Liberty Matters

Rejoinder to comments by Jayme Lemke, Mikayla Novak, and Arnold Kling

Thanks so much to Jayme Lemke, Mikayla Novak, and Arnold Kling for their comments. We somehow agree in considering the introduction of feminist economics within economic theory as a necessary step to better understanding social and cultural phenomena that cannot be reduced to a mere effect of a neutral mechanism of maximization that leads to multiple states of equilibria as described by standard economics. Hence, it seems that we all share a general attitude to consider feminist economics a more proficient way to deal with gender issues and gender inequality than standard economics does.
Nonetheless, many additional points have been considered by my colleagues that deserve to be addressed further in order to discuss the place and the importance of feminist economics, especially among a classical liberal audience.
Standard economics and the classical liberal tradition have been too often overlapped by regarding them, respectively, as the only possible analytical tool of a particular cultural vision (free market). Classical liberalism is more than free market though; classical liberalism is grounded on values such as individual freedom, the absence of coercion, equality before the law, and rejection of social constraints that reduce individuals’ liberty and dignity. If standard economics does not consider gender stereotypes—social pressure based on gender and gender discrimination as possible sources of a specific form of inequality—that harm women’s (and other gender identities’) freedom, it must be corrected. And this was precisely what feminist economics tried to do when it emerged fifty years ago.
As Kling rightly points out, economics “is on the road to sociology” and “sociology itself, as currently practiced as an academic discipline, is characterized by stifling methodological and ideological rigidity.” Hence, economics must consider the crucial role of social norms in describing economic phenomena. The main problem with standard economics is that it refuses to bridge the gap between economics per se and sociology. Conversely, feminist economists, especially the first generation of feminist economists, insisted on the necessity of considering social norms as inescapably correlated with economic behavior. Think about the feminist economics’ critique to Becker’s marriage theory and the traditional division of labor between partners: feminist economists introduced social pressure, traditional habits, self-constraint mechanisms, legal frameworks, and tacit rules as determinants to help explain decisions within the households that overcome the simple bargaining theory as interpreted by standard economics.
As Novak writes, the notion of gender is a socio-cultural notion per se, which is entangled with other sociological categories that shape individual behavior and social dynamics. The fact that feminist economics introduced gender within economics represented a way to enrich economics as a social science. It is true that the specific and complex nature of gender is inevitably related to the notion of power, as Kling underlines, especially when gender relations are connected with phenomena such as gender discrimination and inequality. Nonetheless, I do not second Kling’s idea that feminist economics relies entirely on Marxist-style sociology whose “normative goal is to expose and reconfigure those power relations.” While many feminist economists—especially within the first generation—were Marxist-oriented scholars, classical liberal feminism always existed and it found some room within feminist economics as well, as Lemke points out.
More relevant is the fact that feminist economics and other heterodox economic approaches share the idea, well expressed by Kling, that social norms evolve. Against the crystalized paradigm of standard economics, which does not take into account the dynamic nature of social norms, feminist economics targets the specificity of social norms in different historical frameworks and geographic contexts and tries to explain gender inequality by considering those social norms as relevant elements for understanding gender issues. Power relations are part of this big picture: they may be ignored as standard economics did, as did Becker and his followers; they can be explained by addressing capitalism as the main and only source of patriarchy/discrimination, as feminist Marxists did/do (Beneria, Pujol, Folbre, and many more); they may be regarded as fundamental elements in describing gender issues and inequality without connoting them as effects of the capitalistic system, as non-Marxist feminist economists usually did/do (Bergmann, Boserup, Nelson, and many more).
Finally, the relevance of evolving social norms is crucial, as Kling writes, to understanding whether they enhance or restrict freedom. This is a point that is worthy of addressing in a separate discussion. Though in this context, can we agree that it depends on whose freedom we are talking about? Does any step toward gender equality imply a zero-sum game (men’s freedom is reduced when women’s freedom increases) or is it possible to consider an increment of gender equality as a way to increase liberty for all the parties involved (the emancipation of women makes society more free, therefore, men too)? Again, the tension between equality and liberty plays a crucial role in providing a possible answer to this question, especially when we place a new card on the table: fairness. Standard economics does not take care of fairness in the same way feminist economics does.
The relevance of the evolving nature of social norms in economic models aimed at describing gender issues leads me to Lemke’s comment. She rightly points out that there is a “false dichotomy between laissez-faire and social control [that] omits the great variety of alternative voluntarist strategies that people may wish to employ to improve their world.” Therefore, she rightly cites Ostrom’s behavioral rational choice model, which emphasizes the moral and epistemic limitations of human nature, as well as Hayek’s notion of the Great Society that “contains space for many views about where progress can come from and for a wide range of experiments in how that progress may come about.” Let me add a more recent contribution: Peter Boettke (2021), who accurately suggests how economics and political economy can be used in order to understand the society as a whole as well as to improve it in a more appropriate way. This is a task performed by feminist economics when it insists on explaining gender inequality as an effect of a traditional social coercion rather than of a rational division of labor.
I agree with Lemke when she writes that we need to get rid of the dichotomy between free market, intended as laissez-faire, and social control: many possible scenarios stand in the middle. Some feminist economics’ agendas are able to embed them in their model while standard economics considers human interactions, including those related to gender issues, either as perfect equilibria model or as market failures.
Every social phenomenon includes culture as a relevant element and the importance of culture cannot be put aside when social sciences deal with forms of inequality. The reductionism of standard economics was one of the major motivations of the emergence of feminist economics. As Novak rightly suggests, Austrians have always “demonstrate[d] that culture is a key element to that broader institutional environment which shapes the incentives and payoffs surrounding economic activities.” On this point, she quotes Horwitz, McCloskey, Lavoie, Storr, and Chamlee-Wright, among others. Novak also points out the differences between feminist and Austrian economists: for instance, Vaughn underlines that feminist economists do not usually consider the effects of free market on women’s economic welfare. What I want to add here is an underrated element: both Austrian and feminist economists are focused on the role of cooperation within institutions. The strict dichotomy between competition and cooperation is, in fact, rejected by some feminist economists (Longino 1990; Haack 1996) as well as by the Austrians’ concept of catallaxy as a way to relate individuals within a community embedded in a spontaneous and mutual order (Mises 1949; Hayek 1978).
A minor point aimed to conclude and maybe to open up a different discussion. Today’s standard economics is much more prone to considering social norms and endogenous preferences in explaining gender issues. Does this development within standard economics drastically reduce the importance of feminist economics per se?
References: Boettke P. J., The Struggle for a Better World. Arlington: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, 2021. Haack S. (1996) “Science as Social? Yes and No,” in Nelson L. and Nelson J. Feminism, Science, and Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 79- 94.  Hayek F. (1978) New Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Longino H. (1990) Science as a Social Knowledge; Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Mises L. (1949) Human Action. Yale: Yale University Press.