A recent CNN poll of voters’ 2016 presidential preferences found an interesting bit of data about Rand Paul: The libertarian-ish senator from Kentucky was tied for first place among Republican men with 13 percent support, a fairly high number in such a crowded field of contenders.
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But his support among women was radically lower at just 2 percent. In fact, the gap between Paul’s male and female backing was the largest of all the GOP candidates.
Of course, as Heer ably documents, recognition of this phenomenon is nothing new, especially among libertarians. And, as Heer also notes, the discrepancy has noticeably declined in recent years. In the words of Reason’s Katherine Mangu-Ward, “Nowadays, lady libertarians are a dime a dozen.” Nonetheless, the difference unquestionably remains.
Heer and Drum present fairly well-worn explanations for the libertarian gender disparity. The former argues that despite the key role of women in founding modern American libertarianism, women may be turned off by libertarian opposition to government social services and engineering, some of which has—debate over whether private, voluntary measures could have done a better job aside—improved the lives of women over the last century.
Drum takes a similar tack, positing that libertarianism offers “a fantasy where the strongest and most self-reliant folks end up at the top of the heap,” and women, unlike men, are not deluded enough to think they’ll be the ones on top.
These contentions are not entirely unpersuasive, but they are based in a significantly flawed understanding of libertarian views and motivations. As Sarah Skwire and Steve Horwitz, two libertarian academics, argued in their response, Drum in particular makes the massively unfounded assumption that libertarians are not concerned with the plight of the poor and powerless: “We do not believe we have been ‘held back by rules and regulations to help the weak.’ We believe, and have evidence to support, the argument that those rules and regulations hurt the weak at least as often as they help them.”
Libertarianism may currently be a fantasy—in the sense that our present (and past!) government isn’t very libertarian—but it’s hardly the Hobbesian nightmare Heer and Drum seem to have in mind.
Personally, I’m a libertarian because I care about the oppressed and needy; because I don’t want to be isolated from community; because I’m aware of our government’s history of structural racism; because I don’t want to live in a society where the rich and well-connected can manipulate the economic playing field to their own advantage; because it makes me sick to think that my tax dollars have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents in the Middle East.
Yet these writers’ mistaken assumptions bring up an important point: Libertarianism, though more mainstream than even a decade ago, is still much misunderstood—and that’s on us.
For while Ayn Rand (who, for the record, was actually not a libertarian in name or foreign policy) was all about Strong Men building Big Buildings and Despising all the Weak-Chinned Moochers, I’d wager that most libertarians have far more empathetic political motives. Unfortunately, we haven’t always managed to communicate that very well.
This needs to change, particularly if we have any hope that libertarianism’s influence will continue to grow. No movement can survive without half the population—and especially not the half that still spends the most time influencing the next generation.
So as I’ve argued before, when we’re making the case for liberty, we must paint an attractive picture—a picture that’s not just about unyielding principles and a bracing free market, but also about ending war to save civilian lives, stopping the drug war to reunite families, and shutting down corporate welfare to help the poor.
Let’s talk about gun rights, sure, but let’s also talk about issues which are likely to be of interest mainly to women, like legalizing midwifery or abolishing absurd licensing requirements for hair braiders. Let’s explain, for instance, our opposition to certain labor laws not only in ethical arguments about state coercion, but also in practical terms of unexpected bad consequences which hurt real people.
And for goodness sake, let’s above all nix any suggestion that women are inherently less libertarian; after all, I don’t hear anyone arguing men are too difficult to reach with the message of liberty because they’re “naturally” inclined to aggression and war.
Most women aren’t libertarians. But you know what? Most men aren’t either. It is incumbent on us to change both those facts.