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.