Libertarian Misogyny in Theory and Practice

I find the furore over Peter Thiel’s comments on female suffrage and the growth of the welfare state rather disturbing. (See here and here for some sensible comments.) Here’s the offending statement:

The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

The responses to this were spirited, but not quite on point.

What’s attracting so much attention to his piece is that he pretty openly states that he’d like to disenfranchise women and “welfare” recipients, which I guess is a way of saying that voting is only acceptable if the franchise is limited to the landed gentry.

I may be spinning myself into mendacity here, but I can’t find the place where Thiel says that he would prefer women or welfare recipients be denied suffrage. He did suggest that female suffrage moved public opinion in an unlibertarian direction. These two propositions are not equivalent. I’m not in absolute agreement with the claim that Thiel does make, but I certainly think it is a reasonable one deserving of serious consideration rather than indignation and ad hominem attacks.

I do think Thiel’s remarks were slightly unwise insofar as they framed female suffrage only in a negative light, without acknowledging the importance of political equality to liberal ideals. He probably would have been better to stipulate that he doesn’t advocate a return to male-only suffrage, which he certainly doesn’t. It would be nice, though, if people were able to simply write what they mean without taking special care to detail everything they don’t.

There is very good evidence that the extension of the franchise to women increased the size of government by making the median voter more inclined toward redistribution and social spending. Many policy preferences, including redistribution and social spending, are empirically related to gender. Women on average prefer a larger welfare state than men. You could tell an evolutionary story about women’s nurturing nature to explain this, or a cultural story about men being socialized as cold-hearted individualists. Either way, the gender gap in public opinion is a fact which will not go away because you find it uncomfortable.

Given that I don’t like a whole lot of government spending, I see the growth of government accompanying female suffrage as a bad thing. Does this mean that I would prefer women never had the vote, or that I would like to take it away from them now? No, of course it doesn’t. Favouring one group over another in this way is itself extremely illiberal, and a libertarian should reject such a proposal even if it were likely to produce more liberal policy in other respects. Forcibly silencing socialists might reduce voter preference for the welfare state too, but that’s not something any libertarian should be prepared to do. I’ve never met (nor heard of, read, etc) a single libertarian who has advocated male-only suffrage. Libertarians are surely the least likely to equate finding a negative consequence of something and calling for it to be banned.

Taking away all the PC bullshit, I find the argument over gender and liberalism pretty interesting. I think it’s pretty incontrovertible that female voters demand more redistribution and social spending. Female suffrage leads to bigger government. I’m a libertarian and I like much less government than your average voter. Female suffrage is bad for me in this respect. There are other issues, though, on which women seem closer to the libertarian position. I can’t be bothered investigating this properly, but by looking as the GSS, we can see that men and women in the United States (between 1972 and 2006) significantly differ on a great many issues. A look through suggests to me that consistent with Thiel’s claim, men tend to be more libertarian than women in most respects. Women are more in favour of price controls, and other forms of government intervention in the economy. They also express less willingness to allow unpopular views (anti-religion, communist, gay) to be aired in public, and more likely to favour a law against interracial marriage, for example.*



There are, of course, some issues on which women are more liberal than men. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these have to do with violence. A return to the military draft is preferred by significantly more men than women:


Men also seem more willing to give police arbitrary powers. More men than women think that it’s okay for a cop to hit a person for swearing at the cop:


I find militarism and police violence particularly troubling, because I think they give government the capacity to erode other freedoms much more effectively, particularly in times of crisis. Men and women each have their own illiberal biases. It seems to me that women’s are greater in number, but men’s are potentially more harmful. I’m not sure what to worry about more.

*I’m pretty sure this has changed over time, with women now being more socially liberal on things such as interracial and same-sex marriage. At any point in time, women seem more likely than men to hold the more traditional view. It was once radical to favour interracial marriage. It’s now antisocial to oppose it.

16 Responses

  1. Excellent. Note also of course that gender strongly correlates with agreement with economists in Caplan’s study and with “economic thinking” in my study. It would be interesting to parse out the extent to which differences are due to differences in understanding economics. Actually, it’s something I can check: just need to compare the coefficient on gender on the policy questions if I pull out the “economic thinking” control variable. Adding to list of things to do….

  2. “A return to the military draft is preferred by significantly more men than women:”

    Any age breakdown on that. I would have thought that those men in the draftable age group would be against.

    • I’ll have a look at that, but my suspicion is that men of draftablle age would still be more in favour than women of draftable age. The rational/instrumental voter hypothesis doesn’t hold up empirically in a number of cases. I wouldn’t be surprise if draftable men were more in favour than nondraftable men. If political beliefs are expressive than instrumental, it could be that young men would want to be careful not to be seen as the sort of coward who would avoid fighting for their country.

  3. […] 4, 2009 Paul Walker asks an interesting question in the comments about men being more supportive than women of a military […]

  4. Brad, what then do we make of Andrea Menclova’s work that shows the effects of the Vietnam draft on paternity timing: turns out, the threat of being sent to war and the option to stay home if you’ve family responsibilities provides an incentive to speed up family formation.

    • I think people actually taking action to avoid the draft is entirely consistent with those same people having a stated political preference for the draft. The logic of expressive voting and rational irrationality implies that we can vote for or publicly support policies which we would prefer not be enacted if we were the decisive voice on the matter.

      I’ll have to read Andrea’s paper. Looks neat.

  5. […] decision-making based on anything as superficial as genitalia is indeed shamefully illiberal. As I’ve said, I do think Thiel’s words were poorly chosen, but I don’t see anything illiberal about him […]

  6. […] up again. Peter Thiel’s Cato Unbound essay, which innocently but unwisely pointed out that women are more likely to vote for statist policies than men, is once again to object of much ridicule and anger. Brad Reed of AlterNet, for example, makes fun […]

  7. […] Drug Legalization Posted on September 18, 2009 by Brad Taylor At the risk of reviving the libertarian misogyny bogeyman, I’ll quote an interesting post from Laura Greenback on why women are on average […]

  8. […] to which Thiel’s argument about gender differences in voting patterns are correct, check out Brad Taylor’s blog post, a more indirectly relevant blog post by Bryan Caplan, and a decent discussion on Quora. See also a […]

  9. When I saw the original article the reference to female suffrage stood out, but was noticeably unclear. I have been looking for further clarification, this does a great job of addressing and providing some support to the argument. I am a female libertarian. What I find disturbing is how “everyone” takes that one line that obviously is poorly stated and blows the whole thing out of proportion.

  10. How do Quora Users feel about the Republican Party’s so-called War on Women?…

    I’m male, apolitical, and non-American, so this is completely an outside perspective. Re: The “War On” terminology When politicians want to declare metaphorical wars, they do so quite openly: * The War on Poverty was declared by Lyndon B. Johnson in…

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  12. […] Brad Taylor on the ridiculous responses to Peter Thiel’s libertarian musings. […]

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