Archive | February, 2012

Julie London, Political Theorist

29 Feb

Megan McArdle‘s not what you would call a bleeding heart libertarian. When she’s not trying to put obstacles in the way of women getting an abortion, she tends not to shed too many tears for the poor, the working class, or even the middle class.  But when it comes to the rich, she manages to finds deep and unexpected wells of empathy. Not sure what there is to say about all this that wasn’t said by that noted political theorist Julie London in 1955.


Even Narcissists Have Enemies

25 Feb

It’s been a long while since our last roundup of news of the book.  So here goes….

  1. Firedoglake held a salon about The Reactionary Mind today. Rick Perlstein hosted the discussion, lots of people chimed in.
  2. Thom Hartmann conducted an interview with me for his show Conversations with Great Minds. I certainly don’t have a great mind, but it was, thanks to Thom, a great conversation. Here’s Part I; here’s Part II.
  3. Paul Heideman has a really thoughtful review of the book here, one of the best I’ve read. Though Heideman has some criticisms, he gives a thorough account of the book’s argument.
  4. Jeffrey Goldfarb wrote an interesting blog post about the book, which sparked some more interesting discussion.
  5. Daniel Beland, a Canadian sociologist, wrote a good review—my first academic review in fact—in the Canadian Journal of Sociology.
  6. A Dutch magazine did a lengthy interview with me, which appears here.  In Dutch.
  7. The Reactionary Mind got a nice plug and discussion in this excellent piece in Salon about conservatism and Saul Alinsky by historian Tom Sugrue; my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea also got a nice plug, again in Salon, in this excellent piece about unions and workplace democracy by political scientist Dorian Warren.
  8. Amanda Marcotte made some good use of The Reactionary Mind to blog about the contraception wars and the GOP.
  9. Though I’ve already blogged separately about these, I wanted to make sure they were included in this roundup. The New York Times Opinionator did a piece on The Reactionary Mind. Lots and lots of comments there. I responded to Mark Lilla’s review in the New York Review of Books, and he responded to my response.
  10. Somewhere out there is a recording of an interview I did with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. —yes, that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—about the book and all matters GOP. Sadly, I can’t find it anywhere…

And though this has nothing much to do with me or my book, John Holbo did a blog post about Robert Nozick and libertarianism, in the course of which he wrote:

The next time someone tells you that Corey Robin is paranoid, just explain to them that actually you are an orthodox Nozickian about these things.

Which of course made me wonder: Is everybody saying I’m paranoid?

Even narcissists have enemies…

Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t*

25 Feb

A propos our discussion of libertarianism, birth control, and women’s autonomy, this, from Benjamin Franklin (A Conversation About Slavery), seems relevant:

You Americans make a great Clamour upon every little imaginary Infringement of what you take to be your Liberties; and yet there are no People upon Earth such Enemies to Liberty, such absolute Tyrants, where you have the Opportunity, as you yourselves are.

It’s hardly unprecedented in the American experience for the greatest cries of liberty to be heard among those who would most deny it to others.

*Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t is the title of a wonderful book about jazz and the civil rights movement by my friend Scott Saul. It’s got no real connection to the theme of this post; I just liked the title and wanted to plug Scott’s book. And plug Scott, too: he’s currently working on a biography of Richard Pryor, which is going to blow your mind. If you want to get a taste of Scott’s writing, check out this essay he did in Book Forum on the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana in 1979. I’ve read it about ten times; every time, I see something in it I hadn’t seen before.

Probing Tyler Cowen, or: When Libertarians Get Medieval on Your Vagina

20 Feb

In case you were wondering why I spent so much time nattering on about Ludwig von Mises’s retrograde views of women—and a great many libertarians did—here’s why: Those views haven’t gone away.

Responding to the Virginia legislation that requires all women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound—as Dahlia Lithwick points out, because most abortions occur in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy, most of the women affected by this bill would be forced to have a probe stuck up their vaginas, as that’s how ultrasounds in the first trimester are done—libertarian luminary Tyler Cowen tweeted the following:

All of a sudden requiring consumers to be informed is extremely unpopular on the “pro-regulation side.”

Is Cowen serious? If he is, he’s radically uninformed about the basic facts of biology and women. It’s not like women don’t know what’s going on inside of their uteruses; they are, after all, getting an abortion. Or perhaps Cowen, like many in the anti-abortion movement, thinks women don’t know what they’re doing when they abort their fetuses. Either way, it’s paternalistic.

