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November 2014

The False Feminist Economics Methodenstreit: Competition versus Cooperation

The Austrian and feminist critiques of mainstream economics are compatible in surprising ways.

Feminist insights have been applied to a growing number of social sciences, such as anthropology, history, law, literature, philosophy, political science and sociology. An explicit feminist scholarship in economics has also made its intellectual presence felt, particularly since the early 1990s.

According to Myra Strober, feminist economics aims to assess economics through a feminist lens “for the purpose of improving women’s economic condition.” A major objective of this school, writes Steven Horwitz, is to illuminate the biases that “have privileged either men as subjects or ways of knowing that are valued because they are associated with social conceptions of masculinity” in economic theory and policy.

The neoclassical mainstream of conventional economic thought, often the centre of feminist economic criticism, is grounded in the model of a rational, autonomous, self‑interested agent that makes optimising choices subject to exogenously imposed constraints. This agent is commonly referred to as the “rational economic man” or “homo economicus.”

The key criticism levelled by feminist economists is that homo economicus represents a privileged masculine view of the economic order, to the exclusion of what are claimed to be feminine characteristics, such as connectivity, altruism, and emotionality. According to these theorists, for example Julie Nelson, the implied masculine meanings associated with rational economic man are, then, accorded relatively higher status in economic teaching.

For mainstream economists, market competition is desirable as it yields an efficient configuration of scarce resources throughout an economy. For some feminist economists, however, competition conjures up negative images of fighting and conflict, aggressiveness and manipulation. In her analysis of US economic history, Julie Matthaei describes the emergence of a “capitalist patriarchy” where:

competition pervades the masculine economic sphere. Capitalists compete with other capitalists for greater market shares and profits, and compete with their workers over the wages to be paid. Workers compete with other workers for jobs, and for promotions. The new ideal for men becomes struggling to advance oneself in the “dog eat dog” economic world, in which everyone is out to get you.

Some feminist economists have also alleged the mainstream emphasis upon competition harms women’s economic interests. In Stroberʼs view, the public‑policy elevation of competition as an ideal “makes it more difficult to redistribute power and economic well‑being.” Strober goes further to say “since women are disproportionately represented among the ‘have nots,’ women stand to benefit from a world view that is less centrally focussed on scarcity, selfishness and competition.”

It is crucial, at this juncture, to appreciate that feminists engaged in economic theorising differ in their interpretations about the competition-versus-cooperation dichotomy. That feminists vary between each other is most starkly manifested in the libertarian feminism tradition which, in its modern guise, has close economic affinities with the Austrian school of economics.

As part of this, libertarian feminists share with the Austrians a rejection of some fundamental tenets underpinning the homo economicus concept. In particular, they emphasise the existence of agents with imperfect, idiosyncratic knowledge and subjective tastes, which need to be discovered and communicated to promote economic functioning.

The favouring of those attributes of economic agency by libertarian feminists in itself represents a shift in emphasis away from “rational economic man,” not unlike that pursued by feminist economists not disposed to libertarianism, or even other economists within non‑neoclassical traditions (say, behavioural economists).

Far from seeing the competitive market system—underpinned by freely chosen prices, formal institutions such as property rights protections, and informal mores such as trust and honesty—as a fearsome (masculine?) pitch battle, libertarian feminists would largely endorse Misesʼ conception of competition as an economic procedure through which social cooperation between all is achieved:

The market economy is the social system of the division of labor under private ownership of the means of production. Everybody acts on his own behalf; but everybody’s actions aim at the satisfaction of other people’s needs as well as at the satisfaction of his own. Everybody in acting serves his fellow citizens. Everybody, on the other hand, is served by his fellow citizens. Everybody is both a means and an end in himself; an ultimate end for himself and a means to other people in their endeavors to attain their own ends. This system is steered by the market. The market directs the individual’s activities into those channels in which he best serves the wants of his fellow men. (Human Action)

The workings of the dynamic market process discussed by libertarian feminists—whereby decentralised producers, with alternative supply technologies, strive to best meet the needs of their customers (regardless of their gender status)—challenges narratives of competition as an androcentric “zero sum game” laying waste to womenʼs economic interests and to non‑competitive modes of human action, such as caring for others, for that matter.

It is no coincidence that societies which accord greater dignity and respect to the system Karen Vaughn described as the “complex interactions of many, many separate individuals (male and female, married or single, parents or childless, selfish or emotionally connected)” are those societies in which greater material prosperity has been widely enjoyed, by women and men alike, and where women have achieved greater cultural and social esteem.

And, as has been increasingly recognised in libertarian circles more generally, greater freedom to “truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” may exert powerful redistributive effects in favour of traditionally economically disadvantaged groups, such as women, by virtue of breaking down barriers to economic mobility, not to mention dissipating the influence of entrenched interests.

If feminism is about extending the possibilities of exercising individual choice and, through it, enabling all human beings to imprint their own plans of action over their own lives, then the feminist variant of libertarian theory could be a most useful tool for exploring issues concerning women, as well as men.

For one, libertarian feminism, by virtue of its unique perspectives about economic agency and market competition, holds the great prospect of reorienting feminist economics in such a way as to constructively iron out its confusions over alleged trade‑offs between competition and cooperation in the marketplace.