Cato Unbound in Unlikely Places

This month’s Cato Unbound on the prospects of radical vs. Fabian libertarianism (more or less) has churned up some unusually churlish commentary. Peter Thiel’s contribution in particular, in which he (rather wrongly, in my opinion) attributes the infeasibility of “democratic capitalism” in part to women’s suffrage, has sparked a good bit of mocking outrage. Here’s Michal Lind mostly being dense at Salon. Here’s Owen Thomas at Valleywag (not a place I thought I’d find Cato Unbound mentioned.) Even Feministing! My colleague Jason Kuznicki, who organized and edited this issue of Unbound, has a good response to all this at Cato@Liberty. And when I have a bit more time, I’m going to write a post defending the desirability of liberal democracy, and the possibility of democratic capitalism (even with women voters!), against Thiel and Friedman’s radicalist pessimism.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

36 thoughts

  1. The Feministing post pretty much proves Theil right.Just look at the comments. These women are very leftist.Young women are the worst. Will, got lucky (or something), but nearly all the young women I meet are leftists.

  2. The Feministing post proves that a certain segment of the population cannot deal with new ideas rationally, nor respnod to challenges unless burning straw mans. But we already knew that. As for libertarians, Thiel raises a very good point (perhaps unintentionally): appealing more to the ladies is a sine qua non of electoral success. Unfortunately, a lot of people can only read statements like the previous sentence as “we need to pander to special interests.” I hope that no one will leap to that conclusion.I don't have a good answer for the question, though. Why is Libertarianism less appealing to women than men? I guess my stab at it is that women are more security-focused, and less overtly competitive (note: this is not the same thing as saying “less competitive”). Social Democracy appeals to people who are focused on security and uncertain of their ability to come out ahead in competition. If this is the reason, then a good suggestion for Libertarianism would be that it change its rhetoric to focus more on the rising tide bouying all ships – on the practical effects of wealth accumulation under Capitalism.There is, I'm afraid, nothing we can do to soothe people's worries about equality. We're just not in the business of equality. Security – that we can do.

  3. I think Theil recognizes a true obstacle. I have no idea how difficult it is to overcome, but I also have noticed that women (in general) seem particularly resistant to recognizing the Hayekian distinction between the best rules for small groups (families, tribes, clubs, etc.) and extended orders.Ah, I found the Hayek quote:

    Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once.

    I think if we could figure out how to get most people to appreciate this insight, we'd make a lot of progress.

  4. I'm not sure Kuznicki's “white evangelical Christian” analogy holds up. Thiel didn't say that women don't vote libertarian often enough. He said that capitalist democracy couldn't co-exist with women voters. And it was that “reality” coupled with that other horror of horrors – welfare beneficiaries – that led Thiel away from politics altogether. The implication is that if we could change those realities (get rid of women voters and reduce welfare beneficiaries), then politics might still be worthwhile.There's something wrong with libertarianism when, in 2009, someone at the premiere intellectual home for libertarianism has to write: “Of course women should be able to vote” to clear up any misconceptions about where we stand on that hot-button issue.

  5. I'm not sure the problem is with Libertarianism. People of any political stripe will say things that embarass the movment they speak in favor of. The problem is that when the people saying the embarassing things represent a minority viewpoint, the public's unfamiliarity with and general lack of interest in learning about said viewpoint will cause them to file it away as typical or revealing. When a Democrat or Republican says it, the public is more likely to recognize that it's an individual view not held by the party. People are instinctively suspicious of pushes for real change. That's probably a good thing overall, but obviously not in all cases – and it's certainly something that stands in the way of popularizing Libertarianism.

  6. Jason Kuznicki wrote, in the Cato@Liberty defense of Thiel: “Of course women should be able to vote. It’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. We libertarians just need to do a better job of convincing them that voting in favor of individual liberty and free markets are the best choices they can make.“But this is pretty obviously not what Thiel thinks at all. His essay was all about how politics is a lost cause for libertarians (in part because of welfare beneficiaries and women). This is an empirical claim, so I don't see any reason to be outraged by it. (Indeed, if women are less likely to be Randians, for example, I'd say that reflects well on them. But whether the generalization reflects well on women or not is a separate question from whether it's true and relevant to the prospects for libertarian politics.)So let's not distort Thiel's view. He absolutely does not think that “libertarians just need to do a better job of convincing” women. He thinks that is impossible. His prescription is to give up on politics and go live in space or the ocean instead.

  7. Greg N.Show me one place where Thiel says we should “get rid of” women and welfare beneficiaries. Don't be dense. He disagrees with their politics and finds that fact lamentable, nothing more.

