Liberty Matters


The response essays offer a range of constructive responses to Giandomenica Becchio’s lead essay. This provides catalytical as well as, on my reading, catallactical moments for thinking with respect to classical liberal receptions toward feminist economics, and so I appreciate my involvement in this important discussion.
Arnold Kling provides an insightful, and thought provoking, essay airing concern that efforts seeking to reconcile mainstream and feminist economics are a potentially trepidatious process. As Kling convincingly outlines, this concern is not without foundation. Mainstream economics has its own deficiencies. The “just add and stir” approach to incorporating norms into a utility function raises questions over which (or, perhaps more accurately, whose?) norms—let alone beliefs, ethics, ideologies, moralities, and values—are to be intellectually recognized as salient. Such a maneuver, as adopted by the likes of neoclassicists such as Gary Becker, is considered unsatisfactory to feminist economists who see gender as a pervasive facet of the human condition with multipronged, including extra-economic, implications.
Over recent years economic historians, methodologists, and philosophers have identified a host of changes in economic research methods, empirical approaches, and inquiry topics. Not all researchers who study these trends would refer to it as such, but I would tend to agree with Kling’s identification of economics transcending down a sociological road, so to speak. A part of this “sociological turn” in economics and its intellectual first cousin, political economy, was much the subject of my initial response to Becchio. An Austrian economics with a capacity to be intellectually receptive to gender concerns I argue not only opens ontological and methodological windows of scholarly perception, but invites new analytical and empirical approaches to the economic study of humankind.
In his response essay, Kling communicates a warning about economics traversing down the road of sociology. This is because mainstream sociology is, too, deficient. It has been observed that sociology is dominated by researchers with progressive-left (including, but not limited to, Marxist) ideologies and commitments. This has implications for the types of conceptual approaches pursued in the discipline, for example an almost overriding concern with power relations as described by Kling. Power relations are said to inhere within the tapestry of structures that reproduce gendered (and other) social relations, and it is these structures that dominate the social world more generally.
If there is an Achilles heel of mainstream sociology it is encapsulated in one word: agency. The contributions of human agency in norms and other societal patterns tend to be undersold by mainstream sociologists. This is significant because the contributions of markets in helping to resolve gender inequality by making discrimination more costly tends to be ignored, but so too do other measures of progress in the economic status of women. Female entrepreneurship and, similarly, the growth in business startups by women has become an important economic feature, and changes in production structure with less reliance upon manual exertion—and more on cognitive skill—tends to be favorable to women. Something else that tends to be overlooked by mainstream sociology is that market-based economic development provides greater opportunities for women to strategically dedicate resources to press for political rights claims, as well as social projects aimed at tackling the unequal treatment of women and men.
Mainstream economics is not the only economic approach to better understanding gender issues, and mainstream sociology is not the only sociological approach. It is possible to embrace the economics of Mises and Hayek (Austrian school), Elinor and Vincent Ostrom (Bloomington school), and James Buchanan (Virginia school), and it is possible to combine these with the non-Marxist sociological contributions of Weber, Schütz, Berger, Boettke, and Storr. Again, I see the expression of gender concerns with a framework of mainline political economy as addressing some of Becchio’s concerns.
Jayme Lemke presents a quite sublime intellectual excursion into the precepts of mainline political economy, with special reference to how the contributions of Elinor Ostrom may assist in discovering a liberalism robustly grounded in feminism. The Ostromian study of human affairs beyond the organizational structures of firms and governments also opens new investigative windows; in this regard, helping to understand how gender institutionally shapes behavior as well as facilitates choices. Furthermore, as Lemke rightly notes, the value of understanding the gendered world about us contrasts a serious defect in the shape of transformational activism posture, which is increasingly prevalent within mainstream sociology. Ostrom invites us to be “students,” rather than “engineers” or “transformers,” of society.
We human mortals interpret everything in our world—including our perceptions of gender behavior, expression, and identity—from within our institutional environments. On this point, Lemke speaks truly. Humans are also endowed with imaginative capabilities coupled with organizational prowess to actively test whether we “would,” “could,” or “should” generate institutional change along various margins. I referred to voluntaristic group actions, where people can come together, discuss, and mobilize in an effort to redress any perceived gender inequalities or injustices. What readily springs to mind here are feminist social movements, which have sought to expand economic opportunities, political rights, and social esteem for women.
Whilst not necessarily motivated by liberal principles on all occasions, and not always succeeding with their objectives, such movements are one example of Ostrom’s expanded purview of agentic involvements beyond non-market and non-state domains. Although feminist movements are known to contentiously entangle with participants of both commercial and political enterprises, there are others (such as anarchist feminists, and feminist “new social movements”) that primarily seek cultural and social changes rather than political concessions. These types of voluntary collective actions—and more such as feminist commoning, mutual aid associations, community organizations, and so on—could prove a useful starting point for a liberal feminist scholarship.