Liberty Matters

Yes, the Feminist Perspective is Still Undervalued in Economics

Read Giandomenica Becchio's Lead Essay.

Read Mikayla Novak's response.

Read Arnold Kling's response.

Giandomenica Becchio argues we need feminist economics in order to better understand both society and social science. In her view, we cannot fully comprehend gender inequality or feminist ideologies without grappling with the ideas of feminist economics. Further, and perhaps most controversially, Becchio argues that economics itself cannot be fully understood without incorporating feminist critiques.

In her discussion of gender equality, Becchio focuses on the example of inequality within the professoriate. She notes that mainstream economists and feminist economists would largely agree that a primary driver of gender disparities in academia is the greater time and effort women put into alternative priorities (e.g., family and caretaking). However, feminists and traditional rational choice theorists would vociferously disagree on the cause of this underlying discrepancy. For many mainstream economists, the apparent difference in men’s and women’s priorities is a matter of free choice, full stop.

A feminist perspective pushes the issue further by asking about the causes of these discrepancies, and whether our social systems incentivize women to make these choices. This plea to seek out gendered institutional regularities need not imply any particular solution. Identifying a law or norm that discourages women from entering a particular occupation is only the start of the inquiry. We need not fall into the market failure trap of identifying a possible improvement and presuming that its existence means a change must be made through coercive intervention, or even that it must be made at all. Economics in the classical liberal tradition in particular is wary of bringing about change through the manipulation of free choice, and with good reason. 

However, as Elinor Ostrom emphasized, this kind of dichotomous social thinking—in this case, either there’s no problem or there’s a problem that must be addressed through coercive intervention—presents a false version of reality.[1] This is important for two reasons. First, there is value in understanding our social world for reasons other than trying to figure out how best to bend it to our will. Curiosity is a valuable first step towards the kind of toleration and discourse that productive intellectual endeavors require. Curiosity for understanding’s sake is also necessary for meaningful participation in the self-governing systems that classical liberal scholars propose as alternatives to political hierarchy and rule-ruler-ruled relationships.

Second, the false dichotomy between laissez-faire and social control omits the great variety of alternative voluntarist strategies that people may wish to employ to improve their world. We do not have to choose between the mainstream “nothing to see here” response and the social manipulations that proponents and detractors alike see in the feminist alternative. F. A. Hayek encouraged his readers to imagine the “Great Society,”[2] which 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.

A feminist perspective suggests an array of alternative institutions that groups might choose to better bring forth the contributions of all members of a society. We reduce our chances of coming up with institutions that will “bring out the best”[3] in all people if we don’t even consider the possibility that people may face unique barriers because of their gender. Becchio also raises feminist economist Nancy Folbre’s observation that the family is its own kind of political system. In patriarchal legal systems, husbands enjoy special rights and privileges over their wives. In different times and places, these restrictions have included requiring a husband’s permission to purchase property, write a will, open a bank account, secure a loan, start a business, work outside the home, or leave the country. Some legal systems have even imbued husbands with the positive right to imprison, rape, or have their wives institutionalized for insanity. The strongest of patriarchal regimes have thus ensconced male heads of households as the kings of tiny kingdoms, and established intimate family relationships as hierarchical rather than egalitarian. This idea was once part of the classical liberal canon. Consider, for instance, John Locke’s observation that family was the first political organization,[4] and the concerns of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill that the hierarchies established within would corrupt both men and women.[5]

Returning to the academy, could the lessons learned within the family explain why Mimi Gladstein was told in the mid-1960s not to bother applying for an English professorship, because—in the words of the department chair—“We don’t hire housewives”?[6] Could it explain why in the late 1960s, an alum of Princeton University wrote in to protest the university’s plan to begin to admit women by suggesting, “A good old-fashioned whorehouse would be considerably more efficient, and much, much cheaper”?[7] How many among the professoriate today were hired by men with such views? In such a world, is it really so obvious that women could not be discouraged by their families or by their perception of the institutions they would be entering from seeking professorships? Is it so obvious that we should not even ask the question? 

Feminist economists were on to something in noting that rational choice models are often institutionally antiseptic, leaving out factors that are critical to explaining the ways in which men’s and women’s experiences have diverged. There are ways to resolve this tension, however, without completely rejecting rational choice theory. For instance, Elinor Ostrom’s behavioral rational choice approach[8] emphasizes the moral and epistemic limitations as innately human. When we acknowledge the inherently flawed and fallen nature of the human species, we create room for recognizing the significant and often predictable role that ideology and historical and cultural constraints have on choice processes. We interpret everything in our world from within our institutional environments. The “woulds,” “coulds,” and “shoulds” of those environments shape what we believe we are capable of and whether or not we think any particular shot will be worth taking.

Ultimately, I agree with Becchio that traditional economic theorizing can obscure rather than illuminate reality. If women’s life experiences make them too aware to ignore these gaps in economic theory, perhaps this explains some of their unwillingness to “go along” with mainstream rational choice and thereby with their underrepresentation in mainstream academic departments. It is at least worth exploring the hypothesis that by addressing the concerns of feminist economics head on, we can become better economic theorists and applied social scientists.

Endnotes

[1] Ostrom, Elinor. 2010. “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems.” American Economic Review 100 (3): 641–72. [2] Hayek, F. A. [1973-79] 2021. Law, Legislation, and Liberty. University of Chicago Press. [3] Ibid, p. 672: “Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.” [4] Locke, John. [1689] 1967. Two Treatises of Government. Cambridge University Press. [5] Wollstonecraft, Mary. [1793] 1891. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Walter Scott; Mill, John Stuart. [1869] 1970. The Subjection of Women. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press. [6] Recounted in a chapter for Wendy McElroy’s excellent 2002 volume Liberty for Women (Gladstein 2002, p. 121). [7] Malkiel, Nancy Weiss. 2018. “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation. Princeton University Press, p. 127. [8] Ostrom, Elinor. 1998. “A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action: Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, 1997.” The American Political Science Review 92 (1): 1–22.