How Free Were American Women in the Gilded [C]age?

Bryan Caplan apparently missed the memo that nostalgia for the 18th and 19th centuries is, at best, an emotional appeal that connects with only a very narrow segment of the population. He’s taken it to a new low, however, by defending tooth and nail his theory that women possessed more freedom in 1880 than they do today, in 2010.

I was very relieved to see, however, that Caplan’s dive into the deep end of the libertarian crazy pool was a solo performance. Most libertarian-esque bloggers — in fact all the ones I’ve seen so far — have strongly pointed out that the idea women in the 1880’s lived in a libertarian utopia is nonsensical, ahistorical, and a really horrible argument for libertarianism. Because if libertarianism truly believes that women would be better off if they traded in the freedoms they enjoy now in favor of the “freedoms” they enjoyed in 1880, then libertarianism is too gruesome of an ideology to ever be worth defending.

I was struck by how deeply paternalistic Caplan’s argument was, and how much it echoes the same arguments that have been made against women’s rights for centuries. For instance, Caplan believes that the fact women were denied the vote is not indicative that women were any less free then they are today:

Yet the fact that women were unable to vote in defense of their “basic liberty rights” doesn’t show that American political system denied them these rights.

This is the same argument that was made against women’s suffrage for much of history. Why should women possibly need the right to vote? Their interests were adequately represented in politics already — after all, women have husbands and fathers looking out for their best interests, and to vote on their behalf. Their husbands and fathers love them, so of course they would not vote for politicians or legislation contrary to women’s interests.

Under Caplan’s theory, life in the gilded cage was a life of liberty — after all, so long as you don’t mind giving up your autonomy, and you are willing to accept legal and social restrictions that drastically narrowed the choices available to you, life in the 1880’s wasn’t so bad, now was it?

Sure, in 1880, personal opportunities were severely restricted — but that’s not a problem, says Caplan, because only a portion of it was directly mandated by legislation. And moreover, the tax rate was hardly objectionable at all — there wasn’t even a 16th Amendment. It’s utopia!

Of course, if I’m living in the 1880s, whether or not there is an income tax probably isn’t my foremost concern, as the odds are overwhelming that I won’t be working for pay, anyway. If I am, it will probably only be for a few years out of my life. In 1890, only 18 percent of women worked for pay. [PDF] So while there may not be a federal income tax, it’s not really that material to me, as I probably don’t have an income in the first place. And, once I get married, my odds of working go down to a meager 4.6%. Not to mention, once I’m married (and the odds are overwhelming that I will be), I also give up my right to own property, enter contracts, possess an independent legal existence, or not be raped by my spouse. Married or unmarried, I still can’t vote, can’t hold office, and I am forbidden from working in most occupations (and essentially all high paying ones). Technically, there’s still a chance I could’ve been a lawyer — thanks to good old Belva Ann Lockwood (GW Law Alum, ’73), one year previously, in 1879, I would have been allowed to practice in federal court. But given that there are about three female lawyers in all of America at this time, it’s a safe bet I won’t be one of them.

More likely, I would have been earning poverty-level wages as a seamstress, working 12 hour days — or more likely still, working in someone else’s house. In 1870, of the women who did work, 60% of the non-farm laborers were household servants. Although generally unmarried and not living with their families, they lived with their employer, and they did not have autonomous existences — being a household servant was deemed a way to provide a semi-respectable means for a woman to work, and yet still provide them with extensive supervision. I could possibly have been a nurse or teacher — in terms of “careers,” that was pretty much the extent of it — but even in 1890, only 2,500 women in all of the United States earned a bachelors degree.

So to recap, in the 1880s, the odds are better than 4 to 1 that I don’t work. If I do work, I have very few career options available to me, and the ones that I do have pay 1/3 to 1/5 of what men are paid for comparable work. I am probably working 12 hour days, and likely have to live with my employer. If I get married in a state with coverture, my effective tax rate becomes 100%, as I cannot own property, and any money I earn belongs to a male caretaker — a husband, or if I am younger, a father — who is in charge of my financial and legal affairs. On the up side, he probably does have my well-being in interest at heart. On the down side, he holds the absolute power to define what exactly my “well-being” is. If I disagree with his assessment of what is best for me, I have few legal options available to contradict it, and even fewer social options. Oh, and did I mention I don’t even have the right to vote?

Now, let’s fast forward to 2010. Suddenly, I possess the full set of legal rights that U.S. citizens currently enjoy. It’s not perfect, but the basics are mostly there. Oh, yeah, and women can vote, too. The income tax rate is high, that’s no fun, but on the other hand, I can actually make an income now, in just about any profession I want. Okay, true, I can’t make an income selling recreational drugs. But I can be a doctor, or an engineer, or a politician. And, sure, there are lots of petty and ill-considered economic regulations that interfere with any business plans I may have… But owning a business encumbered by federal legislation is still a lot better than not being able to own a business at all.

There shouldn’t be a question here about which is the better option. No rational actor would voluntarily choose the freedom available to women in 1880 over the freedom available to women in 2010. And for the majority of people, 2010 is still the far preferable choice, whether the average tax rate is 30% or 50% — or even higher still.


