Blogs > Liberty and Power > RE: BARBARIANS AND WIMPS

Jan 15, 2004 8:17 am


Will's post below is right on the money, especially this bit:

Conservatives tend to see the feminist movement and the so-called sexual revolution as perverse, willful repudiations of the sorts of regulative convention that make civilization possible. Yet here we are; civilization remains. And they fail to relate these cultural shifts to the ongoing development of capitalism, which, in other moods, they are only too eager praise. The increased economic autonomy of women, of which the feminist movement is as much a response as a cause, fundamentally alters the terms of sexual and marital relations, and thereby fundamentally alters the social meaning of man- and womanhood

This is a point I've tried to make in other contexts: pining for a world where markets are free and vigorous and the culture remains untouched is asking for the impossible. Conservatives just seem to miss this entirely. It is the very wealth, technology, and resources devoted to education that capitalism has made possible that has been largely responsible for the profound changes in gender roles that we've seen in the last 35 years. To claim to support free markets yet to expect that these sorts of changes can be prevented, stopped, or reversed is just not possible. You can't stand athwart the market and yell "stop." This is one reason why I really like Virginia Postrel's work. She gets the dynamism of the market-culture interaction.

Will is also quite right to note that the feminist movement is "as much a response as cause" of the increased economic independence of women. If you look at the data on female labor force participation, it was climbing well before the 1960s, suggesting that the feminist movement may well have been more a response to the fact that women were getting out there in the market and realizing the changes that needed to take place culturally and legally. A very readable book on all of this is Stephanie Coontz's "The Way We Never Were."

Will's post also raises another question that fascinates me: economic theory predicts (and Dick McKenzie and Gordon Tullock did so explicitly in 1975) that as women's wages rise, the burden of housework should shift more toward men. If the division of labor between the market and the household is driven by the opportunity cost of each partner's time, then as the cost of women's time at home rises with their wages, we should see them doing less housework and men doing more, at least relative to each other if not absolutely. The evidence from time diaries is that men have picked up, no pun intended, a bit more of the work in the household, but not nearly in proportion to the gain in women's wages. It's an interesting question why women continue to bear the burden of what sociologists call the "second shift." I have a few thoughts on why, but I'm going to hold those for a bit. What's interesting to me is the ways in which libertarians have largely not investigated these sorts of cultural questions, nor do we feel especially comfortable discussing them if there's no apparent link to the intervention of the state. I think that's a mistake - in the long run, if libertarianism is going to gain ground both intellectually and politically, it's going to have to address these sorts of questions. They take up too much space in many people's day-to-day existence to just shrug because the state has no big role.

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More Comments:

Steve Horwitz - 1/16/2004

As long as those who see themselves as "countervailing forces" understand that they are likely to have limited impact, it's fine. I really do believe that, in the long run, economic changes are driving the bus here. I should add that I do agree that any attempt by culture to negate biological/evolutionary reality is likely to fail. For example, I think there are very good reasons why humans form families and attempting to eliminate the institution of the family will be unsucessful. However, that doesn't mean the institution can't evolve in ways that alter its form but maintain its essential functions. Similar points could be made about gender, which I do believe is not infinitely malleabale.

Bill Woolsey - 1/16/2004

It seems to me that cultural forces have sought
to fight biological drives and yelled stop. For
example, opposing sexual promiscuity--marriage and
fidelity have substantial cultural support. Obviously,
these cultural norms have only limited success.
Fornication and adultery are pretty common. Still, I
see no reason why similar cultural norms couldn't seek
to fight possibly adverse consequences of markets.

While I don't consider men doing more household chores
a problem or women working for money to buy things
bad, I don't see why the churches, families, or private
schools couldn't seek to propagandize against such
things and such propaganda have some effect in
countervailing market pressures to do such things.

Kevin Carson - 1/15/2004

I would argue that the state, rather than the "free market," bears primary responsibility for the destruction of Norman Rockwell's America.

Corporate capitalism has indeed atomized and weakened the fabric of civil society. But that corporate capitalism is primarily a creation of the state. Consider the effects of the following, severally and cumulatively:

1) the concentration of capital, because of the government's cartelizing regulations, the patent system, etc.;

2) the centralization of the economy because of massive subsidies to long-distance transportation;

3) the effects of the resulting increased demographic mobility, beyond pareto-optimal levels, in destroying the extended family and stable communities;

4) the growth of capital-intensive and high-tech forms of production, far beyond pareto-optimal levels, as a result of government subsidies to R&D and accumulation;

5) the role of government in creating mass culture and a centralized communications infrastructure: collusion with AT&T, the FCC licensing system, the intellectual property system, DARPA, etc.;

6) government social engineering schemes to destroy old-fashioned communities, through zoning laws against mixed-use development, FHA redlining, etc.