Last week on this blog, Eric Faden wrote a brief explanation of what the feminist movement, insofar as it exists, can gain from libertarian thought. Conversely, I would like to explain what libertarianism as a philosophy and libertarians as individuals can gain from feminist thought.
In February, the Free State Project hosted a panel as part of their Liberty Forum series to address the question “Do We Need Feminism?” The event featured feminist author Naomi Wolf, who was a clear outsider. Despite the myriad infelicitous comments and insults targeted at her on the YouTube video of the event, Wolf actually made a point that offered valuable advice to libertarians. “For a community like this,” she says, “what I think could be valuable from feminism is a tool of analysis, not a prescription.”1 Even for the libertarian who maintains that all aggression is morally wrong while everything else is permissible, there is something useful here.
Libertarian social analysis typically views all political relations as the State against the individual, and it is a decent and often useful simplification. But relying solely on this pervese sort of methodological individualism (atomism, really) does not allow us to fully view and understand power relationships. Wolf says, “If you’re only looking at the State giving and taking away rights, you’re missing an important insight.”2 Boiling down social relations to the point where only one variable exists—be it the State, race, religion or patriarchy—is a gross oversimplification that does not accurately get back of what goes on in the real world.
A State-versus-individual model does not paint an accurate picture, for example, of the nineteenth century’s Comstock laws, which made it illegal to deliver and receive literature and information about contraception, abortion and masturbation via mail. Attempting to describe these laws simply as the State infringing upon individual rights misses important details such as the fact that the laws effected almost exclusively women. It also ignores the social conditions and the sort of bigoted thinking that must be prevalent for laws like these to be passed. The Comstock laws were not so vaguely a case of the State against individuals, it was a case of the State against women specifically.
Another example of where oversimplistic State-versus-individual analysis fails is in describing the United States’ War on Drugs. Without recognizing it, many libertarians, when making a case against the failed policy, make use of the analysis Wolf recommends and point out that the federal government uses the War on Drugs to target minorities. Ron Paul famously did so, much to the surprise of viewers, at a 2007 Republican presidential primary debate, hosted at the historically black Morgan State University. He was spot-on:
Today, I think inner-city folks and minorities are punished unfairly in the War on Drugs. For instance, Blacks make up 14 percent of those who use drugs, yet 36 percent of those arrested are Blacks and it ends up that 63 percent of those who finally end up in prison are Blacks. This has to change.3
The fact is that viewing phenomena solely through a lens that categorizes only for State and individual does not allow us to get the best depiction of issues such as contraceptive bans, apartheid or immigration restrictions. Until we live in a world bereft of racism and sexism, we cannot rely entirely upon methodological individualism; we must acknowledge that groups exist because those who limit their freedom certainly do.
Wolf also points out that “sometimes there can be rights taken away by individuals between each other, for example in a domestic context or a sexual violence context.”4 Surely a philosophy that condemns aggressive force and also does not recognize the State as a separate entity from the individuals of which it is composed must regard aggression at the hands of nonstate actors as being equally illegitimate. But the State-versus-individual analytical framework makes it impossible to address what constitutes a significant portion of the violence in society.
In the monumental and ever-widening wake (tsunami is more accurate) of Jeffrey Tucker’s article which sought to limn the opposing “humanitarian” and “brutalist” camps of libertarianism, Lew Rockwell joined the fray with “What Libertarianism Is, and Isn’t.” He writes:
Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all. It is not anything else. It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism […] It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation […] Let me repeat: the only “privilege” that matters to a libertarian qua libertarian is the kind that comes from the barrel of the state’s gun […] Libertarians are of course free to concern themselves with issues like feminism and egalitarianism. But their interest in those issues has nothing to do with, and is not required by or a necessary feature of, their libertarianism.5
Rockwell is correct that feminism is not a part of libertarianism, but subscribing to the libertarian philosophy does not preclude one from also subscribing to aspects of feminist philosophy as well. This is why, as mentioned in the opening paragraph, libertarians as individuals can stand to gain from feminism. A libertarian is not only a libertarian. This is simply a label to describe his preferences regarding the use of violence in society. Having these preferences does not mean that he cannot also express disfavor for certain nonviolent social phenomena without risking his consistency.
At the Liberty Forum panel, Naomi Wolf presented a scenario where
a culture gives men—or, I would say any group, but in this case, the example is men as a whole—the entitlement socially or culturally, not just through the law, to beat up women and the culture says, ‘Well, that’s your lot’ or ‘Be a good wife’ or ‘Put up with it’ or ‘Be silent.’ 6
Even if the law does not give legal right to a man to batter his wife, it is not inconsistent for a libertarian to condemn these “cultural entitlements,” even though they are not in themselves violent, which are part of what is commonly referred to as patriarchy, amorphous as the concept can be. It is also not any risk to consistency for a libertarian to oppose traditional gender roles, transphobic language or any other prejudiced thinking, so long as this opposition steers clear of manifesting itself in aggression.
It is worth noting—and I am not the first to do so—that these sorts of unprogressive ways of thinking, even if peaceful, can and often do find themselves backed with violent force. Nationalism by itself is benign, but libertarians oppose this form of collectivism because, left unchecked, it does ultimately result in nasty aggressive acts. It is not hard to imagine one’s preference for traditional gender roles driving him to enforce them with violence in his home. The fact that jokes about threatening women to “get back in the kitchen” or “make me a sandwich” are so rampant tells us something, because “all jokes are rooted in fundamental truths about society. That’s why they’re supposed to be ‘funny.’”7 Domestic violence is real, and allowing these jokes to go unchallenged will have the same effect as allowing jingoistic nationalist rhetoric to go unchallenged. For this reason, it would behoove libertarians to peacefully nip these problems in the bud, so to speak.
As acknowledged above, one need not accept Wolf’s proposed tool of analysis or any part of feminism to be a “real libertarian,” but doing so will allow the libertarian qua libertarian to gain a better understanding of the violent relationships between the State and specific groups of individuals, as well as allow a libertarian as an individual, separate from his political ideology, to fight for a more lasting liberal, tolerant, nonviolent society.
1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5z7nteHMPJ8, 9:57.
2. Ibid., 8:08.
4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5z7nteHMPJ8, 8:20.
6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5z7nteHMPJ8, 8:50
7. Lauren Vincent, “Don’t ask girls to make you a sandwich” The Massachusetts Daily Collegian (2 March 2010).