Dmitry Chernikov left a comment on an earlier post directing my attention to an essay by Dr. Walter Block which basically just railed on several thinkers with whom I identify for various reasons. The essay appears to be a work in progress, as Dr. Block's typically clear and thorough writing style is conspicuously absent, but as the main points seem to be there, I think it would be fair to critique them. The essay covers a wide array of topics and it would not do to address them all here. I will focus here, therefore, on Dr. Block's response to Dr. Roderick Long on the issue of feminism.
In piece cited in the essay, Long's main point is built on the idea that treating women differently than men simply because they're women fails to give them their due, and that where we can see sexism embodied in wage structures, we should decry it. He engages an objection to this view which he attributes to Austrian economists and particularly Block himself, which is that the free market naturally ensures that women are not mistreated, since their wages would naturally be brought into line with their marginal productivity by the workings of the market process.
Long argues that in spite of the equilibrating tendency of the marketplace to bring wages into line with workers' marginal productivity, we cannot say with any degree of certainty that prevailing wages at any particular time will actually satisfy that equilibrium condition (e.g., because of imperfect knowledge, lack of entrepreneurial actions, etc.). Accordingly, even if employers were solely dedicated to maximizing monetary profit, there would be no guarantee that wages would equal workers' marginal productivity.
He then argues that on top of this, there are many reasons to believe that employers are not perfectly rational monetary-profit-maximizers, acting on influences like prejudices, presumptions, etc. So even if the market were providing an incentive through the profit motive to bring workers' wages into line with their marginal productivity, other factors could be providing a skewing counterweight that would make markets tend towards unfair wages for women.
So essentially, Long is saying that it simply isn't true that the free market naturally ensures that women are paid their fair wages, and that in fact we have good reason to believe that women are not being paid fairly. Therefore, he concludes that one can't create problems for the claim that there are sexist wage structures, and that they should be condemned, by arguing that the market naturally eliminates sexist wage structures.
Block offers no less than nine objections to this argument, which I perceive to take three basic forms: 1) Long's economic arguments are incoherent and there is evidence that he happens to be wrong; 2) The wage structures to which Dr. Long objects are not coercive, and therefore are not unjust and have nothing to do with libertarianism; and 3) There is no reason to object to people paying women differently than men, or to cultural institutions that demean women. I will discuss each of these objections in turn.
I. Are the economic issues discussed by Long dealt with improperly?
Block's first question is:
But why would there be a bias in the market such that entrepreneurship necessarily results in lower female wages in disequilibrium? Why not wages higher than MRP when the market is not in its equilibrium or evenly rotating state? Long, let alone not furnishing us with an answer to this absolutely crucial implicit claim of his, does not even seem to recognize that there is a need to do so.
In passing, I should note that budding young philosophers out there should be aware of what's about to happen here. Block has engaged in some very clear PhilosophyFTW!! If he is wrong -- and I think he is -- then this will be embarrassing for him, whereas if he had been nice about his objection, it would be totally okay for him to be mistaken. So here's the tip: If you're going to argue that someone made a very obvious mistake, don't be a jerk about it.
And here's Long furnishing us with just such an answer, quoted from Block's own paper:
Even if women are not generally less productive than men...there might still be a widespread presumption on the part of employers that they are, and in light of the difficulty of determining the productivity of specific individuals, this presumption would not be easily falisified, thus making any wage gap based on such a presumption more difficult for market forces to whittle away.
But there is no reason to rule out the possibility of deliberate, profit-disregarding discrimination either. Discrimination can be a consumption good for managers, and this good can be treated as part of the manager's salary-and-benefits package; any costs to the company arising from the manager's discriminatory practices can thus be viewed as sheer payroll costs. Maybe some managers order fancy wood paneling for their offices, and other managers pay women less for reasons of sexist; if the former sort of behaviour can survive the market test, why not the latter?
Now, Block disagrees with the attribution of the wage gap to these phenomena, but that doesn't mean that Long does too. Clearly, Long believes that the answer to the question of why the wage gap favors men (even when productivity differences are taken into account) lies in some combination of unfortunate social stereotypes and sexism. Not only does Long apparently recognize that one would need to explain this, but he basically devotes 2 paragraphs of a 9 paragraph argument to doing so. So I don't think that Block's criticism is on the mark here.
Block's next piece of evidence that Long's economic reasoning is bad is to point out that lesbians apparently make more money than straight women. The article Block cites is no longer at the linked location, but I would have to wonder...aren't there a lot fewer lesbian housewives and stay at home moms? And is it impossible that lesbians -- who have often had difficult, character-building upbringings -- are typically more productive than straight women? I'm not saying that this isn't evidence against Long's point, but it seems like more needs to be said.
