A Critique of Wisdom
By Bryan Caplan
There are two ways of letting political correctness control your mind.
One is to reject viewpoints, not because they’re false, but because they’re politically incorrect.
The other is to embrace viewpoints, not because they’re true, but because they’re politically incorrect.
We libertarians are seldom guilty of the first mistake. But we are often guilty of the second. Those who commit the second mistake are as much slaves of political correctness as those who commit the first.
At an academic reception I once saw a libertarian introduce himself to a
female professor with the winning line: “Are you a feminist? I hate
feminists.” Libertarians describe the PC crowd as hypersensitive and
too easily offended. The charge is often valid. But being hyperinsensitive, and too easily offensive, is no improvement.
Long then applies these insights, offering a series of thoughtful arguments. Despite the merits of his arguments, however, I think his conclusions are largely mistaken. Let’s go through them one by one.
For example, because it’s politically correct to attribute
gender differences primarily to cultural rather than to genetic factors,
many of us seem to revel in embracing the opposite position. That this
rush to sociobiology is often motivated more by emotional than by
intellectual factors is suggested by the fact that in arguing for such
positions, libertarians will often permit themselves the kind of
sloppiness they would rightly excoriate in, say, economic discussions.
Rod then offers two strong examples:
For example, I’ve heard libertarians argue: “Psychological
differences between men and women have neurophysiological correlates,
so such differences must be genetically rather than culturally based.”
Does this mean that acquired psychological traits, unlike innate ones, don’t have neurophysiological correlates?
As a Szaszian, I have to agree with Rod: Neurophysiological correlation, though often invoked, proves nothing. At the same time, however, it is easy to improve this argument. Instead of pointing to mere correlations, innatists can (and do) emphasize that the correlations appear early in life before culture could plausibly have much effect. Indeed, the correlations appear prenatally.
Here’s another: “If full sexual equality is possible, desirable, and
consistent with human nature, how come no society in human history has
ever achieved it?” Try substituting “libertarian freedom” for “sexual
equality” in that sentence to see why it’s an awkward argument for our camp to be espousing.
Once again, Rod’s right. This is a silly argument for libertarians of all people to make. Yet this argument too is easy to improve. If you’re looking for signs that a radical change is realistic, focusing on its full achievement in an entire society is silly. Radical change fails to meet this standard almost by definition. Yet some radical changes have turned out to be entirely realistic.
If you’re looking for signs that a radical change is realistic, you should focus on actually-existing precursors. Check and see if the radical change has been approximated in some notable social niches.
By this more reasonable standard, sexual equality still does poorly, and libertarian freedom does quite well. Even staunch feminists typically treat men and women very differently. At minimum, they use statistical discrimination when they weigh the chance that a man will be a violent criminal, or a woman will be a good babysitter. On the other hand, as libertarians often point out, even staunch statists respect person and property in their daily lives. They merely refuse to hold governments to their ordinary moral standards.
Rod goes on:
Libertarians — including, sadly, many so-called libertarian or
individualist feminists — have been quick to embrace Christina Hoff
Sommers’ distinction between innocuous “liberal feminism” and scary
“gender feminism.” Liberal feminism accepts the institutions and
practices of our society more or less as they are, and argues only for a
more equal role for women within those institutions and practices. For
gender feminism, by contrast, the institutions and practices of our
society are deeply shaped by a socially constructed patriarchal order
that systematically reinforces the disempowerment of women; hence such
institutions and practices must be reformed in radical ways before
equality can be achieved.
Well, gee. If those are my choices then hell yes, I’m a gender feminist!
I wish Rod had considered another choice: that gender equality is no more morally required than a 0% interest rate on loans. At risk of sounding unromantic, gender relations are basically a barter market. Men compete for women, women compete for men. If there happens to be a high male/female ratio, terms will be unequal in women’s favor; if there happens to be a low male/female ratio, terms will be unequal in men’s favor. The same goes for the countless other factors that shift supply and demand. For example, if male-dominated hobbies like videogames became more fun, demand for women (a.k.a. supply of men) falls, and women typically get a worse deal in their relationships.
