Again, my plan is to spend next month blogging (from square one, as it were) about property rights — their value and their central place in libertarian philosophy — whereas this month is devoted to feminism, but since the Pajamas Media site PJTV will probably post a video clip tonight [UPDATE 12/9/08: Here's our specific segment] of me discussing the future of libertarianism with Will Wilkinson and Katherine Mangu-Ward, this might be a good time to sum up what libertarianism is — and, though it may not come up at all tonight, why I think feminism (and plenty of other things) tend to be at odds with liberty.
First, since the world is full of boorish males, I might do well to point out, lest anyone misunderstand, that I have no objection to, say:
•female stunt doubles
•females who beat me in arm wrestling
…not even female spouses-of-females, really (to touch briefly on a prior controversy). What I object to, just so we’re clear, is:
•female (or male) feminists, by which I mean (and I think this is non-controversial) people who consider it morally unsatisfactory (and usually, though admittedly not always, legally actionable) if voluntary human interactions produce outcomes that leave women in less significant roles than males in society.
Now, a few very bright, well-informed commenters over the past few weeks who consider themselves more or less libertarians have said they think libertarianism is as guilty of being amorphous as feminism (and, crucially, that’s not my biggest complaint about feminism), with one noting that even hardcore anarcho-capitalist David Friedman (son of Milton) points out tough cases such as whether the photons from someone’s flashlight falling upon you constitute trespass. But such examples were meant to address ambiguities in a property rights system, not ambiguity about whether property rights are central to his/our philosophy, as Will Wilkinson at least seems to think is debatable. I’m merging about three people’s arguments here for brevity, and thus can’t reasonably be too harsh on any of them without doing injustice, but it’s important to distinguish between saying property rights are 100% rigid and unambiguous (which I’m not really saying) and saying property rights and property rights violations are the central concerns of the philosophy and provide the traditional litmus test for what is or is not considered permissible under a libertarian regime (and this I certainly am saying, as are plenty of other people).
Discussions of ambiguous cases are not the same thing as examples of prominent libertarian intellectuals incorporating values that are not property-related (even Hayek’s complex ideas of social evolution ultimately are property-related in so far as it is crucial to his story that this evolutionary process is property-generating; likewise, the quirky exceptions that almost every libertarian intellectual makes here or there to the predominant property rule in the philosophy tend still to be property-related as opposed to simply the wholesale adoption of some other value — this is even true in some sense of philosophical add-ons like Rand’s psychological notions about how capitalists think and behave, though she would rightly acknowledge that she has a property rights element to her philosophy and then goes beyond it to address other issues and that it is precisely this going-beyond to address art, metaphysics, etc. [not necessarily in that order, I realize] that makes her more than a mere libertarian — and indeed, she hated being called one, though precisely because of the subset of her philosophy that is property-related, we can do so whether she would have liked it or not).
To make the case for there being some formulation of libertarianism (in the modern, English-speaking sense of the word as opposed to European or nineteenth-century sense of the word) that insisted there are basic political values that might trump property or be necessary adjuncts to it, you’d be on firmer ground invoking late-Robert-Nozick apostasy such as his “Zigzag of Politics” essay, in which he said that libertarian rights might just be one of several incommensurable goods to be pursued, along with democratic participation, equality, etc. But even he — despite speaking with much greater authority than we minor wonks — never had the audacity to insist that if you embrace one of those other goods, it now becomes part of libertarianism itself.
In other words, there might arguably be a situation in which, say, someone’s behavior, even without threatening any coercion, is so offensive it warrants a slap in the face, but even if Ludwig von Mises says so, that does not make face-slapping a new form of libertarian behavior or property-adherence. It just means one person (or several) decided to put our traditional conception of liberty aside for a moment and slap instead (not something I’m recommending, by the way).
Mario Rizzo — perhaps jokingly or inaccurately — told me long ago that Mises favored subsidies for opera. If we assume for the sake of argument that this is true, though, I think the overwhelming majority of libertarians would recognize that this merely means that Mises was not consistently (or rigidly, if you prefer) libertarian — but it does not mean that there is a rich alternative libertarian tradition based on a coherent philosophy of property rights adherence except for opera subsidies. Even the bigwigs can wander off the reservation, and pointing out when they do so does not for a moment mean I’m claiming to be smarter than they are.