Block moves on to suggest that Long is on a slippery slope that will commit him to suggesting that minimum wage laws are not all bad. But Long specifically said that he didn't necessarily support government intervention, and concluded his argument with the claim that the wage gap is:
...no reason to gripe about 'market failure.' Such failure is merely our failure. Instead, we need to fight the power - peacefully, but not quietly.
So Block seems to miss the mark here as well.
Block's next point is that Long's argument sounds like the "cluster of error" of Austrian Business Cycle theory, and:
...as we know from our study of business cycles, any such conglomeration of error cannot long endure without continued statist interference with markets. It would be dissipated by the market's profits and loss weeding out process.
Now, anyone who's been paying attention will realize that Block has objected to Long's critique of a particular argument by simply reiterating that argument. Accordingly, the best response would be to simply reiterate Long's critique: A) The market's "profits and loss weeding out process" is a process and can be hampered by a number of factors which appear to be at work in this instance (e.g., entrenched prejudice, a lack of clear information about the marginal productivity of individual workers); and B) There are other examples of unprofitable business strategies that have survived the market test (e.g., fancy wood paneling in managers' offices), and the market is not a perfect mechanism for weeding these strategies out. I would beg the question if I suggested that this rebuttal wins the point for Long, but it is at least clear that Long has a response which this particular objection does not preempt. So again, Block somewhat misses the mark.
Block's final objection to Long's economic arguments is that he simply doesn't believe that sexism operates in the way that Long suggests: he thinks that sexism may actually benefit women where it does occur. He suggests that:
...when it comes to pay, my own informal assessment is that it works mainly in the direction not of increasing the pay gap between men and women. Rather, it is all in the direction of paying attractive women a beauty premium.
He goes on to suggest that:
...if they [men's tastes] are in opposition to anyone, it is to other males who are seen as competition.
Now I don't have the empirical evidence to go to battle on this point. So it will have to suffice to say that it seems very unlikely to me that the underlying productivity difference between women and men is being underrepresented by the existing wage gap because hot women are being paid more than their labor is worth. I mean think about it: Long is saying, "Women make 75% as much as men for the same work," and Block is saying, "And lucky them! They'd be making even less if they weren't so damned cute!" Ummm...somehow that seems...just...no. I could be wrong to think that negative sexism plays a more significant role than positive sexism, but...well...I just don't think I am.
For one thing, many beautiful women will tell you that it can be difficult to be taken seriously for top positions as an attractive woman because many managers believe that beautiful women have only gotten to where they are on the basis of their looks. Beauty premiums, then, may well be counterbalanced somewhat by beauty handicaps. And even if beauty premiums really did outweigh the lower wages generated by demeaning sexism, that wouldn't mean that we should call the whole thing a wash. Surely Long would object to sexism in the workplace even if it didn't show up in aggregate wage statistics.
II. Is sexism an issue on which libertarians should opine?
This brings us to the next kind of objection that Block raises to Long's argument, which is that sexism embodied in wage structures and social conventions is not coercive, and therefore is not an appropriate domain for libertarian inquiry. Block writes:
Of course, there are other problems [besides coercive violence] that libertarians are involved in combatting: bad breath, the heartbreak of psoriasis, losing chess games, cancer, the list goes on and on. But here, libertarians who do so are not acting qua libertarians. This is a distinction that is crucial for a clear understanding of this philosophy.
This objection is an instantiation of Dr. Block's longstanding argument against so-called "thick" libertarianism, a view which holds that libertarians ought to be concerned not only with matters involving coercive violence, but also a wide range of other issues which are in one way or another connected with their views on coercion. Block's argument is that these other issues are certainly important and worthy of discussion, but they have nothing to do with libertarianism, per se. Libertarianism, according to Block, is a philosophical view which is directly concerned with opposing coercive violence, and that's pretty much it.
Now, at first glance, this would seem to be an argument about semantics. If it's really such a big deal for libertarians to talk about other issues "while wearing their libertarian hats," then for the sake of discussion, Dr. Long could just say, "Fine. I'm not talking about sexism as a libertarian. I'm talking about it as a feminist who happens to be a libertarian as well." But more substantively it seems like we should ask why Dr. Block is objecting to the use of the term "libertarianism" in talking about things like sexism, and try to decide whether there's really a deep difference between, say, being a libertarian and being a feminist.
