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

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.


  1. karl steel February 20, 2012 at 11:36 am | #

    18th c is medieval?

    • Marcus Nestor February 20, 2012 at 7:46 pm | #

      No one made that asertion, in fact, the bit comparing modern rightwingism to medieval feudalism is linked within the text of the remark at the end of the piece.

      • Karl Steel February 21, 2012 at 7:21 am | #

        yes, and that particular comparison doesn’t help, not least of all because “medieval feudalism” as it’s understood in pop culture has little to nothing to do with what medieval historians have done with the concept (and I stress have done, in the sense of ‘dispensing with it) since 1974.

        If I can speak outside my expertise (I’m a medievalist) my inclination would be to link Cowen and indeed Hale not to the Middle Ages but to modern biopolitics, especially as canon law itself has negative things to say about marital rape (see here for example). At any rate, here and elsewhere, the use of “medieval” is straightforwardly an instance of the “denial of coevalness” so usefully critiqued by Johannes Fabien’s Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (1983).


    • demztaters March 12, 2012 at 1:59 pm | #

      This misogyny shit has deep some roots.

  2. Frank February 20, 2012 at 3:01 pm | #

    Fantastic piece!!!

    As usual, it leaves me with nothing but anger. And while I’m sure that this will no doubt lead to the usual excuses, e.g. that the legality of marital rape until the 1980s was a legal anachronism that didn’t bear out in real life, that while patently untrue, is typical of the conservative gloss on the world. It’s nice to be reminded of the fact that the facts are starkly clear.

    If only more people were simply writing the facts. The absurdity of conservatism, while in possession of some sometimes appealing fantasies, increasingly appears downright foolish in contradistinction to reality.

    I’m not quite sure when it was that in an argument with a brick wall, the wall started losing, but that wall needs to start asserting itself again.

  3. Marcus Nestor February 20, 2012 at 7:42 pm | #

    “libertarians” are the biggest fraud on Earth. Forcing women ( via big gubmint enforced LAW) to undergo any kind of invasive medical proceedure is completley antithetical to their alleged ideology. They suspend thier inconsistent clap-trap “beliefs” more frequently and arbitrarily than even religious fundamentalists. To be a libertarian apparently only requires you to be a property rights absolutist. Any and all other opinions are irrelevant to thier mission.

  4. Barry February 21, 2012 at 9:14 am | #

    More and more I don’t believe that there’s a separate libertarian/social conservative split, especially among the professional libertarians. Tyler Cowen is on the Santorum boat here; Megan McArdle hopped on board, with the extra comment that ‘worse things happen’. Gene Callahan of CATO made some nasty comments about Santorum, which were exclusively economic – apparently CATO doesn’t care about sexual freedom, so long as the corps get low taxes and are free to do as they will.

  5. ema February 21, 2012 at 9:46 am | #

    “Even if we assume that informing consumers is the purpose of the legislation….”

    No need to make this assumption as the text of the bill makes it quite clear that the only purpose is to have the patient undergo a mandatory uncosented, nonmedical procedure as a condition to access to proper medical care.

  6. s. wallerstein February 21, 2012 at 12:56 pm | #

    While I’m still not convinced that there’s an necessary or logical connection between libertarianism and sexism, in the real world so many free-market libertarians seem to have horrid views on women that it discredits the whole philosophy qua philosophy.

    It’s simply in bad taste to force women to undergo an uncomfortable and unnecessary medical procedure, simply because they exercise their right to have an abortion, that is, the ultrasound described above and then in addition, to mock them.

    It figures that any philosophy which bases access to healthcare on ability to pay and glorifies healthcare as a profit-making business, as does libertarianism, would show
    zero empathy for the dilemmas of pregnant women forced by circumstances to seek abortions. That is, there is no necessary philosophical connection, but the same type of heartless people would hold both positions.

    • Todd February 21, 2012 at 2:22 pm | #

      Are men forced by circumstances to seek (and pay for) abortions?

