By conventional libertarian standards, there is a crucial difference between the state and the patriarchy. One is oppressive, while the other isn’t.
Indeed, the patriarchy is on the losing end of law these days, and might even arguably be a victim itself of oppression by the state, given that affirmative action laws exist in part to guarantee women jobs they might not have secured in the free market, anti-harassment laws exist in part to shield women from unpleasant male banter, set-asides exist for subsidizing female-owned businesses, etc. Does it not matter, in the minds of left-libertarians who think regular libertarians “need” feminism, that the law already oppresses in feminism’s favor, as it were? Does this alone not make feminism a menace?
And if not, we really have reached the point where some libertarians are more alarmed by “social pressure” than by law — which is precisely the kind of thinking the movement was created to combat. After all, isn’t every social arrangement reached by free people one in which lots of people are annoyed by the outcome and feel hemmed in by it? Isn’t libertarianism’s unique contribution the observation that if you respect others’ right to act freely in accordance with property rights, you cannot claim that the resulting social patterns are evil, unjust, and unfree simply because they (arguably) don’t work in your favor?
What could be more Hegelian than claiming that all free action by other people, because it changes the social context in which you act, is impinging on your freedom? This is how totalitarians are led to claim that there is no such thing as freedom — only changed contexts — and thus (to take something disturbing and wrong Stanley Fish once said to a group I was in) that there’s no real sense in which a Stalinist society is “less free” than a laissez-faire capitalist society. And I’m not saying that’s demonstrably false, since it’s partly a matter of semantics — I’m just saying libertarians should be the last people to want to talk and philosophize this way.
(An aside about actual, i.e., state/physical, coercion: right now in Vol. 4, Issue 2 of Serf City, NYC’s delightful Libertarian Party newspaper, available all around town, there’s a Jim Lesczynski article, “New Yorkers Sue to Stop Illegal Pork,” which describes libertarian lawyer James Ostrowksi and others wisely noticing that the state of New York routinely violates its own state-constitutional clause banning government loans to private corporations — something now so routine at all levels of government, as people have been noticing in the past couple months, that one engine of parasitism, Advanced Micro Systems, receives $300 million in NY’s current budget.)
But if we’re going to play Hegelian games and talk in terms of “positive” freedom that’s facilitated by those social contexts we happen to find pleasing (rather than the mere “negative” freedom of property rights — that is, the right to be free from assault, theft, and fraud and otherwise do as you will), perhaps males should simply argue (why on Earth not?) that they are oppressed by, say, women’s unwillingness to have constant sex with them at the drop of a hat.
I mean, what exactly is the “correct” default for our social context anyway, if some contexts are supposedly unfree — due, presumably, to the fact that other people’s desires impede your own (damn them!)? Apparently, it’s OK in at least many feminists’ minds (traditionally) to say men should be repressing desires such as wanting to ogle women, etc. — but how do we know, exactly, that women shouldn’t instead be trying harder to enjoy leers and catcalls — and male indifference to their emotional needs? The utility calculus is not so clear, and I have not seen the Objective Lawbook in the Metaphysical Heavens that dictates all this — though I’m pretty sure the feminists think they have a better idea what that Lawbook says than I do, and they don’t think it sounds like an essay from Playboy.
But since (as people who know me well would attest, I think), I am not in fact eager to make the world more boorish, let me put the context-vs.-coercion distinction in a less loaded and less sex-related way: Does everyone have to be generally “encouraging” toward you for you to be (in some left-libertarian sense) free?
I mean, gender relations are especially interesting to some people, I guess, but is it clear that the average person (even a female) is held back by sexists more than, say, by really mean negative assholes in general? If sexism must decrease for us to be free, do all assholes have to go away before we’re free? How much does society have to change before I’m truly unhampered in my…positive flourishing or whatever this thing is that we’re replacing the hard-won ideal of market freedom with?
Do the Wall Streeters have to stop being intense and scary to be around? Do the athletes have to stop making me self-conscious about my inability to bench press 300 lbs.? Where and when does this social-contextualizing-for-freedom end exactly? Did Kerry Howley explain all this somewhere so I’ll know — or do I just have to read lots of feminist blogs to find out when I’m behaving in a liberating fashion? And why exactly should I not be more concerned with (for the sake of argument) making feminists acquainted with the pain they cause me by not doing more stripteases? Wait, I know: because chivalry discourages whining. Would that feminists were as easily embarrassed.