Libertarianism and Culture

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?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Libertarianism and Culture

  1. Karl Smith says:

    Mike, glad to see you weighing in on this but I don’t want libertarianism to be restricted to Rothbard or Beckerites.

    First off Rothbard is insane and while Becker is a genius, he is often too cute by half and loves to come up with Homo Economicus explanations for everything. Just because there is a H. Economicus solution doesn’t mean its the right one.

    We could just as easily explain the persistence of discrimination as preferences or as the market slouching towards equilibrium.

  2. Mike says:

    Hahaha. I was at a wedding last fall and another person at the dinner table said “I hear you are into finance. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the economy and the financial sector….have you heard of someone named Murray Rothbard?” It was an intense dinner table. Poor fractional reserve banking – I knew not your evils!

    I don’t mean to pigeonhole a big tent movement or anything, and I understand Becker (and those who follow him) like to give provocative examples, but I do think this is an issue that ‘cultural libertarians’ will hit. As market thinking has moved towards a more general ideology negotiating social and (especially) political spaces, one who is strongly wed to the primacy of market outcomes as a determining force has to ask whether or not the political autonomy market outcomes gives individuals is sufficient. If not, why should we expect that person to get it better than the market?

    Again, it’s not my thinking, but I can imagine a lot of little-l libertarians have something akin to this going on with their discomfort with this as a political goal.

  3. Tim Lee says:


    Thanks for the thoughtful post. My basic answer is that I think many libertarians are unduly focused on the market. I think libertarianism ought to be viewed as a philosophy about freedom and the institutions that make freedom possible. Markets are one such liberty-enhancing institution, but it’s not the only such institution, or even the most important. There are a lot of non-market institutions, such as churches, non-profits, sports clubs, co-ops, etc, that I think are important parts of a free society. I think libertarians make a big mistake when they attack voluntary but non-market institutions. I made a version of this argument here.

    So I can’t speak for Kerry, but I personally find Becker’s approach intellectual stimulating but ultimately misguided.

  4. Clay Barham says:

    The original American Libertarians were the 19th century Democrats who followed Jefferson to Cleveland, as cited in THE CHANGING FACE OF DEMOCRATS on Amazon and The 20th century Democrats follow Rousseau and Marx and have no truck with libertarians. The GOP started with Hamilton, then Clay, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, all central government meddlers, but never libertarians.

  5. Larisa says:

    Am I correct in reading that in this discussion property rights are not seen by libertarians as a kind of force?

    ha. ha ha ha. nice one!

  6. JeffreyY says:

    Posner’s argument begs the question. He assumes that women will continue to be discriminated against in terms of salary and that both men and women will continue to be hurt by socially prescribed child care roles, and uses that to justify even more discrimination against women. His throwaway line about biological reasons is reminiscent of attempts to “scientifically” justify slavery. The term “chauvinist pig” comes to mind.

    Modern libertarianism is mostly about justifying existing power relationships, not about liberty, so while Kerry Howley’s attempt to broaden it is admirable, she’s looking in the wrong place for allies.

  7. pebird says:

    I’m glad to see that Posner advocating yet another “Visible Fist” market solution.

    As usual, his “libertarian” solution results in less individual freedom in order to maintain a monopolist power position.

    But why not address his unspoken assumption – that there is an increase in liberty and justice as more experienced legal practitioners dominate the profession. Why would we even suppose this to be the case?

    If instead we assumed that an increase in corruption and general laziness were correlated with length of tenure (e.g., read Posner’s writings), then we would want legal professionals that did NOT practice full-time throughout a career, but instead moved in and out of the profession.

    In a similar way, the most trusted politicians are those that are not long-term professional politicians but instead come from “the private sector” and offer to serve for only a limited period.

    In this case, if law schools admitted more female students, they would be increasing social utility (more justice and liberty) by ensuring a higher-turnover of legal professionals.

    I don’t necessarily subscribe to this assumption – but Posner gets away with divide-by-zero calculations constantly, and he ends up “proving” anything he wants.

  8. Rebecca Z. says:

    The great inequality here is a man’s ability to stay at home and raise his children. Women don’t have a corner on parenting/cleaning/nurturing skills.

    Equality and liberty, perhaps, ought to include the notion of reproduction rights; and giving our best (our time, not our money) to our children.

    They seem more valuable to me then ten years of legal practice. And men ought to have the autonomy to raise them instead of farming them out to others.

  9. Chris says:

    Posner misses an even bigger elephant — the huge salaries of lawyers prove that the law school system is undersupplying them. So instead of trying to keep anyone out of law school, we should be massively expanding our law schools until we have enough lawyers for their salaries to return to equilibrium with other occupations.

    It is fairly obvious why this solution doesn’t occur to Posner the lawyer, but isn’t the *standing* salary imbalance proof on its face of a market failure?

