Liberty Matters

Are there better ways to understand gender norms?

In the thoughtful essays shared by fellow contributors Arnold Kling and Mikayla Novak, I see an important commonality around the question of social norms. Both Kling and Novak see the importance of finding a better way to incorporate social norms into our conversations around feminism and gender. They also share a dissatisfaction with static conceptions that treat social norms as fixed constraints to be dealt with rather than complex—and in the case of Novak’s essay, emergent—phenomena that can be adapted in order to better fit a changing social environment.
Kling raises the question of how to understand social norms without falling into either the economists’ or the sociologists’ blind spots. In his view, the economists’ pitfall is to shove social norms into the utility function without inquiring how they get there: “If we are going to examine norms, we want to know how these particular norms got into the utility function, as opposed to some other norms.” On the other end of the spectrum, he views contemporary sociology as coming “dangerously close to simply treating social norms as analogous to government policies, as part of the incentive structure,” not recognizing the myriad other functions that norms may serve. Both blind spots lead to overlooking the role individuals play in creating and changing social norms.
I see the beginnings of a response to this important set of questions in Novak’s essay. Novak inquires whether an Austrian perspective, focused on entrepreneurship and the complexities of social change, may be useful in helping understand the causes of changing attitudes and practices around gender equality. She suggests that “… a culturally attuned Austrian economics recognizes voluntary collaborations as one way to shift gender attitudes.” For example, a voluntary association, such as a women’s professional association, can be a way for members to “… share information about employment opportunities, discuss intelligence about suitable (and unsuitable) workplaces, and collaborate in skills formation and honing capabilities, all of which can help close gender disparities in the economy.” Of course, norm entrepreneurship can take many forms. Even the simple process of individuals negotiating different practices in their familial and professional relationships can be an important input into a process of experimentation, learning, and—maybe, eventually—more widespread change.
In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek writes about social rule-systems developing over time, with unconscious habits serving as a kind of starting point for the eventual development of large-scale governing institutions: “…rules tend to develop from unconscious habits into explicit and articulated statements and at the same time to become more abstract and general. Our familiarity with the institutions of law prevents us from seeing how subtle and complex a device the delimitation of individual spheres by abstract rules is” (Hayek 1960: 216). There is much change, experimentation, and learning that takes place throughout this process, largely due to entrepreneurs who are willing to challenge the status quo rather than assuming that what came before should be everlasting: “… the main point of liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not stand still… There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions” (Hayek 1960: 521).
In the area of gender norms, I believe there is much room for political economists to use their constitutional imagination to support norm entrepreneurs in finding voluntaristic, non-coercive ways to remove barriers to women’s advancement around the world. I look forward to exploring the question of the relationship between social norms and liberalizing institutional change as this discussion continues.