All this hints at why I was reluctant in an earlier comments thread to embrace one side or the other of the “thick libertarian”/“thin libertarian” dichotomy: I’m happy to thicken the usual dry, barebones notion of property rights with ideas about how to shore up property rights, teach about them, protect them, politically enact them, etc. — but that’s a completely different thing from “thickening” by smuggling other (“optional,” if you will) cultural concerns — such as the proper roles, if any, of the sexes — into that properly property-rights-focused philosophy. Indeed, if what is smuggled in is a notion of “positive liberty” that waters down the usual, hard-won libertarian idea of coercion as assault, theft, and fraud (as opposed to other people merely behaving in ways that make your life less convenient), I would not call this “thickening” of libertarianism, I would call it a sort of thinning or muddying or weakening — the creation of an anorexic libertarianism, not a thick one.
And even if one insists that one is a strict property adherent — which I like — but that believing in strict property must be accompanied by a heap of other, properly cultural notions (whether feminism or traditionalism, love of high art or love of the crassest consumer culture), I would say you are then guilty (like Rand, I should say) of promoting a sort of fat and hostile libertarianism, needlessly alienating people with its over-specific cultural/psychological demands. Let’s focus on property rights, the case for which is far less arbitrary and divisive (as I’ll argue more all next month).
And while there are indeed different formulations of libertarianism — one might for instance insist on speaking of a “right of exit” rather than property per se — a moral-political claim to certain behavior from your fellows beyond their respect for your property rights should at least be seen as something risky, odd, novel, and potentially divisive in a way that even numerous competing conceptions of how exactly to describe property rights are not.
That’s the pivotal distinction — and even “thickly” claiming that that culture is best that reinforces property is not threatening to libertarianism in the same way that encouraging “thick” belief in some moral claim to certain forms of regard/respect/behavior by others above and beyond property-adherence does. You may well be more likely to be free in the long run (as opposed to “freer” in the present in some ill-defined subjective sense) if, say, people prefer cops to robbers (and businesspeople to politicians) in TV dramas, but freedom itself cannot require that those same viewers simply share your cultural attitudes on matters beyond property itself in order to maximize your ability to navigate the culture with maximum ease.
And in the more specific case of gender roles, surely the “thick” people are aware that one could mount just as complex and rich a defense of the importance of being richly enmeshed in tradition as a bulwark against crime, socialism, and other misbehavior as they can of being p.c. so others feel uninhibited or what have you. The feminists may win out in the culture wars with the traditionalists in the long run, but that’s not a verdict to be decided in advance by or for libertarians.
If you’re attempting to reduce questions about better and worse ways to live to libertarian criteria/concerns (which, crucially, I am not — I think there are infinite better/worse questions unrelated to the liberty/coercion issue, and I try to keep them separate from libertarian questions), you could just as plausibly argue that countless forms of engagement with tradition are “coercively” lost to a woman if her cruel, cruel social context foists go-go modernity upon her. Libertarians qua libertarians ought to be neutral on this stuff, unless they’re really, seriously prepared to argue, say, that a woman wearing pants is “freer” than a woman wearing a dress — or, only slightly less absurdly, that a woman told she ought to wear a dress (not forced, just urged) is less free than a woman told to wear a dress or pants without fear of cruel, cruel social opprobrium.
But once you start down that road, the highly precious libertarian conception of freedom obviously dissolves quickly into its opposite — the kind of leftist grousing that holds that freedom means, for instance, not having to listen to your boss even if you signed a contract with him and not having to wear clothes when you visit the neighbors’ house, since you consider nudism essential to liberated living.
In more practical, boringly conventional libertarian terms (and metrics), I might also ask: Where is the evidence that sexism is making the government larger? Where is the evidence feminism would shrink it? Is it not the case, based on past experience, that feminism tends to be allied to calls for increased government? Why is this real-world experience to be ignored in favor of the vague philosophical parallels that a tiny, tiny handful of libertarian women perceive between feminism and libertarianism? Is it not troubling — and perhaps telling — that at least one of the libertarian feminists heard from in this dispute explicitly rejects so-called individualist feminism, which is probably the only extant shred of anti-statism within feminism?
But then, perhaps simply being willing to crack these things open and analyze them is a bit lefty, I should concede. And if we accept the possibility of reaching conclusions that are not conventionally-libertarian, as we always should in some sense — if we fancy ourselves careful, unbiased thinkers — then maybe we’re already in the process of formulating a worldview that deserves to be called something less rigid than libertarianism, conservatism, or liberalism.
How about we reach for a philosophy that draws comfortably from right, left, middle, and libertarianism and call this half-formed, somewhat flexible new/old, made/borrowed thing…conservatism for punks? More on that next month, too.