Thursday, December 4, 2008

Tactically Speaking

Feminism is not simply a rich array of viewpoints sometimes at odds with each other, I would contend — but rather a philosophy that shifts its already vague claims as needed to avoid conflict with critics or to maintain its own reputation as a universally-accepted and uncontestable perspective. Were we more willing to make gender-rooted but non-feminist observations in public discourse, we might by now have begun to suspect that this pattern is rooted in the fact that feminism tends to be espoused by women who are more conflict-averse than their male counterparts in political and philosophical discussions. Or to put it more harshly, feminism survives in part because chivalry discourages subjecting its proponents to harsher grilling.

Feminism always seems to make demands…or make none…or have a consistency to it…or be diverse…precisely as necessary, I suspect, to maintain the vague claim that “Feminism is good.”

If someone calls it meaningless, that’s “preposterous!” If someone asks for a short explanation of what it means, though, that’s “oversimplifying!” If someone acknowledges that it has many forms — and that most seem statist — that’s “irrelevant” to its beneficial core purpose. If someone who happens to be libertarian asks what, then, it demands, he is told “simple legal equality!”

Fine, but that seems to render it redundant, even slightly dangerous and misleading, like saying “Redheads have the right to bear arms.” So feminism, like a hypothetical redheadism, can therefore be ignored as a mere corollary, not something more libertarians (like aged, white, angry, Cold War-era Todd) “need,” right? But the moment that someone says, well, feminists, you already have simple legal equality, he’s told “that’s not necessarily as important as social pressure, and it’s myopic to think so!” The moment he then says, “I’m concerned the libertarian conception of freedom is being dangerously watered down because these feminists seem to think social pressure is oppressive like law,” he’s called confused by Ladyblog — which insists that feminism isn’t concerned with social pressure!

And when all of these folks contradict each other while each insisting feminism is something readily understood — and that I’m the one being “painfully obtuse,” as a particularly arrogant commenter using the handle x. trapnel put it on Ladyblog — there’s Kerry Howley, with whom we began, to insist that feminist ideological diversity is being unfairly characterized as a sparking, malfunctioning, illogical computer when it is simply rich with varying viewpoints. Keep in mind, though, I didn’t start out by claiming feminism is meaningless — merely that it means something non-libertarian (at least in recent decades in the West) and is thus from a libertarian perspective (which I do not claim all readers share) a bad thing.


After the past several weeks, I have no doubt feminism varies…but mostly in ways that lead to people claiming that market outcomes are only fully morally acceptable if women feel a sufficient absence of social pressure, such that they end up behaving in as diverse and socially-significant a range of ways as do men.

And that claim I reject, as should all market-respecting libertarians, since freedom in the libertarian conception is, first and foremost, something that is not hostage to certain patterned (and subtle) outcomes. That’s all. Pretty humble claim on my part — like saying, as any normal, market-oriented libertarian would, that the moral acceptability of the market is not contingent on Thai manufacturers playing as large a role as German manufacturers in the piano industry.

If there are forms of feminism that do not make some variation on the egalitarian claim that social outcomes morally must yield something like male-female parity (or at least that females are somehow aggrieved if “socially constrained” in the market by the preferences of sexist males), swell, but those forms of feminism are marginal, my admittedly imperfect sampling of the literature seems to suggest — as are non-property-focused forms of libertarianism (in the sense of “libertarianism” used in the English-speaking world for the past half-century or so, though context always varies, of course, and I realize times do change — the U.S. in the twenty-first century is not Europe in the nineteenth).

One well-meaning, intelligent feminist recently tried to eliminate my anti-feminist attitude by insisting that feminism is only the insistence that women have the same property rights as men. I think this was more of the sort of watering-down that will end the moment my back is turned, as it were, with demands for state-mandated or lawsuit-enforced equal pay, etc., ramping up once the laissez-faire libertarian is out of earshot.

By contrast, if I were asked what libertarianism, for example, demands, I would round off the edges of its competing — but very similar — formulations and offer a sort of consensus definition that would still have many, many very clear moral/policy implications rather than dissolving into universally-shared platitudes, or mere redundancy with some other philosophy.

Either way: what would we lose, exactly — from a libertarian perspective — if no one ever spoke of feminism again? How on Earth do libertarians “need” it (as I supposedly do badly), other than as a potential foe that might, if we’re lucky, be shoehorned into sometimes becoming an ally, as even a socialist party might in difficult enough (but rare) circumstances? It seems like libertarians need feminism and benefit from it about as much as we do from egalitarianism generally — which is to say, very little (except in so far as we need to keep our counterarguments effective).

Feminism, in short, is an immense, fetid, useless crock of anti-market complaining — or so I’m inclined to think, lacking any coherent explanation as of yet of why I should think otherwise. I suspect none will be forthcoming. A little more retaliatory invective, on the other hand, seems almost inevitable.


Ken Silber said...

That the competing conceptions of libertarianism are “very similar” is, I find, not true. Rothbard said he was “more and more convinced the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian business.” Friedman said “I don’t believe that the libertarian philosophy dictates a foreign policy.” Some anarchists have likened minarchists to wife-beaters who beat their wives only on occasion. Some people (like me) call themselves libertarians but find minarchism too minimal. And so on.

It may well be that feminism is more internally chaotic than libertarianism, but that’s not saying so much.

x. trapnel said...

To piggyback on Ken – and that variety is despite libertarianism never being anything like a mass movement, as feminism certainly has been at various points. One should expect social theories that become embodied within mass movements to exhibit a lot of diversity!

Let’s look at liberalism (of which I take libertarianism to be a flavor or at least a cousin): liberal philosophers include Locke and Bentham, Paine and Hume, Mill and Tocqueville and Kant, Hobhouse and Spencer, Hayek and Rawls and Nussbaum and Kukathas. Tons of disagreement there on everything from the nature of value, to nationalism, welfare spending, and revolution. But all are recognizably part of a continuing conversation, and all believe themselves to be deeply committed to defending liberty.

I take feminism to combine an (empirical) acknowledgment that contemporary society disadvantages women relative to men and a (normative) insistence that (at least some aspects of) this disadvantage is morally problematic. It’s clear that this two-dimensional view is going to encompass a lot of territory–just on the normative side, while it’s true you could be an outcome-egalitarian, you could also simply oppose domination (while believing that gender-related oppression is a distinct and important class thereof).

Not all feminisms are libertarian, or even liberal, but the right ones are–and vice versa.

Todd Seavey said...

Tomorrow, to avoid delving too much into libertarianism alone instead of continuing the conversation about feminism, I’ll try to describe some differences between the state and patriarchy — and will try to flesh out thoughts on different strains of libertarianism Monday on PJTV, if that delayed second appearance happens.