Monday, January 21, 2013

Live From Facebook | The Libertarian Economic Assumptions of Marriage, Gender, Sexuality, and the State

Facebook provides real time access to everyday political, economic, and social commentary. Ranging from jokes about Lance Armstrong and the fake girlfriend of Manti Te'o to rants about guns and support for the homophobic statements of corporate CEOs. Some posts on the Facebook are intelligent, well reasoned, and well argued while others are intentionally or unintentionally bigoted. 

As we compare posts around the WUW? office, often times we can only laugh in an attempt to ease the frustration as we discuss the social implications of the thoughts of the American public. Our most recent conversation was sparked by a post from a good friend of the WUW? editor attempting to apply a neoliberal (rhetorically referred to as "libertarian") market explanation of how the government has aided women in the destruction of the institution of marriage. (read below)

We would like to take this time to address some of the assumptions and consequences of this line of thinking. 

Assumption # 1: Individual action or morality can be understood in market terms

The economization of human activity has a long history extending from Adam Smith, through the Austrian School of Hayek and Von Mises, to Reagan and Thatcher, and most recently kept alive by Ron Paul Libertarians. It is important that we start with this basic assumption because making any assertion that human action is determined by "the market" is the most fundamental fallacy of neoliberal economics. Homo economicus, as the individual is referred to in this line of economic theory, is reduced from a multi-dimensional human being - composed of emotions, relationships, a history, socially situated in time and place, and motivated by love, anger, hate, hope, anxiety, and desire - to a one-dimensional economic unit whose actions are determined by rational decision making always based on a cost/ benefit analysis. 

It is not hard to see where this line of reasoning becomes problematic. If a human being is a living organism motivated by multiple sources of emotions, relationship, and desires then an analysis of human behavior based on "market" principles is an inadequate method of understanding why it is we do what we do. Karl Polanyi described the marketization of human behavior as a "ficticious commodity," meaning that humans, as well as land and money, were not created as products for exchange on the market. Further, Polanyi, as well as economic sociologist such as Mark Granovetter and Fred Block, emphasize how markets never exist independent from culture, society, and government. Thus, to rely on a pure market analysis of social life leads to an incomplete understanding of our existence and purpose. 

For further explanation of the problem with free market ideology see our previous post: Free Market Mythology.

Assumption # 2: Women are responsible for the "crises" of the institution of marriage

We won't spend too much time on this assumption because it is now 2013 and we should not still be making this assumption. Mr. Gilson, answering the question - Why is the divorce rate so high? says:
Its actually quite logical…. Men are scared shitless…. Why? because women have been empowered by the state to run out whenever they want… They have “legal” recourse against the man’s assets and their children “Just Because” they want to walk out (Justified or not)….
Let's breeze passed the "empowered by the state" comment real fast (which is the libertarian answer to all social issues), and address the "run out whenever they want to... just because they want to" comment. Never mind the blatantly sexist and patriarchal tone, Gilson is placing blame solely on women for the divorce rate. What he is ignoring is the history of oppression, abuse, mistreatment, isolation, and despair that has been endemic to women in America as they have been instructed not to speak up, to stay in the home, to not pursue their dreams, to settle for low paying jobs, and biological explanations of female inferiority that has kept women as perceived second class citizens.

This assumption also ignores that ways in which men are given exemption to issues such as infidelity, "working late," laziness in the home, verbal abuse, and nurturing. One need not be a feminist to understand the effect that "man as head of the household" has on the opportunity of women to pursue a career that would enable them to succeed (or not "be empowered by the state" to attack a man's assets, as Gilson states it - read: all that was acquired during the marriage has been earned solely by the man) after being left by their husband or making the decision to leave out of self respect and refusal to be treated as less than equal. Which leads me to assumption #3.

Assumption # 3: The laws of the state are complicit with women in destroying marriage

Contrary to neoliberal or libertarian political and economic theories, the government does have the responsibility to protect and ensure the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL citizens, not just businesses and wealthy/ white/ protestant/ heterosexual men. As libertarians apply laissez faire economic principles (which we have already discussed the problems with) to social life, they contend that the government should stay completely out of the affairs of society regardless of social inequality, racism, or sexism. They contend that the market alone, when left completely unhindered by government interference, will create a the founder's promise of liberty. In this, our libertarian friends ignore the brutal history of violence, oppression, racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in these United States of America - not too mention the growing disparity between rich and poor... as President Obama so eloquently stated today:
"We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great." Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address, January 21, 2013 
The market, as Polanyi contended, is not a natural system that exists outside of history, culture, and relationships, rather it is embedded within all of these as a creation of human societies within the historical context of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. The market has failed to create the good society that Smith, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and many other of the philosophers of the enlightenment theorized it would (libertarians and neoliberals will argue of course that this is because laissez faire governments have never truly liberalized the market to operate in its pure form - which is based on economic assumptions that economist will even tell you are unrealistic). 

For an excellent history of the development of capitalism and free market ideology, we suggest reading Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.

The libertarian argument allows Ayn Rand purists to provide simplistic answers for complex human problems, fails to protect the liberty of the weakest among us, and justify the same type of sexist, racist, and homophobic opinions that have existed since before the founding our our nation.

This simplistic explanation for marriage and family issues is exactly why the "leviathan" (which is a poor reading of Hobbes) must intervene and legislate to protect against the exploitation and oppression of those that do not have the tools to ensure the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. 

Assumption # 4 and # 5: Marriage is of the highest importance for a society and the institution is reserved for man and woman

Following some negative responses to his first post, Mr. Gilson clarified his position:

Again, it is 2013, the possibilities of establishing families outside of the traditional Christian context are enormous. Many divorced parents continue to raise their children with love and support each other. There are many men that are married to men and women that are married to women (or should be allowed to be married) that are raising children or are more capable of raising children in a more loving, supportive, and nurturing environment than many heterosexual couples. Again, to quote President Obama:
"It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law –- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity -- until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm." Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address, January 21, 2013


The purpose of this post is not to hate on our good friend and put him on blast (all though I guess that is just what we are doing). Our intention is to illustrate the ways in which neoliberal or libertarian or free market rhetoric simplifies the complexities of social reality and one-dimenionalizes human action into purely economic terms. Although not a new form of political rhetoric, this new form ideological representation, since the late 70s, has increasingly been employed to justify inequality, blame victims, and normalize the heartless, impersonal, and unrealistic assumptions of neoliberal economic and political theory and the destruction it has created globally and nationally. 

We are not commodities. We are not economic units. We are not purely rational actors that always make the correct decision and understand the consequences of our mistakes. We are human beings that long for acceptance and love. We are human beings that do not exist as autonomous actors. Rather, we are individuals, that live in community, desire happiness and opportunity, and strive to provide better lives for ourselves and our families. 

Blaming divorce rates on the selfishness of women neglects the historical context of the realities of gender inequality and the negative effects of a patriarchal society in which old white men make decisions about women's bodies and blame women for the demise of the marital institution. 

Maybe we should reorient our political discussion around what we can do to create a better society that provides the opportunity to pursue the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Maybe we should develop an empathetic understanding of social life that resists the temptation to accuse the weakest among us of creating their own oppression. Maybe we should attempt to understand the historical context in which political and economic theories originated and understand the ways in which those theories have benefited and failed us.

More importantly, in the spirit of the enlightenment philosophers, maybe we should begin to think about a higher order of society that transcends our contemporary political language and reengage the idea of the good society - not just what was good for the founders, but what is the good society for all of us - today.

Blogging toward utopia,

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