Libertarian Kerry Howley has a fascinating piece at Reason: “Are Property Rights Enough? Should libertarians care about cultural values? A reason debate”, with two reactions. She writes:
I call myself a classical liberal in part because I believe that negative liberties, such as Min’s freedom from government interference, are the best means to acquire positive liberties, such as Min’s ability to pursue further education. I also value the kind of culture that economic freedom produces and within which it thrives: tolerance for human variation, aversion to authoritarianism, and what the libertarian economist F.A. Hayek called “a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.”
But I am disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state; that social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist; that the fight for freedom stops where the reach of government ends.
Tim B Lee has follow-up comments, noting:
“Libertarianism is commonly described as a political philosophy that favors eliminating “force” from human relationships. Unfortunately, I think the libertarian movement has inherited from Rand and Rothbard an allergy to giving deep thought to the question of what force is and why it’s bad. Rather, the definition and wrongness of “force” is taken as a self-evident “non-aggression axiom.” And all libertarian conclusions are said to follow from the axiom: just figure out who is forcing whom (almost always the state is doing the coercing), and make them stop.”
I have a few pretty intense Rothbardian friends, and when I’ve discussed with them how they envision a better world (warning: most of it involves bringing the banking sector to around 1840), even a made up world as a thought exercise, I ask them why gender isn’t tossed out the window along with fractional reserve banking in their minds. But they really don’t like that idea. It’s not even on the radar. I’m not a libertarian, but, if I was, I couldn’t imagine not having J.S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women on the front bench.
I like Tim B. Lee’s comment that the forces pushing back against this are inherited from Rothbard and Rand. I’m not at the front lines of these debates, so this comment may not actually be correct, but I’d also suggest, among little-l libertarians, that Gary Becker is also going to give pushback among those who want to fight as cultural libertarians.
Did you know that women specialize in household work, and men in wage-paying work, because there are increasing returns to household work? Here’s some math from Becker to prove it. Did you know that discrimination can’t exist, because it would imply that markets are imperfect, leaving human capital $20 bills all over the sidewalk? So if minorities are discriminated against, it must mean that they have low human capital (and you can tell that they have low human capital, because they are discriminated against!).
And of course, the big one: Why do women have more autonomy now than they did 100 years ago? Cultural libertarians might suggest that it’s the result of specific actions to increase the ability of women to have access to markets, as well as a greater recognition of women to have the recognized capacity of self-governance. Our Becker-ites would say that it’s simply the result of technology (the pill) and structural labor market adjustments (a move from manufacturing, benefiting men, to service, benefiting women).
This is not how I approach the world, but it is a very neoliberal little-l libertarian way of approaching the world, and an obstacle I think Howley’s project would hit as she expands it. It’s one thing to say that we need to acknowledge a diversity of cultures, and let them play out in a market. This is some form of the reaction Howley gets in the Reason responses. It’s another thing to say that the discrimination and culture oppression currently faced is a market outcome, pareto-efficient in its effects. Pushing to get more autonomy for women would be the same thing as rent control and price fixing in this mental picture of the world.
As an example, (and for old time’s sake), here’s Becker fellow-traveler,
Justice Judge Posner saying we must find clever ways to make it harder to get women to attend elite law schools, because it’s economically inefficient to allow them to do so:
…the results of surveys and interviews concerning career plans of women at the nation’s most prestigious colleges, law schools, and business schools. Although not rigorously empirical, the article confirms–what everyone associated with such institutions has long known–that a vastly higher percentage of female than of male students will drop out of the work force to take care of their children…
The reason that in most cases it is indeed the wife (hence my choice of pronoun) rather than the husband who gives up full-time work in favor of household production is not only that the husband is likely to have the higher expected earnings; it is also because, for reasons probably both biological and social, women on average have a greater taste and aptitude for taking care of children, and indeed for nonmarket activities generally, than men do…
The principal effect of professional education of women who are not going to have full working careers is to reduce the contribution of professional schools to the output of professional services….Whether the benefit these women derive consists of satisfying their intellectual curiosity, reducing marital search costs, obtaining an expected income from part-time work, or obtaining a hedge against divorce or other economic misfortune, it will be on average a smaller benefit than the person (usually a man) whose place she took who would have a full working career would obtain from the same education….
Suppose a professional school wanted to correct the labor-market distortion that I have been discussing…It would be unlawful discrimination to refuse admission to these schools to all women, for many women will have full working careers and some men will not….A better idea, though counterintuitive, might be to raise tuition to all students but couple the raise with a program of rebates for graduates who work full time…
Although women continue to complain about discrimination, sometimes quite justly, the gender-neutral policies that govern admission to the elite professional schools illustrate discrimination in favor of women. Were admission to such schools based on a prediction of the social value of the education offered, fewer women would be admitted.
Where would a cultural libertarian begin? Posner argues that law school would rationally discriminate against women to increase the likelihood of future donations (since men are more likely to work) if that wasn’t illegal, a private greed which matches up well with the Invisible Hand doing it’s increasing overall social benefit thing. Is an elite law school’s inability to discriminate against women a form of rent control?