    It’s another thing to say that the discrimination and culture oppression currently faced is a market outcome

    Especially when there are bloodstains all over it.

    I think the underlying problem here is that libertarians don’t really know how to deal with violence within the family, so they don’t want to admit that it exists. But violence and the threat of violence have been part of traditional family structures for probably longer than human beings have existed as a species.

    If you don’t want wives and children to be effectively slaves, then they have to have some enforceable rights against aggression by their own family members, and that requires someone from outside the family capable of looking in to see if domestic abuse is occurring — exactly the kind of government intrusion libertarians usually hate.

    As long as human beings aren’t born sui juris and capable of enforcing their own interests, libertarianism will never really work as a system that can be applied to human beings.

    P.S. The possibility of rational discrimination is one reason I’m not a pure libertarian — or I’m a form that admits the existence of nongovernmental oppression. Whether law schools discriminate against women rationally or irrationally, as a result of collusion or independently coming to the same conclusion, it’s still an infringement on the freedom of women, which is more important than the freedom of abstract entities like law schools. And if government is the most cost-effective tool to prevent that from happening, so be it.

  10. pebird says:

    Unfortunately, law schools can graduate as many students as they want, and they can all pass the bar exam, but it’s up to the Bar Association to admit them into the profession.

    Why Posner doesn’t criticize this monopoly power that the legal profession has over the supply of lawyers – basically a professional trade guild – probably has more to do with not wanting the competition than any professed social welfare argument.

    Given what hourly billing rates are for any competent laywer, and the demand for legal assistance does not seem to be decreasing, you could argue there is a under supply of legal professionals available, and we should increase the supply, even if some won’t be in the profession throughout their entire career, which we can’t predict at the individual level anyway.

  11. Ken says:

    Are guilds, such as the legal profession as organized in the US, permissible under libertarian philosophy? I can see how the members of the guild can voluntarily agree to associate, and to use that association to control the provision of their services. But how can they justify preventing persons not in the guild from offering the same type of services?

    The issue that the legal guild is actually enforced by the government is a topic for later discussion.

  12. pebird says:

    I would say only to the extent that competing guilds can also be freely formed by individuals. As you say, the legal profession has a state-granted monopoly, I have a hard time arguing that it conforms to libertarian principles.

  13. erdanese says:

    I am American, but have lived abroad for many years and am always a little startled about the way my countrymen think about freedom and “liberty”. By framing the debate as being about political rights, most Americans are convinced they live in a very free society – and they are on the whole right as compared, say, to the (European) places I’ve lived for the last thirty-some years. On the other hand, if the question is simply about personal liberty and the “my right to whatever stops at the other person’s nose” thing, then the average American is very much less free than, say, the average Italian.

    I know American businessmen who will not ride alone on a company elevator with a female employee for fear of a molestation lawsuit. People stop me in parks when I visit to tell me I should not smoke my pipe. Religious freedom has been forced in such a way as to obligate the children of friends to be taught frankly silly things about the age of the Earth and damage suits have apparently removed the swings from their playgrounds. I know these are hobby horses and won’t go on about them.

    In Italy, the Prime Minister, regularly has call girls up to his residence and on the whole this is mostly considered a private matter between consenting adults – though he did have a spot of bother about an 18 year-old… When I tell Italians about American corporate Internet filters blocking words like the short form of the name Richard, they howl with laughter and don’t really believe me. When I tell them about the President of a major American university getting tossed out because he unwisely made reference to how few women seemed to want to study math, they assume it was really for some other reason – and I hope they are right. Italians are still allowed to tell dirty jokes, drink alcohol and even occasionally admit to a prejudice. Some smoke cigarettes without shame.

    Most Americans I know are at least a little afraid of policemen and their hands sweat when they see they have a patrol car behind them in traffic. For good or bad, that is hardly the case here.

    At any rate, it appears, following the debate on the Internet, that libertarian thought is now largely in the hands of economists. That’s good, because it means that someone is at least talking about the theme – but seen from so far away much of the discussion seems to be about how many bankers can dance on the head of a pin rather than, say, life and how it is lived. Which matters more?

    Of course liberty, freedom – and, by extension, libertarianism – are fundamentally cultural questions. What else could they possibly be?

    Freedom – and why dress it up with grander names? – when you get a little farther away and look back at it, turns out to be not so much about laws and regulations as about how these are used. This will sound peculiar, but the Italians for instance – who, by count, have many more “laws” than the Americans – really do consider that having a stunningly ineffective government is the price they pay for being left alone.

    The vast range of ways they have invented to hamstring the State and other heavy-handed institutions (the Church, the press, the Courts) deserves study – and perhaps emulation.

    Please do what you can to try and take care of the States while I’m away.