  8. Women and LibertarianismI actually think Thiel's point, as clumsily as he stated it, deserves some investigation. I don't know about the empirics of gender and moral reasoning, but I remember from undergrad reading some feminist pieces on the difference in ethical judgements between men and women.Women tend to judge with an ethic of care or compassion (so the argument goes). They yearn for context and understanding.Men, on the other hand, prefer rules-based justice. Again, I'm not sure whether this hypothesis has held up over time. A quick google search didn't reveal much.If the above is true, then GilM touched on the main reason why I would suspect this causes women to disdain libertarianism. LIbertarianism tends to be rules-based; concerned with unseen consequences, unconcerned with short-term inequities or sufferings. A woman's moral reasoning implores her to care, and her politics would reflect that. IT's as important to be seen caring or trying to care, regardless of the systemic consequences. To quote Nozick, many will instantly reject our conclusions, knowing that they don't want to believe anything so apparently callous. What do you think?(Disclaimer: I'm not saying women are irrational or dumb. All our brains are evolved to have certain reactions, and I find it plausible that women, the mothers and nurturers in tribal societies, tend to be hardwired against libertarianism.)

  9. It's the implication of what Thiel says, to wit, that women's suffrage and welfare beneficiaries are incompatible with capitalist democracy. Now, it's true he doesn't give a reason for that claim, but that is the claim being made.”In the face of these realities, one would despair if one limited one’s horizon to the world of politics.” The implication is that, were it not for those lamentable realities, we'd be a lot better off. Think about that. Because of the fact that women vote and people get welfare, Thiel has written off politics completely. And sure, he doesn't come right out and say we should eliminate women's suffrage, but he does indicate that we would be better off had it never been extended originally.

  10. I read the piece a few days ago, and I'm almost wondering if it isn't some kind of weird satire. If it isn't, then my opinion is that the guy is just bugfuck crazy. Besides lamenting women's suffrage, he also compares writing for a student newspaper to the carnage in trench warfare in WW I without one hint of self-awareness. Then there's the space and Waterworld stuff. Me thinks the LSD (or whatever the “smartest libertarians” were escaping to beyond alcohol) must have done some permanent damage. I'm not sure why anyone would feel the need to engage him in a serious dialogue. Just back away slowly…

  11. There is something just a bit weird about someone writing from an intellectual minority position bemoaning the fact that the only thing preventing their ideas from becoming mainstream is the fact that large segments of the population disagree with their ideas.

  12. What's weird about it?It's commonplace. Both for theories that are better and worse than the conventional ones. Do you expect everybody to change their minds as soon as they're exposed to a better, but radical and unconventional, idea? If not, then this is exactly what you should expect proponents of the new idea to complain about.

  13. Richard,Seasteading is intended in part as a demonstration project — which means it's meant to convince people who aren't currently libertarians that libertarianism can succeed in practice. This will lead to improvements in democratic countries where voters will demand reform.Now, we may grant that seasteading's chance of actually succeeding is arbitrarily small. But it seems absurd to suppose that the project is only meant to convince men, or that it's going to come packaged with some super-secret provision to disenfranchise women as well.

  14. Also, I don't think it's fair to conclude from this essay that: “He thinks that is impossible.”He wrote that the constituency is “notoriously tough for libertarians.” I think that's a true empirical claim. He also seems to think that the short-term prospects for “capitalist democracy” are so bad that it's prudent to pursue extra-political avenues to gain political freedom. And, as Jason indicated, it's partially a demonstration project that should improve political prospects in current democracies.

  15. One could rather easily construct a model of male policy preferences and voting tendencies that are hostile to libertarianism and libertarian outcomes. Which, for example, has contributed more to the growth of the oppressive power of the state–wars or welfare benefits? And which gender is easier to sucker into supporting the life-and-liberty destroying miracle gro-for the state practice we call war? Furthermore, men are more likely to support anti-liberty socially conservative policy initiatives and goals than women. But you could play this game with any major voting bloc in the United States, becuase while all kinds of people are enamored of libertarian logic and/or rhetoric from time to time, they are not particularly libertarian at all. It's not that Thiel is wrong, it's that his singling out of women is arbitary, and his column could be repeated for any other group. Under such circumstances, why does Thiel focus on women? I can think of a few possible answers, and none of them speak particularly well of Thiel.

  16. Right. Just like a liberal would lament evangelical voters, but wouldn't actually say we should eliminate suffrage for evangelicals.It's not that women and welfare beneficiaries are incompatible with capitalist democracy. It's that capitalism might be incompatible with a democracy in which there are interest groups and psychological biases that defeat capitalist policies. Bryan Caplan has gotten kind of famous making this claim.

  17. All of what you say is true – but I think it's obvious how Thiel came to single out women. He looked at history, thought about when the last time a Classical Liberal policy framework had a fighting chance at general acceptance, and came up with the 20s. Then he asked himself what the most salient changes since then have been. He came up with women's suffrage and the growth of the welfare state in the 30s. It's true that women's suffrage was passed before the 20s (1919, 1920, I can't remember exactly) – but Thiel makes the plausible assumption that culture lagged behind law and women didn't start voting in big numbers until later. You may say his analysis is shallow. Indeed – it is. There are all kinds of statistical checks he could have done to make sure that his theory is minimally plausible. And, as you point out, there is the glaring omission of WWII (and wars in general), which, for my money, is the Day Classical Liberalism Died. But I don't think it's fair to say his choices are arbitrary. Quite the contrary – it's pretty easy to trace the reasoning.

