Critics often forget that the theorists at the core of American liberty balance liberty and tradition rather than extol pure reason.
My daughter turned three this last Sunday. Like most parents, I already have a high—probably too high—an opinion of her talents, and want a world where they will take her as far as she can go. And that is why I am sympathetic of a feminism of liberty rather than a feminism of coercion.
In a feminism of liberty, all professions are open to women and they are encouraged by teachers and family to choose wisely, taking account of their preferences and endowments. Of course, their preferences may factor in raising a family and agreeing with one’s husband on the best way to split duties at home and between home and work. Equality under the law makes sense, but equality within a family ignores the differences in endowments and varied preferences that partners bring to a marriage.
Sadly, however, I fear that my daughter may face a feminism of coercion where government regulation distorts free choice. California, often a trend setter, has recently set quotas for seats on corporate boards. Many Democratic candidates are touting comparable worth laws, where bureaucrats would set salaries based on their view of the worth of male- and female-dominated jobs.
These laws would have bad social effects. Markets are better than the government in matching people with jobs and in determining how salaries reflect contributions to production. Bureaucratic allocation here would lead to high administrative costs, inefficient job placement, and lower economic growth.
But such regulation will be bad for my daughter on a personal level as well. It will distort the signals that the market gives to help her choose the right profession. Assume for instance, as any parent hopes, that my daughter has an absolute advantage over most people, including most boys, in both scientific and humanistic disciplines. But assume also she has a comparative advantage in talent and indeed interest in humanism. My fear is that the world may be structured to give her all kinds of incentives to ignore this fact and go into STEM subjects to advance the social goal of equalizing the number of men and women in this sector.
More generally, a feminism of liberty, unlike a feminism of coercion, is more likely to provide her with one of life’s greatest satisfactions, the sense that she has been the principal agent of constructing her own career. The sculpture of one’s past brings greater contentment the more one has done the carving.
Now, I recognize that some may worry that the feminism of liberty is an illusion because of the structural impediments to women. I very much doubt this. At least so far, I can say that everyone has treated my daughter with equal consideration to boys around her and with the same concern to develop her talents. And that such equal treatment is the norm in all the business workplaces with which I have ever been associated—a norm that free market competition encourages because of the costs of discrimination to the bottom line. And the educational institutions have provided at least equal treatment for women, sometimes openly preferring to hire women rather than men at the margin.
Thus, the social conditions are also conducive to a feminism of liberty. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that men and women will be equally represented in every job category or undertake “equal” parenting responsibilities. Insistence on such equality is inconsistent with freedom unless men and women have the same average abilities and preferences across all areas of life. No serious person can think that assumption is true. And proclaiming it to be true will ultimately be necessary to a feminism of coercion. But this would be the worst of all, because my daughter would then grow up in a world built on lies.