    • Larisa says:

      Although I take your point about American attitudes in some sense, the gendered nature of many of your examples ignores the very good points made by Chris above.

      The conceptual division between “public” and “private” which you describe as different in Italy from in the US is in both places the division that shields and protects specific kinds of violence & exploitation.

      Not incidentally, this is as true for “private” property rights as it is in relation to privacy in the home or in so-called “personal” relationships.

    • European says:

      I strongly agree with you. Experienced a lot of countries worldwide I would say in general freedoms in USA are on par with those in Central America.

      If we give women enough power or they know they will be protected by law there should be no domestic violence and so, there is no need to limit personal freedoms or to government stick noses into people’s houses.

  14. Tony says:

    A little nitpicky, but the law student in me cringed when I read “Justice Posner”. The title “Justice” is reserved for members of the Supreme Court in the United States.

  15. Django says:

    “The conceptual division between “public” and “private” which you describe as different in Italy from in the US is in both places the division that shields and protects specific kinds of violence & exploitation.”

    But Larisa, obliterating this distinction makes everything that is now private — your associates, your sex life, your domestic relationships, your market purchases, etc. — into public things. Do you really think that violence and exploitation would diminish if you took this out of the hands of individuals and gave control instead to politicians and bureaucrats?

  16. pebird says:

    I think you need to expand the possibility of the public space beyond politicians and bureaucrats, although that is certainly one pathology. There is the concept of voluntary communities, shared networks, information transparency, etc. The forms of what a public space is and can potentially become is not static.

    Libertarianism that does not have a positive view of public spaces or views then as evil is destined to fail.

  17. John says:

    You mischaracterize Posner’s argument. If tuition were raised for all law school graduates and rebates were given to those who work full-time, that would encourage women who graduate from them to pursue full-time careers, which would likely be a net-plus for feminism.

    • pebird says:

      Right, a net plus.

      But why stop with law schools? Don’t all professional schools have an obligation to ensure that their students are so far in debt they have no choice but to work full-time for their entire life?

      How anyone can seriously think that some half-brained idea of social utility (that lawyers should work full-time for as long possible) imposed by institutions on students increases individual liberty is beyond me. You do have to admit it is a great way to increase billable hours for the fat partner in the corner office.

      If we could redefine full-time to 20 hours a week, 20 weeks a year, then I might get on board.

  18. A net-plus for feminism would be for men like Posner and others of his ilk to realize that investing more than a paycheck in one’s children is a positive action – not a detriment to the student pool at law schools. I.e. – if men shared child care duties – if careers/law firms made it possible for mothers and fathers to share child care duties – we’d all be in a better place as a society, perhaps.

    Posner’s anti-female stance – seeking rebates for all those who work full-time – is seriously outdated and fails in many ways, not in the least as a libertarian ideal. Posner’s idiotic plan would need to have a fairly long shelf-life for the rebate, in that most career-oriented women are not popping out babies nine months after graduation – providing them with that perfect excuse to retire so soon after clutching the diploma.

  19. ramblingperfectionist says:

    I am a “small l” libertarian, although not an American, and it was frankly mystifying to me how one could restrict oneself to markets and property rights and still call oneself the same thing. I didn’t even know there was an alternative to being a cultural libertarian! OF COURSE people don’t act rationally all the time, and certainly not with regard to things like discrimination, and so of course “the discrimination and culture oppression currently faced” is NOT “a market outcome, pareto-efficient in its effects”. I know the Chicago School still doesn’t hold much truck with behavioural economics, but I wouldn’t have thought this was a particularly difficult concept to understand.

    “Italians for instance – who, by count, have many more “laws” than the Americans – really do consider that having a stunningly ineffective government is the price they pay for being left alone.”

    I’m an Indian, and I know a lot of people who feel the same way here. But we aren’t all that happy about it, and I know just about everyone would prefer something a LITTLE more effective.

  20. GU says:

    To the “law is a rent-extracting cartel, we need to open up the legal job market” commenters:

    Are you familiar with the state of the legal job market? Try getting any job as a lawyer right now—it’s almost impossible. Then consider that it is extremely hard to get a job with reasonable compensation relative to the (1) debt required to obtain a J.D. (typically $150k-$190k these days), (2) the very stressful work environment/difficult work, and (3) the large number of hours worked.

    Maybe law used to be a ticket to life on Easy Street, paid for by cartel-inflated wages, but those days are long gone.

  21. pebird says:

    Posner didn’t say that full-time work equated to PAID full-time work. I wonder if the tuition rebate would cover the additional interest charged from the higher debt load.

    Posner also poses as an economic opinion writer – kind of like Ben Stein.

  22. pebird says:

    Also, you don’t need to be a lawyer to have a hard time finding a job.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s