Mutilations of the Fashionable Sort
A normative extension of standard economic theory is that an individual is the best judge of what is good for himself. At least, there is no way to determine who else would be a better judge, and especially who should be entitled to impose his own preferences by force. The choice of a consumer, producer (including worker), or participant in any voluntary social interaction is thus worthy of legal protection if not of respect. Not too long ago, virtually any mainstream or Austrian economist would have agreed with this normative presumption.
Children were the only hard exception. The presumption applied only to adults. It is true that blacks or women (as well as proletarians with false consciousness in Marxist theory) were often viewed as exceptions too, but economists typically rejected this sort of philosophical discrimination between human adults. The “dismal science” label was apparently stuck onto economics for this sort of reason. (See my post “Is it OK to Use the R Word?”) In the classical-liberal tradition, moreover, it went without saying that nobody should be given the power to decide at what age a specific individual becomes an adult. Thus, the rule of law established a standard age, usually 21, and more recently 18.
In our (Western or Westernized) countries, there are lots of things that a child may not freely do with his body, including accepting certain kinds of employment at certain conditions, evading any sort of schooling, escaping from home, possessing guns and explosives, and so forth. In many countries, a child (and even a young legal adult!) is prohibited from buying cigarettes and alcohol. His parents do have to sign off, at least implicitly, on most of what he does. Sometimes, even the parents’ permission is not enough.
The scandal of children being allowed, with the state’s complicity if not incitement, to submit to sexual mutilations is a relatively new phenomenon (see my post “Mrs. Grundy Against Ryan Anderson’s Book”). Girls’ clitorectomy or infibulation were rightly viewed as liberticidal and barbarian practices. If we follow the standard normative economic interpretation of individual choices, of course, an adult should not be forbidden to alter his own body. Wrote John Stuart Mill, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Children are another matter—until they are old enough to make their own choices.
Viewed from this perspective, the so-called “Let Them Grow Act” just adopted by the Nebraska legislature appears rather moderate, if not too moderate (see Sections 14-20 of Bill LB574). It prohibits sexual mutilations on non-adults by way of surgery (altering or removing sexual attributes or features), while allowing some leeway for chemical puberty blockers and hormone therapy (which may have irreversible consequences).
An opponent of the bill, state senator George Dungan, a Democrat, declared:
We should not be in the business of telling people what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
Indeed, people who oppose such a mild ban on mutilating children appear to be part of the same crowd that wholeheartedly approves most of the restrictions imposed on adults regarding the use of their own bodies, from the right to carry instruments of self-defense to the freedom to work for less than minimum wages that exclude them from employment, to use their hands or voices to express unfashionable ideas, to put or not put some substances in their own bodies, and to generally engage in “capitalist acts between consenting adults” (to quote Robert Nozick).
As Miranda said in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “O brave new world, that has such people in it!”
Thomas L Knapp
May 23 2023 at 7:18am
Interesting. The Nebraska bill bans surgery to “alter or remove physical or anatomical characteristics or features that are typical for the individual’s biological sex.”
Which would seem to apply to the most popular and common form of genital mutilation (infant circumcision).
May 23 2023 at 10:26am
Thomas: Interesting comment, but I think the whole section is relevant (my emphasis):
This being said, circumcision is the relic of a rather innocuous but (now) strange custom, which is prevalent in few advanced countries, but widespread in the US and sometimes compulsory in Islamic countries (99.8% are circumcised in Afghanistan). In case of doubt, of course, laissez faire!
May 23 2023 at 10:48am
Is it me or does there seem to be a disproportionate amount of attention to transgender issues at the moment ?
May 23 2023 at 11:06am
Craig: I guess that what is good for the transgoose is good for the transgander. More seriously, it is fascinating to observe how a small number of activists (even subsidized) can orient the public debates.
May 23 2023 at 11:49am
“More seriously, it is fascinating to observe how a small number of activists (even subsidized) can orient the public debates.”
Sometimes it seems that they are rather more effective in orienting the public debates than classical liberals/libertarians over a much wider range of issues.
May 23 2023 at 12:47pm
Mark: Why do you think that’s the case? Because collectivists/statists have simpler ideas? Or because they have more stories à la Shiller (see pp. 65-68 of the link) to tell? Are these two hypotheses the same?
May 23 2023 at 11:40am
“A normative extension of standard economic theory is that an individual is the best judge of what is good for himself. At least, there is no way to determine who else would be a better judge, and especially who should be entitled to impose his own preferences by force. The choice of a consumer, producer (including worker), or participant in any voluntary social interaction is thus worthy of legal protection if not of respect. Not too long ago, virtually any mainstream or Austrian economist would have agreed with this normative presumption.”
I suggest that positive economic theory–whether “standard” or not–cannot entertain any normative extension, at least not in the way that you imply.
There have been a great many “mainstream” and not a few “Austrian” economists who would deny the normative presumption that you describe.
May 23 2023 at 12:39pm
Mark: You are right to question my term “extension.” I should have made clear that I did not mean that a “ought” cannot be deducted from a “is” (apologies to Hume too). I meant it in the sense of a natural association of the way Cowen or Peart and Levy mean (see my link).
As for your last paragraph, wouldn’t the “great many” be incorrect in the mid-19th century? In the late 19th century? At the turn of the 18th-19th century?
May 23 2023 at 9:16pm
Does the right of an adult to mutilate himself oblige me to recognize his altered gender?
Do you extend this right to other mutilations such as of eyes or limbs?
In reality, nobody mutilates himself. A well-developed industry having public and official recognition and privileges does this for him. Why must the public recognize the mutilation industry.
Why not just let an individual do what he will?
Though in my opinion Do what you will is no basis for a society but that would be proved after the ongoing social experiment has run for a couple of generations.
