Home / djw / Why I can’t take the construction “libertarian freedom” seriously, part 43,542

Why I can’t take the construction “libertarian freedom” seriously, part 43,542


David Boaz of the CATO institute published an article last week about the relationship of the libertarian vision of freedom with the (American) past. I presume he meant it to serve as a corrective to the good deal of libertarian-flavored rhetoric embracing the American jeremiad about the lost ‘golden age’ in our discourse at the moment. As far as it goes, and if suspend your skepticism about the value and coherence of the libertarian conception of freedom, it seems like a sensible and rather obviously correct piece.

While some libertarians (usual suspects: Levy, Wilkinson) have endorsed this position, it has inspired some bizarre and creative innovations in the field of being hopelessly wrong in others. Jacob Hornberger and his co-blogger Arnold Kling, for example, takes the point about slavery being not entirely consistent with libertarian freedom, and sets about constructing an argument in which the year 1880 serves as the pinnacle of freedom in America. When it is gently pointed out that such an argument could only possibly be made if we ignore the freedom of those other than propertied white males, Kling responds by freaking out and, for reasons that remain quite unclear, typing the words “Stop dehumanizing me!” into the comment box.

But Hornberger and Kling hardly prepare us for Bryan Caplan. The details are still sketchy, but as far as I can tell, the facts are as follows: On the morning of April 12th, 2010, Bryan Caplan, an Associate Professor of Economics and George Mason University and adjunct scholar at the Cato institute, got out of bed, ate breakfast, kissed his wife goodbye, drove to work, sat down at his computer, and wrote a blog post that purported to demonstrate that and I quote, “Women of the Gilded Age were very poor compared to women today.  But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City.” This post has required no less than four follow-up posts attempting to further demonstrate the obviously correct nature of this position and reply to various critics. Trying to excerpt a particular passage or point in pretty much pointless, as the whole thing simply has to be seen to be believed. (It’s just peppered with gems like “I’ll admit that coverture doesn’t sound like a very libertarian doctrine.”) That said, I was particularly struck by his response to a commenter who brought up the marital rape, which was oddly not mentioned in the original post. His reply:

To be blunt, this issue is almost entirely symbolic.  While it’s a heinous crime, I seriously doubt that more than a small fraction American women in 1880 worried about being raped by their husbands.

If Caplan bases his ‘serious doubt’ on any actual factual knowledge about the social and gender history of the late 19th century, he’s keeping very quiet about it. A main thread of his reasoning throughout is that a wife’s power within a marriage is pretty much unrelated to both the law and social norms, because…oh, hell I can’t paraphrase this

This is a good example of the difference between the law and social reality.  [so far so good….] If a women in 1880 wanted to write a contract, I think she did the same thing a woman in 2010 would do – talk about it with her husband.  If he refused, she did the same thing she’d do today: complain, argue, bargain, etc.  A man in 1880 was legally allowed to make a contract without his wife’s approval, but in practical terms, his problem was the same as it is today: If your wife puts her foot down, it’s almost impossible to move forward.

It’s one thing to swallow whole the cultural stereotypes of the domineering wife and her henpecked husband, but it’s quite another to transport it back in time 130 years. I can’t help but be reminded of John Stuart Mill: for all the blindingly obvious reasons, but also for the following observation from On The Subjection of Women:  “[O]ne can, to an almost laughable degree, infer what a man’s wife is like, from his opinions about women in general.” Apparently Bryan Caplan is applying the same technique (but across time) to understand the power dynamics of domestic life in 1880’s marriages. At least, I assume that’s what he’s doing, because I’m at a loss to see any other method at work here.

(For more commentary on this exciting new trend in libertarian historiography, take a look at a number of recent posts at Crooked Timber one two three four five)

UPDATE: I mistakenly referred to Kling as Hornberger’s co-blogger, he is in fact Caplan’s co-blogger. I apologize for the error. Kling also feels as though Will Wilkinson misrepresented and distorted his position. I’m not sure exactly how or where Wilkinson distorted his views, but in fairness to Kling, I’ll reproduce here his post on the issue without comment; whether he deserves to be lumped in with the weird wrongness of Hornberger and Caplan is an exercise I shall leave to the reader.

I would rather live with the group-status configurations that we have today than with those that prevailed in 1880. For that matter, I would rather live with the plumbing and dentistry that we have today than that which prevailed in 1880. But it’s a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back in the days of Jim Crow or women’s subservience. Just as it is a swindle to suggest that if we had a libertarian polity we would be back to using outhouses and having our teeth pulled without anesthetic.

If what you really, really care about are group-status issues, and you really, really think that those battles should be fought politically rather than culturally, and if you are really, really scared of where you think some older Americans stand on those group-status issues, then you can end up where Will Wilkinson is–deeply frightened of the Tea Party movement in spite of its libertarian focus. In that case, your plan is to slip something into the ruling intellectuals’ drink to make them amenable to your free-market seductions.

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