But ah, my libertarian friends will say, that’s the point: we on the left make similar paternalistic assumptions about consumers all the time. Cowen’s just making a joke to point out our hypocrisy.

But if that’s the joke, it doesn’t quite work. Even if we assume that informing consumers is the purpose of the legislation—all the evidence, as Lithwick points out, suggests that women don’t need the information; nor are their choices influenced by the information when they get it—there’s the tricky matter of the “instruments”: Is the left really in the business of forcing consumers to get information by sticking probes up their various orifices?

Whether he’s serious or not, Cowen’s tweet suggests that when it comes to the specifics of women’s autonomy—not generic autonomy, but women’s autonomy—he doesn’t quite get it. And in not getting it, as I suggested in my post on Mises, he shows that his is not a project of universal liberty.

In response to my Mises piece, several libertarians said to me: Who cares what Mises thought about women? Those are just the views of everyone’s crazy uncle. We care about Mises—if we care about him at all—because of what he said about markets, not women. And today’s libertarian is just not like that.

Well, my friends, sometimes he is.

(h/t Elias Isquith for pointing me to the original Cowen tweet.)


This bit from Lithwick’s piece caught my eye:

During the floor debate on Tuesday, Del. C. Todd Gilbert announced that “in the vast majority of these cases, these [abortions] are matters of lifestyle convenience.” (He has since apologized.) Virginia Democrat Del. David Englin, who opposes the bill, has said Gilbert’s statement “is in line with previous Republican comments on the issue,” recalling one conversation with a GOP lawmaker who told him that women had already made the decision to be “vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant.” (I confirmed with Englin that this quote was accurate.)

That notion “once-probed, always-probed” sounds an awful lot like the notion of implicit sexual consent that dates back to the 18th century and that justified marital rape in this country until the 1980s. As I write in my book:

Until 1980, for example, it was legal in every state in the union for a husband to rape his wife. The justification for this dates back to a 1736 treatise by English jurist Matthew Hale. When a woman marries, Hale argued, she implicitly agrees to give “up herself in this kind [sexually] unto her husband.” Hers is a tacit, if unknowing, consent “which she cannot retract” for the duration of their union. Having once said yes, she can never say no. As late as 1957—during the era of the Warren Court—a standard legal treatise could state, “A man does not commit rape by having sexual intercourse with his lawful wife, even if he does so by force and against her will.” If a woman (or man) tried to write into the marriage contract a requirement that express consent had to be given in order for sex to proceed, judges were bound by common law to ignore or override it. Implicit consent was a structural feature of the contract that neither party could alter. With the exit option of divorce not widely available until the second half of the twentieth century, the marriage contract doomed women to be the sexual servants of their husbands.

Resonances like these are why I sometimes suggest that modern conservatism is just a neoliberal gloss on medieval domination.

Update (February 21, 10:45 am)

Folks have been posting about this issue all weekend.  Turns out a lot more libertarian types are willing to go where Cowen goes—and then some.  Check out Scott Lemieux’s take on Megan McCardle. And though Dana Loesch is not, as far as I know, a self-identified libertarian, she is quite tight with the Tea Party, which styles itself as libertarian. Here’s what she said (in keeping with the once probed, always probed theme):

LOESCH: That’s the big thing that progressives are trying to say, that it’s rape and so on and so forth. [...] There were individuals saying, “Oh what about the Virginia rape? The rapes that, the forced rapes of women who are pregnant?” What? Wait a minute, they had no problem having similar to a trans-vaginal procedure when they engaged in the act that resulted in their pregnancy.

Love for Sale: Birth Control from Marx to Mises

15 Feb

From Marx…

In On the Jewish Question, Marx famously critiques liberal theorists of religious freedom on the grounds that they merely wish to emancipate the state from religion. Assuming—wrongly, it turns out—that the 19th century state, or at least the American state, had indeed been fully emancipated from religion (e.g., there was no official state religion, no specific confessional requirement for the exercise of political rights, etc.), Marx notes that the American people are nevertheless quite religious. This leads him to the observation that “to be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion, because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation.” We may be free of religion at the level of the state, but we are not free of it in our everyday life (like most Enlightenment thinkers, Marx thinks of religion as a defect). To be truly free of it, we need to emancipate ourselves from religion, to shift our focus from the state to society itself, to get past the distinction between our public lives and private selves. Not just in matters of religion, as it turns out, but in other areas as well.

President Obama’s recent “compromise” over contraception—where religious-based employers like Catholic universities and hospitals are required to provide insurance coverage that includes free birth control but are not required to pay for it, leaving insurers to eat the costs; churches and other explicitly religious institutions will remain exempt from the provision—makes me wonder if we’re not moving in the reverse direction.

