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Aug 6, 2015

Libertarian Feminism as a Bifocal (Analytical) Lens

Libertarian feminism can help one see the dangers of patriarchy and the futility of statist intervention at once.

Despite its influential contribution to the long‑term development of libertarian thought, libertarian feminism continues to elicit intellectual controversy from some quarters. Disagreement is not only evident in the indifferent or even hostile reception toward libertarian feminism by proponents of other strands of feminist philosophy, but also in the reaction from numerous modern adherents of libertarian theory itself.

A key charge held against libertarian feminism is that the very label “libertarian feminism” represents a contradiction in terms. As recently conveyed by Sharon Presley, this suggestion is often levelled at self‑described libertarian feminists within broader libertarian circles. In fact, libertarian feminism remains as much comfortably within the broader libertarian philosophical sphere today as it did during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during the struggle against statist interventions that compromised the ideal of legal equality between women and men.

One could characterise the libertarian feminist blending of libertarianism and feminism as akin to a pair of bifocal eyeglasses that brings into focus aspects of the world often discounted and sometimes ignored by one school of thought or the other. Libertarian feminism provides the “near vision” focus to see the dangers of using government intervention to promote feminist objectives and the “distance vision” focus to see the risks of enforcing patriarchal norms upon women and, for that matter, men.

The clear and obvious estrangement of libertarian feminism from most contemporary varieties of feminism is largely attributable to the political agitations by non-libertarian feminists to proceed beyond the libertarian project of abolishing legal privileges reserved for men and apply the coercive state’s power to fulfil feminist objectives. Libertarian feminist critiques of utilising governmental force to promote the status of women should be familiar even to most non‑feminist libertarians. The insights provided by libertarian feminim’s near-vision focus can be broadly classified in the following ways:

  • The injustice, and not to mention the inconsistency, of seeking to employ the state, a coercive institutional apparatus which once enshrined legal favouritisms for men at the great expense of women, to politically engineer a discriminatory promotion of women (conceivably at the expense of others) for economic, political, and social purposes.
  • The lack of robustness to future policy changes of government policies favouring women’s interests. These policies, influenced by shifts in majoritarian cycles, priorities in political agenda‑setting, and so on, may eventually be changed to be detrimental to women.
  • Fiscal, regulatory, and other interventions by the state hampering the capacity of actors situated within civil society (such as families, neighbourhoods, charities, other community groups, and markets) to flexibly and innovatively respond to challenges and opportunities faced by women in a decentralised, more personable, manner.

In these contexts, the focal near vision of libertarian feminism is precisely the same as that of libertarianism more broadly, with a shared suspicion of, if not outright aversion toward, the alleged effectiveness of acts of aggression by the state.

If libertarian feminism merely provided the near vision focus upon the fraught consequences of statist interventionism it would be virtually indistinguishable from libertarianism as conventionally or popularly understood today and so, it might be argued, there is no necessity to append the label ‘feminism’ to libertarianism. But what has made libertarian feminism, since its inception, a unique set of analytical and philosophical perspectives is its focus upon a comprehensive array of issues inhibiting the capacities of women, both as individuals and as a distinctly identifiable social cohort, to exercise their inherent liberties and rights on an equal basis as everybody else. Specifically, the distance vision provided by the eyeglasses of libertarian feminism brings into sharper relief the ill‑effects of complex, interlocking patriarchal moralistic, political, and societal norms. It does this without necessarily sacrificing the firm grounding in individualist ethics that libertarian feminists share with other libertarians.

There seems little doubt that this is a controversial perspective among some, if not many, libertarians, who might regard feminism as an embodiment of anti‑individualistic, “politically correct” social conformism or as a “Trojan Horse” political vehicle to enshrine specific privileges for women. But such attitudes, assuming they exist, are perplexing on a number of levels. Libertarians, like other human beings, are also amenable to categorising unique, idiosyncratic individuals into various social categories – a good example being the classification of persons as either “tax‑providers” forced by the state to render net fiscal contributions to the public fisc, or “tax‑consumers” receiving fiscal benefits from the state (through the tax‑providing classes). Incidentally, as scholars have pointed out, this “libertarian class analysis” has a venerable tradition within libertarian thought and is most conspicuously traced to the works of nineteenth century French classical liberals. The libertarian propensity to socially categorise individuals not only rests upon the practical desire to use abstractions to sidestep the inherent complexities associated with the unique human person for analytical purposes, but because libertarians have long recognised, indeed cherished, the human inclination to sociability as nurtured by freedom of association. Decrying characterisations of libertarians as offering unrealistic conceptions of the “atomistic,” isolated individual as the fulsome standpoint of analysis, libertarians have, to the contrary, lauded the benefits of people freely choosing to associate with one another in ways rendering no harm to others. Through peaceful cooperation, people can accomplish common objectives that could not be achieved in isolation. Finally, it would be passing strange for libertarians to criticise the libertarian feminist distance-vision focus on the formation and maintenance of the instatutional norms of patriarchy. Libertarians are familiar with this type of analysis: they engage in it when they focus their attentions towards the formation and maintenance of institutional norms conducive to economic prosperity and social harmony.

Of course, I refer here to the spontaneously-ordered “Great Society,” glowingly described by such luminaries as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek. The “Great Society” is marked by states of advancement achived using emergent norms of commercial and non‑commercial cooperation among individuals within a broader framework of laws—laws that were themselves spontaneously-ordered, emergent phenomena. If libertarians in the general sense can undertake social analysis in a manner which in no way diminishes the centrality of individualism from the libertarian perspective, it stands to reason libertarian feminists can employ similar techniques to illuminate the nature and consequences of patriarchal norms without detriment to the intellectual integrity of cherished libertarian beliefs.

Certainly in the past, with some harmful residues remaining in place to this day, patriarchal systems were reinforced by public sector policies advantaging men’s access to tangible and intangible property, employment, voting rights, and so on. As libertarian feminists would also point out, statist and patriarchal legal privileges not only reinforced the complex, but nonetheless demeaning, web of sexist attitudes, beliefs, norms, and practices observed throughout civil society, but those perverse social dynamics provided succour for the political class to entrench legal advantages for men over women.

This is a problem. Not only because applying gender‑role stereotypes in a generic fashion effectively washes out the aspirations, desires, motives, and needs that frame individuals, on account of their being assigned to various gender categories—the great libertarian feminist Mary Wollstonecraft said as much in the eighteenth century, when she castigated the stereotype of women as people of conspicuous leisure, incapable of education, learning, and productive self‑improvement—but because systemically observed non‑state acts and expressions of bigotry, grounded in patriarchal beliefs, can delimit individual choices conducive to flourishing. For example, attitudes reinforced in girls and women that, allegedly, their economic, political, and social stations in life are constrained by inherent incapacities in comparison with boys and men.

Libertarian feminism provides libertarians, and others, with the appropriate distance-vision gaze emphasising personal and cultural changes as the basis for enshrining women’s liberation, as well as promulgating an abiding commitment to mutually-assenting relationships in all facets of human existence. It offers these analyses within an individualistic framework that retains the insights granted by the near-vision focus that rejects political interventions as the panacea for all limitations and restrictions hampering women, and indeed men, in living fulfilling lives as they see fit.

In the final analysis, libertarian feminists share with other libertarians the struggle to realise greater freedoms for each and every individual human being: greater freedoms from the strictures of overbearing government and the subjections of stifling convention. On the basis of the account presented here there is no tension between libertarian feminism and libertarianism, and certainly not so when we put on our bifocals and assuredly set out together on the journey toward the polar star of liberty.