What Dr. Block seems to have in mind is that libertarianism is, at its core, built around the concept of "justice," where justice is defined as turning on the legitimacy of initiation of coercive force. This seems to me like a naked move to entrench the non-aggression principle in a piece of terminology by warping the normal meaning of justice to conveniently allow for a clean distinction between coercive and peaceful behaviors to be labelled "unjust" and "just," respectively. But no matter; that's how Dr. Block seems to want to use the term, and we can grant it. On this view, then, we should notice that the fact that something is "just" need not mean that it is desirable, aesthetically pleasing, reflective of what people deserve, impartial, or even morally acceptable. It just means that no one has "thrown any punches" yet in a way to which we object, and therefore there cannot have been any injustice.
If we define libertarianism as a school of thought focusing on "justice" as defined above, then we will be led to the position advocated by Dr. Block:
Why is this [inequality in wages for equivalent work] unjust is this unjust from a libertarian perspective? It is not.
That is not to say that individuals who are libertarians have no business objecting to these inequalities. To reiterate Block's point, quoted above:
Of course, there are other problems that libertarians are involved in combating: bad breath, the heartbreak of psoriasis, losing chess games, cancer, the list goes on and on. But, here, libertarians who do so are not acting qua libertarians.
The point is, these things are objectionable for reasons which have nothing to do with justice, as defined above. Therefore, they have nothing to do with libertarianism, which is a philosophy that deals only with justice.
I think that this view is mistaken. To see why, we should note that in the above, I did not say anything about what position libertarians actually take on positions of justice (as I defined it); I only said that Block's view limits libertarianism to matters of so-called "justice." If my familiarity with Dr. Block's views serves me correctly, I believe that he would want to say that the libertarian view of justice has something to do with the non-aggression principle, such that initiating coercive violence is "unjust," and anything else is "just." Since I don't believe that the non-aggression principle is correct, and I want to be charitable to the libertarian position (particularly since I consider myself to be a libertarian), I will rephrase this position to say that the initiation of coercive force is prima facie unjust, and that (to the extent that we accept the definition of "justice" with which we are working here) anything that does not involve an illegitimate initiation of coercive force is just (for a discussion of this view, check out this post). If I'm wrong, and the non-aggression principle is true, then we can simply say that only illegitimate initiations of coercive force are unjust, but all such initiations are unjust. In other words, coercion is prima facie wrong, and there are no considerations which would cause us to find it legitimate. The way I've phrased it, we just get to include more views under the umbrella of "libertarianism" (most importantly, mine).
But libertarianism would be an empty shell of a position if it were simply a vague claim that "If and only if a view has only to do with the initiation of coercive force and views it as at least prima facie wrong, then it is a libertarian view." It would seem to behoove us as libertarians to say that a part of libertarian philosophy has to do with explaining why people should hold that kind of view. That is, it should explain why we should care so much about the initiation of coercive force, and why we are generally disposed to object to it as a matter of principle.
Now a complication arises here because (again if I correctly recall his views), Dr. Block believes that the initiation of force is unjust as a matter of undisputable logical fact. His view, following in the tradition of libertarian thinkers like Dr. Hoppe, is that one cannot advocate, condone, or engage in the use of coercive force without committing oneself to a contradictory position. The only position that one can reasonably defend, according to this view, is the libertarian view that the initiation of coercive force is incorrect. The reason that this is a complication is that for reasons I have discussed here and here, I think that this position is flat wrong (as was brought to my attention after writing those pieces, Dr. Bob Murphy and non-quite-Dr. Gene Callahan made some similar arguments as well). It is simply not true that any other position besides the non-aggression principle is incoherent.
But other libertarian views, including the one to which Dr. Long ascribes as well as the one to which I ascribe, resist coercion because of a fundamental belief that each of us is a valuable individual with his or her own life to lead. We suggest that it would therefore be disrespectful and unbecoming of us to force others to live according to plans that are not their own or to destructively interfere with their ability to pursue theirs. We see ourselves as having moral significance, and we acknowledge that the things that make us important also make others important. It is out of this deep appreciation and respect for individuals -- and the separateness of individuals' unique lives -- that we demand justification from those who would interfere with their neighbors' lives (or condemn them out of hand, for those libertarians accepting the non-aggression principle).