May 24 2023 at 11:13am
Mactoul: Nothing should force you to recognize anything, except your own agreement. And remember that tyranny has had about 16,000 generations of ongoing social experiment; it succeeded in bringing misery to the vast majority of mankind.
May 24 2023 at 9:12pm
16000 generations of tyranny?
Do you mean years?
Hunter-gatherers are very resistant to tyranny. They had to evolve to begin living in towns where you can’t escape your neighbors and some organization is necessary.
Clearly you reject the thesis of consistent decrease in violence in parallel with increase in state organization. Maybe you would like to elaborate
Do you reject the fact of decreasing trend of violence or do you merely reject the interpretation that state action was instrumental in the pacification.
May 25 2023 at 11:24am
Mactoul: Good questions. Quickly, first, the tribe is tyranny and, indeed, the state, the more abstract it is, can fight that brand of tyranny. For my current take, see my review of de Jasay’s Social Justice and the Indian Rope Trick or of Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority. You may also want to have a look at my review of Acemoglu and Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor.
Second, the issue of the long-term reduction of violence. I agree with that, but note that it is relatively recent and, again, intimately related to the advance of liberal civilization. The other way to reduce violence, the way of communist Eastern Europe or North Korea or China or Russia, only reduces it through the tyrants’ constant threat of violence, à la Hobbes.
May 25 2023 at 9:35pm
Irony of it is that advance of liberal civilization is intimately associated with advance of the liberal state and not with decay or retreat of the state.
Also, I would maintain that fall in violence is a precondition for advance of liberal civilization.
This fall in violence is not recent and has been going on since man started to live a settled life. Again a precondition.
PS Hunter-gatherers are famously egalitarian. The tyranny of tribe could only be tyranny of the custom– a concept akin to false consciousness of the Marxists.
May 24 2023 at 1:44am
Perhaps in a more enlightened era, the restrictions on the freedom of children to work, play, and act will be viewed as barbarism. I am not hopeful, however. This system of oppression, like medicare, is stable.
May 24 2023 at 11:15am
Nicholas: What do you mean? I don’t understand what is ironic and what is not in your statements.
May 24 2023 at 12:27pm
Not really understanding your analogy. I carried for a couple of years until I got tired of it. I didnt need to alter or do anything to my body or have anyone tell me to alter it to carry a gun. Same with minimum wages. A better analogy would be abortion where the state is directly telling a person what they cannot do in terms of altering their body. Vaccinations might also work.
““A normative extension of standard economic theory is that an individual is the best judge of what is good for himself. ”
How does this apply when people clearly dont understand what they are doing or buying? History is replete with eg quack medical cures that either didnt work or harmed people. Much of it isnt done by scammers but by people who truly believe they are providing good care. We generally gnnore it when people suffer only financial harm with treatments that dont work but those home remedies/cultural therapies, sometimes contained stuff like mercury.
May 25 2023 at 11:03am
Steve: If one does not need to do something with his body to work, we might not be speaking of the world of the living.
Political authorities typically amplify the mob’s errors. History is replete with that. It’s easy to understand: they need the mobs’ support. I give some examples at https://www.econlib.org/markets-against-the-mobs-purpose/.
May 24 2023 at 1:50pm
And there exists no evidence to date to suggest we should presume otherwise. I agree with Lisa Littman that Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) is more of a social contagion than of organic processes as claimed in this deeply flawed study recently published in the AAP journal.
@ Nicholas Decker:
I would argue that the exact opposite is true. Unrestricted freedoms on children to work, play, and act is lunacy.
May 26 2023 at 1:09am
Model of man as a bundle of preferences and society to be optimized for satisfaction of the preferences– this appears to be working style of liberal writers.
But all preferences are not equal. Some might go against human biology and nature. Some might not conduce to long-term functioning of the liberal civilization itself.
There might not be a technical solution to the problem liberal thinkers have set for themselves.
Perhaps one cannot do better than the Catholic social doctrine which emphasizes the twin principles of subsidiarity and solidarity and its one implementation in US Constitution.
May 26 2023 at 11:53am
Mactoul: (1) The standard economic model is that the individual maximizes his utility (gets to his most preferred situation) subject to his constraints (or feasible set). (2) Your third paragraph before the last asks the question that Friedrich Hayek (notably in Law, Legislation, and Liberty) and James Buchanan (notably in Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative) worked on for a large part of their lives. I don’t think one can raise the question you raise without reading them. (3) As I understand it, the Catholic social doctrine is a gauche and quite passé or anachronical attempt to reconcile communism, liberalism, and Church authority.)
May 26 2023 at 8:46pm
Though we have wandered far from the original topic, I will just add my impression on the social contract thinkers that they entirely ignore a very basic and striking fact about political organization: the political division of mankind.
I have referred to this problem previously too– what determines the extent of a social contract. The geographic extent within which the residents are bound by a particular contract.
Indeed, why the geography should determine the social contract in the first place.
And what about individuals living within the said area who don’t wish to join the contract.
Indeed there might be individuals who wish to join but other members of the contract don’t allow them to join.
All these questions may strike you as pointless but my thesis is these questions show certain fundamental limitations of the social contract theories.
May 26 2023 at 9:52pm
Catholic social doctrine, affirming unambiguously as it does the principle of private property, the very negation of communism, can hardly be inspired by it. Quite the reverse–communism has taken a proposition of Catholic doctrine and has run off with it, while ignoring certain other counter-balancing propositions.
And the principle of subsidiarity, by which matters should be decided at the lowest feasible level, is far much subtle than anything you find elsewhere and a genuine solution to the problems and paradoxes of the liberal theory.
Hayek’s idea of several property, which doesn’t seem popular among Hayekians, is a mere restatement of Distributism, a generally ridiculed economic theory, ridiculed by the left and more by the right.