98% of sexually active Catholic women essentially reject the Church’s position on contraception. In this respect at least, society has emancipated itself from religion. Even so, the state allows its policies to be dictated by the Church elders. And judging by the growing Republican discontent with even this compromise, the state’s capitulation to religion and religious sensibilities could get worse. Keep in mind, as Katha Pollitt points out, that we are not talking about isolated sects like the Amish, which don’t depend on all manner of tax subsidies and public monies for their operations; these are large-scale institutions that would not exist in their current form were it not for the state’s ongoing support.

…to Mises

Speaking of conservatives, the birth control debate recently led Mike Konczal back to Ludwig von Mises’ classic 1922 text Socialism. Mises was a pioneering economist of the Austrian School, whose political writings have inspired multiple generations of libertarian activists in America and elsewhere. Mike took a special interest in the fourth chapter of Socialism, “The Social Order and the Family,” in which Mises has some retrograde things to say about women and feminism. This led Mike to conclude prematurely that Mises was against birth control, which he wasn’t, but as I make clear in the comments thread, Mike’s larger point—that Mises was not in favor of women’s sexual autonomy; nor, for that matter, was he in favor of other kinds of autonomy that would free women from the dominion of their husbands—still stands.

All this back and forth about the text prompted Brian Doherty, author of a wonderful history of libertarianism, to waspishly comment that, well, who really gives a shit what Mises may or may not have thought about women and birth control. Libertarians care about liberty; all the rest is commentary.

Mises does go on to address “natural barriers” that socialists want to overturn, and doubtless some of his own personal opinions about what those natural barriers might be would differ from moderns, liberal or conservative, which is exactly why [Konczal’s] entire implied point doesn’t make any sense to begin with. Those concerns are far more matters of opinion, not political philosophy, and in no sense should bind even those who have sworn fealty to Mises’ general views on economics and liberty. (For example, I’m quite the Misesian in most questions of politics and economics, but can imagine an intelligent conservative argument that the “rationalization of the sexual passions” is in some sense harmed by birth control, though not in the specific procreational sense he is addressing specifically.)

But let’s address the larger point, if there is one, besides that atop all of our heads for even talking about this: That polemical points can rightly be earned laying some judgment, whether real or imagined, of an intellectual founding father or influence on a political movement or tendency on to the backs of its younger followers–either to mock them or to insist that, no, this is really what their intellectual mission is: not to promote liberty, but to work for whatever Ludwig Von Mises liked or didn’t like.

It is interesting, for those interested in intellectual history, that Mises saw free love as part of some larger socialist mission to destroy the family. But for the libertarian the relevant question is, is this voluntary or not, does this infringe on anyone’s life, liberty, or property or not? “Anything that’s peaceful,” baby, as Leonard Read, one of Mises’ great popular disciples in America, wrote.

Thus, there’s a libertarian case to be made against forcing anyone to cover any specific medical care, birth control or whatever, in the insurance deals they make with their clients. But it has nothing to do with whether Ludwig von Mises was comfortable with free love, or birth control, or with catheters, or blood transfusions, or any other specific medical procedure that might or might not become a political controversy when the government tried to force people to sell insurance only on the condition that that insurance cover that procedure or medication’s use.

Set aside the strangeness of someone who’s written—for what were obviously more than antiquarian reasons—one of the best intellectual histories of libertarianism, in which Mises plays a not insignificant role, telling us that intellectual history, and Mises’s role in it, doesn’t much matter.

Also set aside Doherty’s declaration by fiat that Mises’s views on women are just “matters of opinion,” which can be discarded as so much ancient prejudice, rather than genuine “political philosophy.” (This chapter on Robert Nozick in Susan Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family should make any reasonably literate political writer leery of the notion that a libertarian’s views on women are somehow contingent or incidental and separable from their larger worldview. In Mises’s case, it’s doubly important to remember that he saw his chapter on women as one part of his campaign against socialism, an effort in which he styled himself the lonely leader of a small, heterodox band.

Socialism is the watchword and the catchword of our day. The socialist idea dominates the modern spirit. The masses prove of it. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of all; it has set its seal upon our time. When history comes to tell our story it will write above the chapter “The Epoch of Socialism.”

Mises did not think his views on women were refractions of the age; he thought they were the dissonant wisdom of someone who had thought long and hard, against the dominant view, about such issues. And given that many socialists were making feminist arguments and gaining ground across Europe—Remember Red Vienna? It wasn’t all economics, you know—I’m not sure Mises was entirely wrong in his self-understanding.)