Non-libertarians will be tempted to dismiss this as an amoral perspective, but libertarians know better. You can simultaneously morally defer to the price set by supply and demand and morally insist that people honor their agreements in letter and spirit. (Of course, it’s logically possible for a libertarian to advocate voluntary gender equality, just as it’s logically possible for a libertarian to advocate a voluntary 0% interest rate. But once you internalize basic supply and demand, it’s hard to see why one market price is any “fairer” than another. If you object that the status quo isn’t a free market, see my previous exchange with Rod on this general point).
It is of course quite true, as libertarians charge, that a) many gender
feminists have taken this idea to absurd extremes, and likewise that b)
the solutions for which gender feminists call typically involve an
increase in state violence. But with regard to (a), there’s no position
so reasonable that it hasn’t had proponents who’ve defended it in
absurd or extreme forms. (Some libertarians, e.g., profess to find the
constraints of deductive logic “coercive.”) And as for (b), outside
libertarian circles nearly everyone tends to appeal to state violence as the solution to any given problem. That gender feminists’ proposed solutions are unacceptable to us does not show that they have not identified any important problems.
Rod is wise as usual. But it’s easy to fix the arguments Rod is criticizing. Here’s where I’d start: I don’t see that women in modern First World countries receive worse overall treatment than men. In fact, people take male suffering less seriously than female suffering. Consider the endless jokes about male prison rape. Furthermore, existing First World law generally favors women in both the labor market (e.g. discrimination and sexual harassment law) and the marriage market (e.g. child support and child custody).
Next, Rod switches topics:
Another issue that inflames many libertarians against political
correctness is the issue of speech codes on campuses. Yes, many speech
codes are daft. But should people really enjoy exactly the same freedom
of speech on university property that they would rightfully enjoy on
their own property? Why, exactly?
If the answer is that the purposes of a university are best served by an atmosphere of free exchange of ideas — is there no
validity to the claim that certain kinds of speech might tend, through
an intimidating effect, to undermine just such an atmosphere?
Fair point. But what does this have to do with actually-existing speech codes at American universities? Does Rod really doubt that the main point is to discourage criticism of the orthodox left-wing views that university professors really do heavily favor?
Or if the answer is that universities, as recipients of tax-supported
funds, are representing the public and must therefore administer those
funds in a nondiscriminatory manner — does that mean that welfare
recipients, too, must be prevented from spending their relief checks in a
discriminatory manner? If taxation is theft, as we claim to believe,
it’s hard to see how tax funds for universities with speech codes are a worse
violation of rights than tax funds for universities without speech
codes. The real problem is that universities are being funded by
extortion at all.
Question for Rod: Suppose the government could use tax funds to (a) feed orphans, or (b) pay farmers to destroy their crops, driving up the price of food. (a) and (b) both violate taxpayers’ rights. But (b) is much worse, because consequences matter, too. Why not say the same about using tax funds to (a) foster an open discussion of ideas, or (b) leftist indoctrination?
Is it not true that the contributions of women, minorities, and
nonwestern cultures have traditionally been marginalised and excluded?
One needn’t want to give George Washington Carver more pages in the
history textbooks than George Washington to agree that the PC folks are
on to something here. And look at the anti-Muslim, pro-war hysteria
that’s sweeping the country these days. The PC crowd, bless ’em, are
certainly on the right side of that one. Libertarians should regard the
PC crowd the way we regard conservatives: as potential allies. Often
infuriating and wrongheaded potential allies — but nonetheless people
to cultivate, not to insult.
On the marginalization/exclusion point, I agree in moderation. The same goes on the pro-war hysteria; the left was noticeably better until they regained the presidency. On the last point, I agree with Rod emphatically. He’s a model of the friendly libertarianism that I preach and try to practice.