If we accept that something like this is at the root of the libertarian position on the issue of justice (still within our provisional definition), then it seems reasonable to say that an inherent part of libertarianism is an attitude of respect for individuals. And it is for this reason that I believe Dr. Block to be in error. If libertarianism is built upon a foundation of respect for others, then it would seem that libertarians would be committed to opposing any view which contradicts that paradigm of respect. And what Long is doing in leveling this argument is contending that sexism against women is indeed at odds with a view which sees all people as worthy of respect, as it is built upon subordination and dehumanization. So by incorporating feminism into libertarian philosophy, Long seems to be contending that feminism represents the position which follows from the consistent application of the ideas that make coherent the libertarian position on so-called "justice". In my opinion, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing for a libertarian to be saying qua libertarian.
So what, then, of Block's point that:
Of course, there are other problems that libertarians are involved in combating: bad breath, the heartbreak of psoriasis, losing chess games, cancer, the list goes on and on. But, here, libertarians who do so are not acting qua libertarians.
This point seems intuitively right (except for the part about losing chess games; surely Block doesn't think that the world would be a better place if all chess games ended in stalemates). But whereas there is a reasonably strong connection between the ethical underpinnings of libertarian political philosophy and feminism, there is no such connection with bad breath, psoriasis, or cancer. The analogy simply doesn't work, and for reasons that I believe vindicate Long.
III. There is nothing wrong with sexist wage structures or demeaning social conventions
There is a third sort of objection appearing throughout Block's argument which basically suggests that beyond being a non-libertarian issue, Long's objections speak to a problem that isn't a problem. In doing this, I believe Block skirts the line between merely "thin" libertarianism and "vulgar" libertarianism.
The term "vulgar libertarianism" can best be understood by going back to our distinction between "just" and "unjust" from earlier, which defined as "just" anything that doesn't involve illegitimate coercion. Recall that we said that just because something is "just" by this definition does not mean that it is good, or even morally acceptable. Vulgar libertarian views, we will say, function essentially as "capitalist apologetics" by jumping to the conclusion that because something does not involve the illegitimate use of coercive force, it is not objectionable. The vulgar libertarian is the sort of thinker who, when presented with a lamentation about the outcomes generated by a free society, automatically reacts by saying, "Oh, but here's why that outcome isn't lamentable at all!" The vulgar libertarian, for example, might put down Dr. Block's Defending the Undefendable and proceed to argue that actually, the man who cheats on his girlfriend with a prostitute is doing nothing wrong, since no one has been coerced and the transaction was actually beneficial to both parties. Or that all poor people deserve to be poor, since they haven't produced anything for society that others have found to be worth paying any more to obtain. Or that the pervert who seduces the child is blameless, as both parties are simply doing what they want to be doing.
Let me be clear: I do not believe that Dr. Block is a vulgar libertarian. It is because I do not believe this that I am even making the argument that his views here seem to border on vulgar libertarianism. If Block were a vulgar libertarian, it would surely do little good to show that his arguments indeed sound like those that a vulgar libertarian might make.
So what in Block's paper am I talking about? Block first writes:
Perhaps most important, we must hark back to the biblical story where people are paid different amounts of money for doing precisely the same job; or what is the same thing, the same compensation for doing very different amounts of work...These disparities can be interpreted as a differential gift giving. That is, the employer pays everyone equally for equal productivity, but then makes a freely given donation to some but not to others.
For those not familiar with the story, there's a story in Matthew 20 about a vineyard owner who hires a group of workers to work at his vineyard, promising them a fair wage. Later in the day, he sees another group of workers who have not found any work for the day, and hires them to come help as well. At the end of the day, he pays all of the workers equally, to the consternation of the workers who had worked all day. Block's implication is captured by the differentially-paying vineyard owner in Matthew 20:13-16:
Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn't you agree with me to work for the standard wage? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?
The first thing that one should notice is that in the vineyard parable, all of the workers were paid at least the "standard wage." A controversy might be raised, then, about whether the parable would apply to situations where capitalists were levering their advantaged position in negotiating with applicants to drive their wages below "fair" levels, which is presumably what Long thinks is going on when women are paid "unfairly." But even broaching the subject of "fair" wages opens up a can of worms all on its own, and the issue here is about sexism, not some form of wage egalitarianism.
The more substantive point is that when we consider the action of the vineyard owner, we see that he has acted out of generosity towards the late-coming workers. In the story, the reason for the generosity is not suggested to be some sort of prejudice against the early-coming workers, nor is the account stated in terms of some kind of malice, scorn, dismissiveness, or ill-will towards the early-comers. If these factors were involved in the story, then presumably Dr. Long would be uncomfortable with this example as well.
