Blogs > Liberty and Power > Men and women, initiative and choices

Oct 21, 2004 1:30 pm


Men and women, initiative and choices



Two small points on Long and Horowitz’s arguments about the sex-gap in wages. First, there is also such a thing as employee entrepreneurship: if a woman is being underpaid for what she does or is capable of doing relative to men (or anyone else), she is quite free—and in a free market would have all the incentives to encourage her to do so—to market herself elsewhere. I don’t just mean that she could look for another job; I mean she could market herself: approach other employers, even those not currently looking for new employees, and demonstrate her abilities, advertise what she can do, promote herself, and so on. In other words, she can exploit possible niches that others didn’t realize were there, market opportunities that sex-gaps in wages open up. That’s what entrepreneurs do, and there’s no reason she shouldn’t think of herself as an independent contractor offering, and entrepreneurially capitalizing on, her own services.

Second, there are lots of reasons why husbands and wives might have the particular signature of division of labor they do other than that men are lazy and women put up with it. People are quick to assume that the lazy man won’t shoulder his fair burden of housework and that the hapless longsuffering woman must simply endure it. That probably happens sometimes, but it most certainly is not the case in every situation. Perhaps in some cases the couples in question actually prefer the arrangement. I think that in our zeal to combat evils like sexism we sometimes forget to notice that many of the paths people take they themselves chose. Their decisions have various consequences, not always good; but just because the people making the decisions didn’t endorse or don’t want all of the consequences doesn’t mean that therefore someone else has wronged them—or indeed that any wrong happened at all.


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Roderick T. Long - 10/22/2004

> What I get testy about is instead the
> quick jump people often make--and you
> seemed to suggest, if not state outright--
> that if there is an assymetrical division
> of labor or responsibility with respect
> to various parts of married couples' lives
> together, then something must be wrong
> (and it's probably the man's fault).

I don't think an asymmetrical division of household labour is a sign that something is necessarily wrong. But in light of the social expectations and practices that tend to encourage and reinforce this policy -- and in light of the more vulnerable position it tends to put women in -- I think it's reason for suspicion/concern. Whether that suspicion/concern is warranted in any particular case will depend on a variety of factors, but it's something that deserves attention. (As Foucault said when accused of seeing inimical power relations everywhere: "My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous.")

As for whether, in those cases where the division is problematic or objectionable, it's "probably the man's fault" -- again, not necessarily. Men respond unconsciously to social pressures and expectations just as women do. The power relations about which feminists complain needn't be deliberately planned by anybody; to borrow a Hayekian (or really Fergusonian) phrase, they are often "the products of human action but not of human design."


James Otteson - 10/21/2004

I don't think we disagree on much. I accept your claim that it does not follow from the fact that something was freely chosen that there cannot be anything wrong with it. What I get testy about is instead the quick jump people often make--and you seemed to suggest, if not state outright--that if there is an assymetrical division of labor or responsibility with respect to various parts of married couples' lives together, then something must be wrong (and it's probably the man's fault).

My suspicion is in fact that very few human relationships are equal in any substantive sense. Since human beings aren't equal in any substantive sense, it would be very unlikely that their relationships would reflect anything other than this assymetricality.


Roderick T. Long - 10/21/2004

Jim Otteson writes:

> Perhaps in some cases the couples
> in question actually prefer the
> arrangement. I think that in our
> zeal to combat evils like sexism we
> sometimes forget to notice that many
> of the paths people take they themselves
> chose.

True enough; but I did address this in the original pievce when I wrote: "Perhaps the response would be that since wives freely choose to abide by such norms, outsiders have no basis for condemning the norms. But since when can't freely chosen arrangements be criticised -- on moral grounds, prudential grounds, or both?"

That doesn't mean that an asymmetric division of household labour is necessarily to be condemned. It depends on the circumstances. All I want to point out is that the fact that an arrangement was voluntarily chosen is consistent with its being chosen for bad reasons. (Thus I would want to resist both the reaction of some libertarians -- "Since it's voluntary, there must not be anything wrong with it" -- and the reaction of some feminists -- "Since there's something wrong with it (e.g., since it's influenced by sexist social expectations or what have you), it must not be voluntary.")