Finally set aside, as one commenter on Mike’s thread pointed out, the fact that many of Mises’s views persist in later libertarian arguments.

The real reason Mises’s arguments about women are so relevant, it seems to me, is that in the course of making them he reveals something larger about the libertarian worldview: libertarianism is not about liberty at all, or at least not about liberty for everyone. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Here’s Mises describing the socialist program of “free love”:

Free love is the socialists’ radical solution for sexual problems. The socialistic society abolishes the economic dependence of woman which results from the fact that woman is dependent on the income of her husband. Man and woman have the same economic rights and the same duties, as far as motherhood does not demand special consideration for the women. Public funds provide for the maintenance and education of the children, which are no longer the affairs of the parents but of society. Thus the relations between the sexes are no longer influenced by social and economic conditions….The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free.

Sounds like a libertarian paradise, right? Society is dissolved into atomistic individuals, obstacles to our free choices are removed, everyone has the same rights and duties. But Mises is not celebrating this ideal; he’s criticizing it.  Not because it makes people unfree but because it makes people—specifically, women—free. The problem with liberating women from the constraints of “social and economic conditions” is that…women are liberated from the constraints of social and economic conditions.

Now Doherty will reply, well, that’s just Mises’s view of feminism, who cares, we libertarians stand for freedom. But the underlying logic of Mises’s argument—in which the redistributive state is criticized not for making men and women slaves or equals but for making them free—cannot be so easily contained. It can easily be applied to other realms of social policy—labor unions, universal health care, robust public schools, unemployment benefits, and the like, which the left has always seen as the vital prerequisites of universal freedom—suggesting that the real target of the libertarian critique may be the proposition that Mises articulates here so well: that all men—not just the rich or the well born—and all women will in fact be liberated from the constraints of their “social and economic conditions.”

Graduate Student Employee Fired for Union Activism

6 Feb

I had intended to blog about this, but Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber beat me to it. The story goes like this: Jennifer Dibbern, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, was retaliated against for her union activism. It’s as simple as that.

Henry is more cautious in telling the story than I am, but having led a campaign for graduate student unionization at Yale, and having been retaliated against for my activism—experiences I wrote about here and here—I see all the tell-tale signs of retaliation.

In any event, Henry has lots of links to help you decide what went down at Michigan. And here are some more. Also check out Henry’s excellent follow-up post, in which he itemizes some of the arguments that are perennially trotted out against graduate student unionization. Reading these golden oldies, I feel like I’m watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island. I mean are we seriously still having this conversation?

If you want to take some action, write an email (sample text below) to any and all of the following university officials. Be civil, be polite, but be firm. Personal emails are always better.

Mary-Sue Coleman, President,
Philip Hanlon, Provost,
David Munson Jr., Dean of College of Engineering,

Sample Text:

Dear [ ],

I write to protest the illegal firing of GSRA Jennifer Dibbern for union organizing.  I demand justice for Ms. Dibbern and that the university stop intimidating GSRAs and commit to neutrality in any GSRA union election.


Update (February 7, 10 am)

Karl Steel points me to this informative comment over at the Crooked Timber thread. This paragraph is especially useful:

It may not be clear from the public statements and media coverage how outspoken an anti-union advocate Prof. Goldman is. She attended MERC meetings in Lansing (over an hour from Ann Arbor), as well as informational sessions, to keep tabs on the unionizing effort. She also spoke out against the union often inside her own lab. Although Prof. Goldman has a reputation for running a very intense lab, no other student was ever told (to my knowledge) to curtail other outside activities (such as participation in sports, or family obligations). The first allegations made by Prof. Goldman of specific failures were in the email linked above, dated August 8 (after having favorably reviewed Dibbern’s progress just two months earlier). Prof. Goldman fired Dibbern just three weeks later. If the issue were primarily Dibbern’s academic performance, why not follow the usual procedures, inform her of her failures, evaluate her responses, and walk through the appropriate procedures? While not an ironclad case, I believe the evidence – the timing, the failure to follow procedures, and Prof. Goldman’s outspoken anti-union stance – is together persuasive that Dibbern was fired for refusing to quit her union activities, not for her failures in the lab.

Mark Lilla and I Exchange Words

5 Feb

I wrote a letter in response to Mark Lilla’s review of my book. The New York Review of Books has now published it, along with a reply from Lilla. There’s not much to say about Lilla’s reply: it’s long on attitude, short on argument. But readers can judge for themselves.


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