Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hayekian feminism: a challenge to libertarians

It's an understatement to note that libertarians (who are often male) are frequently hostile to feminism, and especially to the concepts of male privilege and rape culture. A typical libertarian response I've seen to these ideas is that they unfairly put men in a defensive posture. The male libertarian who doesn't just automatically dismiss the idea that men have systematic advantages over women will often protest that he shouldn't have to apologize or feel guilty for the advantages he happens to have. But this is an uncharitable interpretation. Feminism asks not that men flagellate themselves with guilt, but to acknowledge their systemic advantages as a first step to addressing the root causes of the problems of patriarchy. Mention of rape culture provokes the response that not all men are sexual assailants, and they shouldn't be treated as such. Of course, not all men engage in violence, but not all men have to for a culture to exist and for its effects to be felt widely.

Charles Johnson's "Women and the Invisible Fist" describes the mechanism of this last point in terms libertarians can appreciate. His argument is that rape culture, or the patriarchy if you prefer, can be usefully understood as a spontaneous order, à la Hayek. The spontaneous order that libertarians typically extol is a thing of beauty: individuals, acting on their own initiatives, with their own limited information, for their own ends, create in aggregate a pattern of economic productivity and exchange capable of satisfying the needs and desires of millions of people, all without a central authority running the show.

This is all accomplished on the basis of dispersed, consensual interactions. But spontaneous order can just as well arise from dispersed, coercive or violent interactions. The obvious example of this is biological evolution itself, the original inspiration for Hayek's thinking about spontaneous order. Nature is famously red in tooth and claw, with nearly every innovation dearly bought at the cost of some predator starving to death or some prey being eaten alive. Order can just as well emerge out of dispersed, violent human relations, without conscious design. But Johnson can say this better than I can (emphasis in original):
But nothing conceptually requires that emergent orders need be benign orders. If widely distributed forms of intelligence, knowledge, virtue, or prudence can add up, through many individual self-interested actions, into a benign undesigned order, then there's no reason why widely distributed forms of ignorance, prejudice, folly or vice might not add up, through many individual self-interested actions, into an unintended, malign order. So might widely-distributed, micro-level practices of violence; since libertarians are centrally concerned with individual freedom from violence and coercion, the possibility our threefold distinction raises of an emergent but non-consensual order must surely give us pause.*
[Susan Brownmiller's] hypothesis that stranger-rapists serve a Myrmidon function for male supremacy, with benefits that redound not only to practicing rapists but to all men, is best understood as arguing that the pervasive fact of rape, and the threat that its pervasiveness inflicts on all women, produces a spontaneous (emergent) but coercive order, in which non-consensual micro-scale actions inflicted by unrelated, anonymous stranger rapists, end up reinforcing a macro-scale pattern of male dominance over women, and the cultural and institutional superstructure of patriarchy. 
Feminists highlight the far-reaching significance of the everyday fact that the threat of rape constrains women's range of free action. These constraints operate through felt danger and through explicit warnings: don't walk alone; not after dark; not in that neighborhood; don't go to that party; not dressed like that; watch what you drink; watch what kind of "signals" you give off. Paternalistic double-binds often narrow the range to a vanishing point: don't leave a late-night event without a man to walk you back; don't leave with a man, unless you intend to invite him in--or you'll "give him the wrong idea," and who knows what could happen then? Women are warned about the dangers of crowded public spaces like subways, parties, or concerts while simultaneously being warned about the dangers of empty, secluded or private spaces like parking garages, alleys, empty country or a man's house or car. The double-binds construct both public space and private space, being either alone or accompanied, as pervaded with a lesser or greater degree of danger; ultimately the only space constructed as "safe" is male-protected space. And the reliability of male protection closely linked to personal connections with men, within a limited set of very specific, structured relations--usually either paternal authority, marital protection, or heterosexual availability. 
[...] The desire to protect others from violence is, in itself, a personal virtue, not a social problem. But the danger is how tempting and easy--and how corrupting--it is for men to take the psychological step of going from an attitude human solidarity [sic] to a fantasy of male rescue, of coming to see themselves as defined by their identity as a Protector in contrast to frail womanhood, and of coming to see women as uniquely dependent by nature--rather than uniquely threatened due to the chosen actions of other men. And to go even further, to try to make sure that women seek and depend on and stay within the scope of a man's "protection," whether or not they really want it--by using intimidating and restrictive warnings, by harassing women--blamed as foolish or wanton--who step outside the dependence of that "protection" or the stiflingly close boundaries of those "safety tips." That kind of imposed dependence can just as easily become frustrating and confining for women, and that kind of power can just as easily become corrupting and exploitative in men, as any other form of structural dependence and power can. Libertarians and anarchists who so readily see this dynamic when it comes to government police and military protection of a disarmed populace, shouldn't have any trouble seeing it, if they are willing to see it, when it comes to male protection of women.
Do read the whole thing. I think it's the most brilliant thing I've read all year. And for an example of rape culture at work, read this recent Rolling Stones article on UVA (possibly triggering recounts of rape). 

The challenge to libertarians resistant to feminism is to take this quite libertarian argument seriously. If libertarians genuinely seek a world in which voluntary relations are the norm and coercion is minimized, then they should seek to understand systemic coercion. To do this they must grapple with feminism in good faith.

*The three-fold distinction mentioned is consensual versus coercive, polycentric or participatory versus directive, and emergent versus consciously designed order. I'll leave the detailed explanation of these terms to the text.

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