      • Brad February 29, 2012 at 11:10 pm | #

        If a woman chooses not to get an abortion, she has the legal right to force the father of her baby to pay to “support” the kid for 18 years. A man has no choice in whether or not a woman gets an abortion (Supreme Court in Casey v. Planned Parenthood) and a man also has no choice in whether or not he will be required to financially “support” his biological child. In the case of Dubay v. Wells, a man made clear to the woman that he did not want to become a father. The woman claimed she was infertile and was using contraception. Eventually, their relationship deteriorated and she became pregnant with a kid (he was the biological father). Even though he consistently was clear that he had no desire to be a father, the court still required him to pay up.

        I’m always amazed that pro-abortion liberals defend a woman’s “right to choose” to end the life of her baby, but oppose a man’s “right to choose” to give up his rights to a kid and his obligations to finacially support said kid. Isn’t it self-evident that a man’s “right to choose” (the right of men to give up all rights to their kids and be relieved of any requirement to support their kids) is much more defensible than a woman’s “right to choose” which involves ending the life of the kid? Surely, anybody who is in favor of legalized abortion must also be in favor of a man’s right to choose. If not, they obviously hate men (yes, there are self-hating men out there just like there are self-hating members of every racial and sexual group). Until the proponents of a “woman’s right to choose” start speaking up for a “man’s right to choose,” I will refuse to consider the arguments of the pro-abortion liberals because their arguments are not worthy of my respect. Similarly, so long as feminists continue to advocate sexism against men, I will not regard them as worthy of anything but my contempt.

    • Frank February 21, 2012 at 3:51 pm | #

      It’s in “bad taste” to force woman to have an unnecessary invasive procedure? I think you might want to rethink your tepid phraseology the next time you have to submit to a prostate exam because of a toothache. Oh wait, never mind.

      Your equivocation between being able to pay for healthcare and this bill is a little absurd. In fact, they are the complete opposites. Being able to pay for healthcare and being forced to buy unnecessary procedures are not similar at all. The former indicates a faith in capitalism, the latter, a lack of faith in it. They are completely opposed positions.

      In such a case, the ideas are simply a smokescreen for “heartlessness” as you put it. That is, ideas mask an underlying desire to dominate. In which case, there is a necessary connection between libertarianism and sexism, insofar as the concern of libertarians is solely tthat of domination, and they’ll adjust there ideas accordingly.

  7. Jimmy Reefercake (@JimmyReefercake) February 21, 2012 at 2:29 pm | #

    There are some libertarians out there who actually believe in liberty. They are the ones who buy Jimmy Reefercake albums. The rest are swine.

  8. s. wallerstein February 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm | #


    English is not my usual language, so there may be some confusion.

    My point is that libertarians when they say that healthcare should be a commodity, for sale, show heartlessness, a lack of caring.

    They show the same lack of caring when they require that women undergo a costly and uncomfortable procedure before having an abortion and when they joke about it afterwards.

    What are in bad tastes are the comments and jokes by the libertarians about the ultrasound. I did not mean that forcing a woman to undergo the procedure is in bad taste nor did I say so.

    Once again, my apologies for the English. I normally speak Spanish.

  9. s. wallerstein February 21, 2012 at 4:06 pm | #

    Forcing women to undergo ultrasounds is wrong and should not occur in a just society.

    Comments mocking women who undergo abortions are in bad taste.

    That is the difference.

    • Frank February 22, 2012 at 12:50 pm | #

      Well, you did in fact say “It’s simply in bad taste to force women to undergo an uncomfortable and unnecessary medical procedure,” so that’s what I was going on. However, if you meant to refer to the comments, I get your point.

  10. s. wallerstein February 22, 2012 at 3:31 pm | #


    You caught me.

    I did say it. I write faster than I think sometimes and what’s more, sometimes I don’t think all that well.