  18. First, to elaborate Dan's point … Our moral sense, so to speak, is rooted in our emotions. Advocates for liberty (mostly) agree that, at the base, our interests in liberty is deeply attached to the emotional sense of self-worth and well being that comes from exercising our freedom, and the negative feelings that we experience when our liberties are infringed upon. 'Thou shalt not steal' is a rule that we've codified to try to make a subjective experience an objective principle. “Do unto others as you'd be done by” is a slightly more complex formulation, and “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” another, highly abstract though rationally formulated response. We each come to structure our moral responses slightly differently, as a consequence of our many and varied individual histories. Women as a class (to grossly over-generalize) experience and anticipate moments of complete physical vulnerability and individual powerlessness. From an evolutionary perspective, this means that women are biologically wired differently than men, and (again, to grossly over-generalize) prioritize moral principles somewhat differently (on the whole).They're less interested in abstracted freedoms like 'lower state intrusion in my financial affairs' than they are with more concrete freedoms, like 'make sure there's a social support system for me when I or my child gets sick', or 'my economic liberty is best served by an enforced social contract not to discriminate against me on the basis of my gender'. And second, Thiel is an exemplar of the principle that, while luck is the ultimate determinant of success in life, you can never convince the lucky of this. Paypal was one of four or five “credit card payments over the internet” companies started up at the same time. Thiel actually started a company called Confinity to build money financial exchange software for the Palm Pilot platform (there's an idea of genius). The major insight that pulled PayPal away from the pack was the idea to secure transactions with a challenge/response CAPTCHA, and what sealed the deal was EBay's genius move to close restrict Billpoint to just EBay auctions. Had EBay not messed up Billpoint, had the product manager not read the Carnegie-Mellon paper, had IBM bothered to secure the CAPTCHA patent, had the VCs not forced Confirmity to merge with when they ran out of money? Thiel would just be another undistinguished Bay Area bandit. In life, it is better to be lucky than good.

  19. Hm, yesterday the rage was at Byron York's comment that Obama isn't really popular because darky opinion doesn't really count. Now it's libertarians saying democracy would be just great except for the half the population that supports the wrong things. I detect a pattern, namely, that the only real people are white male nerds and the rest of the world is just getting in their way.

  20. The answer to that one is clear – the welfare state. After all, when has it ever shrunk?OTOH, there have been periods where disarmament has followed wars – after WWI and WWII (in the late 40s, there was massive demobilization), after Vietnam, and, most recently under Clinton when troop levels were cut post the Gulf War.I am not saying that war can't be the health of the state, but libertarians misread modern history when they claim that it's been the biggest driver of government growth.

  21. Liz – New York – University of Rochester grad with a BA in history. Attending law school at Syracuse University. Politics, fitness, Calvin and Hobbes, dudes.
    Liz says:

    I don't want to discount the role of voters since I'm well aware political leaders need to take constituencies into account, but Thiel never really mentions that men still very much dominate political leadership. Shouldn't that matter a /little/?

  22. Yes, but libertarians are a tiny fraction of the (male) population. The rest of them start ugly, liberty-destroying, state-growing wars with alarming regularity.

  23. Do you really think that women vote for wars less than men do? I'm not sure I understand people who are shocked and appalled at the suggestion that women seem to be less libertarian and demand reams of data about the assertion (reasonable to demand data, of course), yet blithely throw off the assumption that women must be less likely to vote for war.Switzerland didn't give women the right to vote at the federal level until 1971, and some cantons not until 1990. Liechtenstein not until 1984. And yet these non- women's vote having countries were the least warlike in Europe.Meanwhile Germany (1918), the UK, the US, Austria, Canada, etc. were a host of countries that gave women the vote between WWI and WWII. That didn't seem to stop WWII.Has women's suffrage led to some decrease in the size of military spending? Not apparently. Has it led to the decrease in war? There has been a trend towards fewer global wars and a trend towards more women's suffrage judged from long time scales, but the connection seems tenuous at best.

  24. I think by “weird”, I meant “showing a failure of self-awareness” rather “rare or uncommon”. And I _don't_ think one should expect proponents (effective ones, anyway) of new ideas to complain about this, because it is stupid and pointless to complain that people don't agree with you. If they don't agree with the ideas, it must be because the proponents _haven't convinced them yet_, and the burden is not by any means on them to recognize the alleged superiority of the proponents ideas…

  25. it IS hard to find female libertarians, and when history occasionally provides a great one, they're rarely identified as such (i.e Margaret Thatcher). I think the biggest problem in recruiting women to The Cause is lack of mainstream marketing of libertarian ideas. Too many people–not just women–dont even know what libertarian principles ARE. Currently free market ideas are confined to think tank websites and message boards filled with commentary by…engineers. Not exactly the best places to reach chicks. If there was money to do outreach to, say, women small business owners who are being strangled by the permit process/gov regulations, I suspect more women would sign on.

  26. teageegeepea – If you're willing to do a little legwork you can probably find out who I really am, and then be disappointed when you find I'm nobody.
    TGGP says:

    Please, mtraven, it's a hell of a lot more than half the population! We're much more discriminating than you give us credit for.

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