.)
The problem with Heer’s answer is that it begs the question. He simply assumes that all of the “collective efforts to challenge sexism” he lists actually benefit women. That’s precisely the claim that libertarians deny. Isn’t it at least possible that libertarians might be right? If so, the task for libertarians is to persuade (more) women that the policies associated with traditional feminism might be making them worse off and that less government involvement might lead to better outcomes. Heer could have easily explained why making that case is hard, but instead he chose to portray libertarianism as “hostile” to women’s interests. He assumes away the very issue that should be at the center of the debate.
Assuming that libertarianism is inherently opposed to women’s interests is where Heer’s explanation meets Drum’s. Drum writes:
Hardcore libertarianism is a fantasy. It’s a fantasy where the strongest and most self-reliant folks end up at the top of the heap, and a fair number of men share the fantasy that they are these folks. They believe they’ve been held back by rules and regulations designed to help the weak, and in a libertarian culture their talents would be obvious and they’d naturally rise to positions of power and influence…Few women share this fantasy. I don’t know why, and I don’t really want to play amateur sociologist and guess. Perhaps it’s something as simple as the plain observation that in the more libertarian past, women were subjugated to men almost completely. Why would that seem like an appealing fantasy?”
This is complete nonsense, of course, particularly in its construction of libertarianism as innately unconcerned with the suffering of the least well off. We do not believe we have been “held back by rules and regulations to help the weak.” We believe, and have evidence to support, the argument that those rules and regulations hurt the weak at least as often as they help them. Many of us (women included) are libertarians because we are persuaded that economic and other liberties are the best ways to help the least well off to improve their lot.
Drum, like Heer, just assumes away the debate. What makes that assumption even more amusing is that about ten days ago that well-known libertarian newspaper The New York Times ran a piece on how “family-friendly policies” can backfire. Claire Cain Miller wrote: “these policies often have unintended consequences. They can end up discouraging employers from hiring women in the first place, because they fear women will leave for long periods or use expensive benefits.” This is exactly the sort of argument libertarians have made for decades about why government intervention may harm women far more than it helps.
In addition, we should ask what exactly constitutes “women’s interests.” Is the Affordable Care Act in women’s interests? To the extent that women lack health insurance perhaps it is. But we should also consider that women are the clear majority of owners of new small businesses, for whom the costs of ACA compliance might be enough to shut them down. Or perhaps we should consider that women are more likely to be in jobs that would see their hours limited to 30 per week thanks to the ACA. Not so simple now.
What libertarians know, and what we need to do a better job communicating, is that the general narrative that markets are bad for women and government is good, or that free markets allow men to dominate women is more than a little problematic. Yes, the sexes were highly unequal in the 19th century, but it seems unfair to blame markets for that when the state prevented married women from owning property or making contracts. The same is true of the protective labor legislation of the early 20th century, in which men used the power of the state to limit women’s hours and wages when women’s growing economic presence (which was due to the power of the market) was becoming a threat. Unions played a large role in pushing this protective legislation, correctly seeing that women (as well as non-whites) being willing to work for less was a threat to (white) male jobs. The whole concept of a “family wage” for men, enforced by the state, was intended to maintain this state-driven inequality.
We also know that the changes in the nature of work and the wealth that market capitalism brought with it transformed the nature of marriage from one of male dominance to something much closer to a contract of equals, a point recognized by early libertarians such as Ludwig von Mises in 1922. Those same changes also produced the appliances and other technology that substantially reduced the drudgery of housework, as well as the medical advances that reduced the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. The growing 20th century economy, driven again by the very market capitalism that libertarians celebrate, also meant families had fewer children, making it easier for women to enter the workforce, while simultaneously providing the increased demand for their labor that raised wages available to them. This growth in female labor force participation also gave women increased financial independence, enabling them to more easily leave abusive and otherwise unsatisfactory marriages, especially after the desire to do so led to the age of no-fault divorce by the 1970s. (The interested reader can get a more complete story with far more detail in Steve’s forthcoming book on libertarianism and the family.)
In all of these ways market capitalism and the growth it brought liberated women from a past in which the state, in partnership with individuals who stood to gain from doing so, limited their opportunities and kept them as second-class citizens. Libertarianism is not inherently hostile to efforts to challenge sexism and inequality. Instead it locates the most powerful forces for forwarding sexism and inequality largely in government and sees market capitalism and the institutions of civil society as the best ways to address them. We might be wrong about that, but to characterize libertarianism as inherently hostile to women’s interests is to both caricature libertarianism and to engage in a very unintellectual form of question begging.
Do libertarians need to do a better job of making the theoretical and historical case we’ve laid out here? We sure do. Do we need to spend more time and intellectual energy addressing issues of interest to women (and non-whites, and other minority and marginalized groups)? We sure do. Do we need to do a better job in marketing our ideas to those who have historically not been attracted to them? We sure do.
Because otherwise we’re going to end up writing this post again in another few years.