  11. Donald Pruden a/k/a The Enemy Combatant February 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm | #

    Let me say it here, and so that no one misunderstands. The State of Virginia appears to be the first state in the Union to require that the perfomance of rape be undertaken by a licensed medical professional against any women seeking an abortion from that professional, and that any woman seeking an abortion in that State has no standing in issuing a criminal charge against her assailant. Saddam Hussein’s “Rape Rooms” have finally come to the United States. We used to call them clinics and hospitals.

  12. mike c February 22, 2012 at 9:23 pm | #

    Anyone think that many of these so-called professional libertarians are nothing more than republican idealogues wrapped in “virtuous philosopy du jour”? Choosing Santorum as a “libertarian choice” is simply farcical on the facts, he’s certainly not a libertarian nor is he electable in a general election. Progressives should simply rejoice in his success.

    This article is the start of a fine diatribe against an insidious force of charlatans among the chattering classes — the fake libertarians. There are others out there too.

    Libertarians, in fact, shouldn’t care if someone has an abortion or not, or whether they are particularly well informed about the procedure, just so long as they have the opportunity to get informed. We (and I reveal myself) assert that as long as they are of the age of consent (I won’t quibble with 15 year olds making this choice) and arrange for the operation or plan-B pills, they should have the liberty of their bodies. My body parts just shouldn’t matter to you. Hmm, maybe I am a bit medieval in that regard.

  13. pictish February 24, 2012 at 5:17 am | #

    “Libertarians as property rights absolutists” is intellectually consistent with the social conservative fixation on contraception, abortion, and non-marital sex if women are regarded as property.

    It falls apart logically, of course, if you regard women as people.

  14. Todd March 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm | #

    Brad wrote:

    “If a woman chooses not to get an abortion, she has the legal right to force the father of her baby to pay to ‘support’ the kid for 18 years.”

    Totally different ball of wax.

    For the above to happen, the guy has to be found, lawyers need to be paid, a judge needs to agree, etc., much of which is still stacked against the woman. A guy can get away scot-free, but the woman has to either have the kid or abort it; the onus is on her entirely even though the guy had something to do with the pregnancy.

    “Surely, anybody who is in favor of legalized abortion must also be in favor of a man’s right to choose.”

    In this case, “a man’s right to choose” (as if it were something men as a class don’t have already) is synonymous with “running away from responsibility”. You’ll find that few lefties are in favour of that.

    Where I think you and I differ is where responsibility begins and ends.

  15. Bilo March 12, 2012 at 9:47 am | #

    Do-good libs force companies to put warning labels on things, nutrition info on food and in rstaurants, pay taxes, comply with rules. You think this is obviousluly not as bad as having something inserted into you against your will, by the state.

    These freaks don’t. Which is a hint that they’re selfish dicks who think only of themselves. There are worse things than regulation.

  16. Arker March 23, 2012 at 5:47 pm | #

    Let me just say that the only thing I disagree with you on, as a libertarian, is the implication that these people in any way represent what the word means on this issue.

    Wendy McElroy’s opinion is probably more widely accepted by libertarians (as opposed to conservatives) than Ron Paul’s. And even his position is incredibly nuanced if you listen to him, and it’s not at all the standard outlaw abortion stuff. He vows there will be no federal prohibition of abortion, and he says clearly he doesnt want to see police interfering between women and their doctors. His solution is to use the bully pulpit, not legislation and police, to encourage people to hold life more precious, and it’s hard to argue with that.

    So rather than argue against the views of a real libertarian here, you bring us… Tyler Cowen? At a glance, the only association I can see of him to libertarianism is an article he wrote in which he against it. How do his views have any bearing on libertarians, let alone Libertarians?

  17. Crystal June 6, 2012 at 6:46 pm | #

    It’s NOT rape if the woman chooses to undergo the abortion. If she doesn’t want to get probed then she has the choice to not undergo the abortion, simple as that.

    • Jen February 18, 2024 at 7:05 pm | #

      Rape is a form of sexual coercion. Coerced probing isn’t acceptable.

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