It seems pretty clear to me that when employers pay their male employees disproportionately higher wages, they are not doing so out of the generosity that the vineyard owner showed towards the workers who had not been able to find work. For that reason, I think that the analogy somewhat fails, though it is a valuable insight that unequal treatment does not necessarily have to objectionable. It's unequal treatment because of prejudice or sexism that should draw the ire of feminist, not unequal treatment as such.
Hopefully it will be clear, then, why I find this argument to be at risk of vulgarity. The feminist complains that sexist or prejudiced employers treat women badly by paying them less, and Block responds with an example of seemingly legitimate differential pay, with the implication that sexist and prejudiced employees are in the clear on its weight. In doing so, he conveniently defends the status quo and the employer, while comparing the feminists to grumbling and envious characters in a well-known story. But as the principle of charity compels us to assume that Dr. Block didn't perceive the disanalogy we discussed above, and did not intend vulgarity, we must keep in mind that we are not trying to argue that Dr. Block is a vulgar libertarian, but only that this particular position seems like it is wrong for reasons that are reminiscent of the vulgar paradigm.
Dr. Block's next point is entwined with the "thin" libertarian view discussed in the previous section:
...Long is going to have to decide whether his primary allegiance lies with feminism or libertarianism. This author does indeed touch on one aspect of this when he discusses the possibility that the wage gap between males and females might be due to in effect employer consumption [sic]: paying males more than females just for the sheer joy of doing so. If so, is this not the employer's right? And if so, from whence springs any possible libertarian objection to the wage gap?
That this argument borders on vulgarity can be seen by examining the first sentence. Remember, Block's argument for "thin" libertarianism is that the kinds of issues that concern the feminist here have nothing to do with libertarianism, and that the libertarian cannot talk about them qua libertarian. But why, then, would Dr. Long have to choose between these positions? If these are issues which really have nothing to do with libertarianism, then one should be able to be a libertarian while holding substantively any view on the issues that concern the feminist in this instance.
What seems to be going on here, as evidenced by the accommodating tone that Dr. Block takes in talking about "paying males more than females just for the sheer joy of doing so" is that Dr. Block has gone beyond his "thin" libertarianism in favor of a "thick"-er view in the opposite direction. That is, it's not just that sexism is not violent, and therefore is not "unjust," but rather, it seems like Block is flirting with saying that there is nothing wrong with sexism. But this is not thin libertarianism. It is vulgar libertarianism.
This sort of thing vaguely seems to reappear when Dr. Block writes:
What is this business of criticizing the freely made decisions of women to stay home and take care of babies? It matters not one whit that this is done "on moral grounds (or) prudential grounds." The libertarian qua libertarian simply has no business in criticizing "women's (choice of) greater responsibility for household work." It is no business of the libertarian, none whatsoever, to "combat" the "sexism" implicit in "the cultural expectations that lead women to assume such responsibility."
I don't want to get involved in saying something like "Well no, he didn't say that there is nothing wrong with these cultural expectations, but don't you think that's what he meant?!" But I do want to point out that if this argument is intended to promote "thin" libertarianism and not "vulgar" libertarianism, it seems like one would expect some kind of qualification along the lines of, "Of course, none of this is to say that these cultural norms should be embraced or even countenanced silently. They are simply not within the providence of libertarian discussion." And yet not only is such a disclaimer not offered, but what is written seems like it could be easily interpreted as an argument that "criticizing the freely made decisions of women to stay at home and take care of babies" "on moral grounds (or) prudential grounds" would be misguided, even if done from outside the realm of libertarian theory. Such an interpretation would be vulgar, even though it is not at all entailed by what Block actually says, and I think offers another example of Dr. Block straddling the line between thin and vulgar libertarianism, even if it does not technically cross it.
Having evaluated all three kinds of objection raised by Block to Long's discussion, and found each of them somewhat wanting, I think that a few closing words are in order. It will surprise no one to discover that I sided with Dr. Long in this argument before reading Dr. Block's piece, and therefore my response must be taken in that light. Further, there is no reason to expect that Dr. Block would have nothing to say to the points that I have raised here; this debate has been going on for a very long time, and presumably Dr. Block has heard most of the objections that can be offered against his position. Accordingly, it may well be that my points here have missed their mark.
That being said, I do think that I have raised some important questions here about Dr. Block's position and arguments, and that my analysis was both thorough and fair. Dr. Long's arguments cannot, I think, be dismissed as easily as Dr. Block's piece makes it sound.
Hopefully this has been as valuable and interesting for you to read as it was for me to write!