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Book Review: Free-Market Feminism

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Free-Market Feminism
by David Conway (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1998); 96 pages; £7.00.

The Soviet Union may be gone, but the Marxian mindset still dominates the intellectual climate of the world. Many of the fashionable fads of our time are merely variations on Marx’s conception of class conflict. The residues of socialism also still dominate the general understanding of history, especially the historical events of the last 200 years.

Nowhere is this more true than in most of the scholarly and popular defenses of modern feminism. Viewed through most of history as property to be owned by fathers and sold to husbands, women possessed neither rights nor liberty. Even as a growing number of the male population came to acquire such rights and freedoms before the law, women did not.

Beginning in the 19th century, the argument goes, capitalism has merely represented the latest form of sexual exploitation. Women, particularly in the 20th century, may have been given various “bourgeois freedoms,” such as the right to vote, hold political office, and have legal title to property; but they have remained subjected to economic discrimination and sexual domination by men. And in clear Marxian fashion, the radical, anti-capitalist feminists insist that both men and women suffer from a “false consciousness” concerning sexual roles at home and the workplace that affects behavior and social outcomes. Only intervention by an enlightened state can change the social terrain sufficiently that all people’s consciousness can be “raised” and a new dawn of sexual egalitarianism can finally appear on the horizon. David Conway is a noted British philosopher who has previously written two insightful books: Farewell to Marx (1987) and Classical Liberalism: The Unvanquished Ideal (1995). He has now penned a valuable monograph entitled Free-Market Feminism. This short book also contains commentaries by three feminist critics and one feminist supporter of his arguments.

Professor Conway aims at four anti-capitalist feminist policy positions: anti-discrimination laws; affirmative-action programs; comparable-worth methods for determining pay; and state-subsidized childcare.

In a free market, Conway points out, employer-employee relationships are based purely on voluntary, mutual agreement. This means that employers have the right to discriminate in an unhampered market and not hire employees purely on the basis of their race or sex. But failure to observe employment of men and women in various occupations in numbers equal to their proportions in the population, says Conway, does not mean the existence of sexual discrimination in the way it is usually thought of. The fact is that while there are many jobs that, in principle, either a man or a woman could do, in relative terms men or women might in general be better at certain tasks, say because of physical strengths or psychological attitudes.

Furthermore, there arise situations in which workers themselves might prefer working predominantly with members of the same sex or in which the consumers of a product prefer to be served by members of one sex or another. For example, many women might prefer having a manicure or a massage from another woman rather than from a man. Likewise, some black or women employers might want to hire mostly other blacks or other women to try to improve the economic standing of people to whom they wish to voluntarily give an economic helping hand.

If there were occupations in which women had been traditionally excluded, in an open market women desiring to have those types of jobs could offer themselves for wages less than those currently received by male employees. Some employers will certainly care more for the resulting cost-savings from employing such women than for their own sexual prejudices.

But once this process starts in a free market, and assuming that the women employees can in fact perform as well as or better than men, the barriers will naturally begin to fall under the pressure of competition, with work and wages for women in these occupations increasing over time.

Affirmative-action laws, Professor Conway argues, are misguided and counterproductive. First, for reasons similar to those made by Thomas Sowell in the context of race, disproportional representation between men and women in various occupations need not be the result of discrimination. Instead, biological factors, cultural preferences, and personal tastes may result in natural differences in employment patterns between the sexes. Second, imposing employment quotas on the basis of demographic patterns can easily have the result that many women who desire to pursue certain occupations would be prevented from freely doing so, since they would become “overrepresented” in those segments of the market.

The fundamental error in the argument for “comparable worth” standards for determining “fair” pay in professions and occupations, Conway points out, is that there is no objective basis for constructing “equity” salary scales. The only real basis of knowing what someone is worth on the market in a particular job is what the demanders are willing to pay that person for the services he or she can perform. Either market supply and demand determine wages or committees and commissions appointed by the political process will arbitrarily decide what each of us shall earn. Finally, Conway argues that state-subsidized childcare not only restricts the choices and options of parents but is a device for imposing the ideological agenda of feminist social engineers. The taxes to pay for such government-paid childcare necessarily reduce the income of individuals and couples and therefore narrow the financial opportunities of parents themselves in deciding how best to provide care for their children if both parents work outside the home.

But since the financial burden for such programs falls on all tax-paying households, even if the wife is staying home to care for her own children, the tax levels often force wives into the job market to help the family make ends meet. And this, Conway suggests, is what many of the radical feminists actually want: to destroy the traditional family and force women into the workplace, because these radical feminists think that is the only way many women will finally have their consciousness raised to a non-male-dominated higher plain.

David Conway’s monograph clearly and dispassionately debunks many of the popular anti-capitalist feminist myths. The Institute of Economic Affairs in London has performed another valuable serve in making it available.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).