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September 2014

Why Aren’t More Women Libertarians?

Some of the libertarian gender gap can be attributed to sociological factors, writes Stubbart, but substantive policy disagreements must not be dismissed.

It doesn’t take spending much time with libertarians, either online or in physical spaces, to notice that most of them happen to be male. One could be forgiven for noticing that, despite much ink being shed on the subject of libertarianism’s “woman problem” periodically, it does not seem to have improved dramatically in the past few decades. Why are libertarians disproportionately male? Can and should we make efforts at “converting” more women to libertarianism? What kind of impact is it reasonable to expect such efforts to have on the overall gender breakdown of libertarians? 

For clarity of thought, we can divide the apparent reasons that more women aren’t libertarians into substantive and sociological reasons. Beginning with the latter: one feminist hypothesis suggests that more women aren’t libertarians because libertarian spaces, being male-dominated, are unfriendly to women and the voicing of women’s interests. Although it’s certainly possible   that this factor contributes to some degree to libertarianism’s gender gap, it seems largely exaggerated (especially due to availability bias, when offered in the context of some prominent example of a woman being treated poorly at a libertarian event). Because people self-select into libertarian spaces and fora and they have limited contact with non-members, these tend to serve more of a social function than a proselytization function. Some women’s libertarianism may wane because participating in libertarian groups isn’t as rewarding for them as for men, but the root of the gender gap probably isn’t a differential in converting people. Few people are “converted” solely by groups to libertarianism at all, and there’s insufficient reason to assume that women were equally as ripe for conversion as men in the first place. 

Also, on the sociological side, we should take seriously the reasonably well-substantiated empirical claim of evolutionary psychology that men have evolved to bear traits that go to further extremes than women. To make a long story short: because in the past women have more reliably reproduced than men (with some men fathering many children and many others fathering none), men have had to (largely unsuccessfully) diversify their strategies in appealing to women, both by deliberate choices (e.g. lowered risk-aversiveness) and in effect by displaying a wider variety of traits (e.g. height, intelligence). This means that, totally apart from whether some relatively unpopular belief (such as libertarianism) is true or warranted, we would expect to see more men holding it. The extremity of male cognition and interest may explain part of why more libertarians are men than women, especially including why (anecdotally) more men seek out libertarian reading material and communities mostly of their own accord at younger ages. 

In addition to these sociological factors underlying libertarianism’s woman problem, we must also confront the substantive reasons why more women aren’t libertarians. Here by “substantive,” I mean reasons inherent to libertarian philosophy, broadly construed, and not merely incidental to the people holding them – to the extent that such a division makes sense. With a rather large gender gap to explain (even amongst people who have formally studied political philosophies in a variety of settings), it’s implausible that the possible unfriendliness of libertarian organizations can be the only thing to blame for libertarianism’s woman problem. Intellectually honest libertarians ought to admit that the substance of libertarianism – i.e., its positions on welfare, drugs, education, reproductive rights, and etc. – does not in fact appeal to women as much as much as it appeals to men. 

This admission takes seriously the idea that disagreement is often real, as in not merely apparent, and sometimes exists at the level of values rather than at the more easily-resolvable level of facts. It’s condescending to suppose that all political disagreements between apparently reasonable adults come down to the non-libertarian person not understanding the issue as well as the libertarian one. It’s similarly condescending to suppose that most contemporary women have been brainwashed by feminists and the liberal establishment to believe the things they do, and suffer from pervasive and persistent false consciousness regarding what they want from a political order, and why. 

Some women really do endorse the idea of a robust social “safety net” implemented via coercive taxation and the government, full well realizing that this may create dependence at the margins. Some women (including mothers) really do oppose the kinds of reproductive freedoms that libertarians tend to support, including permissive abortion laws and the decriminalization of behaviors (e.g. drug use) that are perceived as risky for pregnant women. Some women really do want the stability and ease of sending their children to a decent, chosen-for-them public school, rather than navigating the intricacies of a freer market in education. These disagreements aren’t always resolvable by just pointing out some costs or unintended consequences associated with the non-libertarian positions. Starting from a refusal to acknowledge these genuine differences of opinion decimates whatever chance libertarians may have had of winning hearts and minds, as by a messier but ultimately more relevant conversation over values instead of facts.

The reality of women’s substantive disagreement with libertarianism is admittedly uncomfortable, because it cannot be ameliorated by just being friendlier to women in the course of explaining libertarianism clearly to them (as the sociological explanation for libertarianism’s gender gap would imply). Additionally, to a person who is already sympathetic to libertarian ideas, it puts her in the politically incorrect position of implying that women, in general, are systematically more mistaken in their political beliefs than men are. 

When we talk about politics and the government (or lack thereof) that we as some group of people are to institute, we are making decisions about systems about half of whose participants will be female. All citizens’ interests (if not their votes or opinions on any given matter) should, in some important sense, “count.” This is especially true of perspectives that take themselves to be “deliberative” democratic, and perspectives which understand a political order’s legitimacy to rest on the actual or hypothetical consent of its citizens. Adding women to your pool of actual or hypothetical citizens may dilute its libertarianism – but that’s not necessarily any indictment against women, because there was no good reason offered to start thinking about politics from an androcentric perspective in the first place. 

Indeed, libertarians often object to some forms of democracy on the grounds that the interests of just under half of a voting population may be neglected; pointing this out in the case of gender is, on its face, relevantly similarly objectionable. If you think women’s participation is turning contemporary politics increasingly liberal, and that that’s a bad thing, the burden of proof is on you to explain why these outcomes are less (rather than more) well-justified than the political outcomes of our more sexist recent past. 

Happily, women’s interests and men’s interests significantly coincide, insofar as humans are more alike than different; moreover we can observe that women and men have often historically cooperated with each other (via emergent institutions and practices) to positive effect. But when we, as libertarians, find that men’s and women’s interests or opinions do not neatly overlap, it is imperative that we take these disagreements seriously. Assuming that even reasonable, well-informed women are mistaken about what’s in their own best interests politically is contrary to the Hayekian spirit of dispersed knowledge, and rhetorically obnoxious besides. It may just be the case that fewer women than men will or can ever be libertarians.