A Movement That Equates “Freedom From Slavery” with “Freedom to Possess Marijuana” Needs A New Marketing Strategy

Over at Reason, David Boaz has a sensible and thought-provoking article up that is worth checking out. The article is a reminder to libertarians that at the time of the Founding Fathers, all of humanity — save for the (partial) exception of white males — existed under conditions of tyranny, servitude, and deprivation of rights. ‘Freedom’ is not a word that could be used to describe the state of most of the people who lived then.

In light of this fact, Boaz makes the obvious point that the Libertarianesque message of “1776 was great! Let’s try and recreate those conditions today!” makes for a less than persuasive political slogan. Unfortunately, the commenters on the article react to this rather reasonable message with a mixture of disgust and outrage, going so far as to call Boaz a “communist” and a traitor to the libertarian cause.

The commenters as whole provide a rather excellent demonstration of why the libertarian party, more so than any other political group, is composed of young white guys who don’t like to go to church all that often.

I wonder when organized libertarian groups will realize there’s a reason that particular demographic is so grossly overrepresented among them. Maybe it’s because white men love freedom more than everyone else does. Yeah, that’s it. Libertarians are mostly white dudes because only white dudes truly desire liberty and freedom from oppressive governments. There couldn’t possibly be a more obvious explanation for the discrepancy, could there?


“Thou shalt not sit/With statisticians nor commit/A social science.”

W.H. Auden is probably my favorite poet, and the only poet I’ve read enough of that I feel like I could discuss seriously without feeling like a giant fraud. His poem “Law Like Love” is undoubtedly the best known among lawyers, for obvious reasons, and from a quick search, the poem seems to have been quoted in law review articles over 40 times. It says something about Auden that his other works are also quoted relatively often in legal academia, a community that, in general, does not pay all that much attention to poetry.

Auden’s appeal, for me, is that he embodies some strange brand of cynically ironic libertarianism. How else would you describe a line like “To be free/is often to be lonely”? Still, his libertarian streaks are often overlooked, as Auden is better known for his dabblings in Marxism. Two of his most famous poems were, technically, communist propaganda, but his later repudiation of them is telling. The poems were removed from his later collections for being “dishonest,” and, as Auden described it, “A dishonest poem is one which expresses, no matter how well, feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained.”

Auden’s communism was not based in some economic theory, or in any desire for the state to control the machinery of civilization. In Auden’s view, communism’s appeal was that it provided a path to freedom from the oppressive coercion of the State. As he wrote in his poem “New Year Letter,”

“Who has ever met a poet (at least one who has had any success) for whom the real attraction of Communism did not lie in its premise that, under it, the state should wither away for others as it has already withered away for him?”

I’m pretty sure the idea of Auden-as-a-libertarian is not exactly widespread, but under the brand of textualist interpretation that Auden endorsed, I don’t think it’s an unfair characterization. His communism was motivated by much the same impulses that motivate libertarian ideology today, and he was unquestionably anti-totalitarian and pro-individual. His poem the “The Unknown Citizen” is my favorite of his commentary on the state verses the individual, and I wanted to share it here below. I always feel like it should be read alongside Epitath on a Tyrant, so go check that one out as well, it’s short.

As a side note, to carry on with my quest to show how every topic is, in some way, connected to international law, I’ll also mention that Auden translated the work of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General to the United Nations.

The Unknown Citizen

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

W.H. Auden (1939)


The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 2 — Terry Goodkind

conanlibertarianTerry Goodkind

I realized that there is one author, at least, who I am totally competent to critique even without the benefits of having his books before me: Terry Goodkind. That’s because you don’t actually need to read The Sword of Truth series to understand what they’re about, you can just go type “libertarian porn” into google and you will probably get the same experience.

Okay, they’re not quite that bad. After all, I did read all of them, and at ~800 pages a pop times 11 novels, that’s 8,800 pages I bothered to get through. Admittedly, that was over the course of 12 years, beginning in seventh grade when I first picked them up because I got bored waiting for Robert Jordan to crank out his next book, and finally ending this past summer when I was studying for the bar, and therefore procrastinating with a Terry Goodkind novel was marginally less frustrating than the BarBri books I was actually supposed to be reading.

But in between the decent chunks of sword-and-sorcery fantasy in The Sword of Truth, Terry Goodkind seizes every possible opportunity to turn his characters into hoarse mouthpieces for the Libertarian War Against Communism. It’s kind of funny, the first dozen times it happens. And then it starts getting annoying, when you find yourself wondering if the speeches were simply copied and pasted from a speech that same character gave two books ago. And then finally by about book 6 or so, every time you see a character launch into a major speech, you just skip ahead six or seven pages until you find where the quote marks stop and everyone goes back to stabbing bad guys.

A rough synopsis of the series [SPOILER ALERT] is that Hank Roark Richard Cypher, a simple woods guide, is actually the leader of the D’Haran Empire, and the beautiful Dagn- Domini- Kahlan has been sent to fetch him. After securing his title as Supreme Commander of the Old World, he then must fight the rampaging horde of liberal democrats in the New World that wish to destroy individualism and promote the idea of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

Anyway, they all live in a world where it is possible to conquer the forces of evil simply by demonstrating to them your noble, liberty-loving spirit and your adamant refusal to live your life for another.

Read More: In Libertarian Land, you can always tell which women love freedom the most. It’s the hot ones »