How not to bring women into the libertarian movement

Over at Ravings of a Feral Genius, the whole contraception-Sandra-Fluke-Rush-Limbaugh-slut-prostitute incident has got Jennifer Able pissed off at some of her fellow libertarian bloggers (emphasis, I suspect, on “fellow”):

Limbaugh’s rant didn’t surprise me at all. Here’s what did surprise me: when I’d go on Facebook, or visit various political blogs and forums I’m prone to frequent, all run by people I’d considered political allies of a sort (mainly self-described libertarians who claim to share my mantra “Social liberal and fiscal conservative”), I saw to my dismay how many “libertarians” favor Limbaugh’s view of ovarian-cyst treatment over Fluke’s.

I saw countless photos of Fluke’s face with captions suggesting she wants taxpayers to buy her silk sheets, Barry White albums and vibrating dildos; captions suggesting that only whores want or need healthy reproductive systems.

Sigh. Healthcare reform is a massive government-driven restructuring of something like a full 10 percent of the entire U.S. economy. There’s a serious debate about how to fix all the problems with our current system. The health and well-being of millions of people hangs in the balance. And somehow Rush Limbaugh has reduced us to talking about this crap.

So let’s get this part out of the way: Rush Limbaugh is a giant flaming asshole. He didn’t just call Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute.” The criticism he’s getting is not just about the words he used. The man spent days trying to humiliate and degrade Fluke.

Now, as a general rule, it’s a bad idea to buy insurance protection for things you can afford without insurance. This is especially true for routine and predictable costs such as contraception, where the insurance company is just going to add the cost to your premium anyway, along with a little bit of overhead and profit for themselves. This is why you insure your car against the cost of repair after a collision, but not against the cost of an oil change.

There’s also a pretty good argument that, if the government did not distort the healthcare market in any other way, then it certainly shouldn’t get involved with specifying the pill-by-pill details of everyone’s health insurance coverage.

In our reality, however, the government introduces a massive distortion by providing a tax subsidy for employer-provided healthcare, which makes it economical to buy insurance for things we could otherwise afford to pay for directly, such as routine doctor’s visits, many common medications, and yes, contraception. The tax saving offsets the cost of funneling the money through an insurance plan. But that’s only true on a personal scale. Our economy as a whole still pays the deadweight loss of operating a massive insurance bureaucracy.

(It’s not just health insurance, either. Corporations that routinely bet $100 million on developing new products for the market will still buy insurance for the $1200 computers on everyone’s desks because they get a tax break on the insurance.)

The government also distorts the market by being the single payer for millions of elderly and poor people, and it operates a chain of hospitals for military veterans. At the same time, the government drives up the cost of medical care, drugs, and hospitalization with regulations and cartel-forming barriers to entry.

The healthcare market is very, very far from Libertopia. Like it or not, the government is now heavily involved in making these decisions for us.

Don’t forget that the reason we’re debating minimum healthcare coverage terms is that, thanks to the individual health insurance mandate, the government is going to force all of us to buy into it. In free market terms, we’re losing the power of exit. If we think a store’s goods are shoddy or overpriced or just not to our taste, we can always walk out the door. We can even avoid the TSA’s degrading treatment of passengers if we’re serious enough to give up all air travel. But when it comes to health insurance, there’s no way out.

Therefore it seems a bit misguided to complain about Sandra Fluke’s desire to influence the terms of an insurance plan that she will be forced to buy at gunpoint.

I also read various respected libertarianish blogs — no names mentioned, no links provided, they’d be largely interchangeable anyway — blogs and comment threads attempting to be dispassionate, when they explained how Fluke wasn’t necessarily a “slut” for talking about her friend’s ovarian cyst, but was surely a whiny demander of free stuff because women who want their health insurance companies to pay for health problems involving their gender-specific body parts are just a buncha goddamn socialist Commies, or something.

I’m not sure, but something I wrote on my other blog might be the kind of thing Jennifer is talking about. I can’t speak for all those other libertarian bloggers, but one of the things I like to do in my posts is to take an issue in the news, pick out something that interests me, and strip away the surrounding mess until I can talk about it clearly. So perhaps that’s what some of those other bloggers were doing too.

Probably not all of them, though.

After awhile, it all started to sound like a thread on Stormfront discussing Obama’s dismal record of war crimes, TSA molestation policies and similar problems — yeah, guys, you have a couple legitimate complaints here, but quit pretending your hatred of Obama stems from your principled love of constitution and country. No: you hate the man because he is black, and the fact that he later went on to do things so odious you’d even criticize a white man for it is just a lucky coincidence.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows but some fellows I’d never bed, despite my being the sort of “prostitute” who believes women’s medical insurance companies should cover women’s medical problems. For example: no matter how bad TSA and NSA get under Obama, I’m still not hooking up with David Duke and the Stormfronters to fight them … and it looks like I can’t hook up with most “libertarians,” either. At least not the ones who’d call me a prostitute for opposing any reproductive-organs exemption to medical coverage.

Like many other radical movements, libertarianism has some very dark corners. Probably the darkest of these corners — the ones we talk about the least — are the corners where all the bigots are hiding.

I think it’s a reaction to shifting political power. There was no such thing as the Ku Klux Klan when white people were completely in charge and black people were literally slaves. But once the slaves were emancipated, white bigots lost some power in the world, and they fought back by forming a terrorist organization, with the goal of keeping blacks in their place.

That hasn’t worked out real well for them: Just check the skin color of our current President. It took a damned long time, but black people have risen up in this country and begun to take their share of political power. Women have been on the same path, gaining in power and influence every decade. These changes frighten a lot of bigots, and when people who frighten you are beginning to control the government, the idea of a smaller government begins to look really attractive. So they start calling themselves libertarians.

(Stripped of the racist elements, that’s a pretty good description of why I’m a libertarian: The people who control our government are frightening me.)

We all know a few of those libertarians. They’re the ones who complain endlessly about the government’s abuse of power, but the only example they ever come up with is Affirmative Action. They’re the ones who can only list “welfare” when asked for an example of government waste. They’re the ones who oppose gun control because “the streets are filled with savages.” They’re the ones who wrote the worst of the Ron Paul newsletters. And when the government wants to restructure healthcare, they’re the ones who only seem really upset about the parts that help women.

These kinds of attitudes do nothing to help libertarianism and plenty to hurt it, because they make other people distrust our motives. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard libertarianism derided as being for “privileged white males.”

To me, that’s a terrible misrepresentation. One of the best features of libertarianism is that it is a philosophy, not a group identity. If we oppose a policy that creates an unfair advantage for women or minorities, we do so because we believe the policy is wrong, not because of who benefits from the policy, and we will similarly oppose wrong-headed policies that hurt women and minorities, or that help white males. The goal is to make all of us more free, in the broadest way possible.

But to do that, we’re eventually going to have to convince everybody that we’ll all be better off if we all give up the special goodies we get from the government. And we’ll have a much better chance of convincing other people if they believe we are sincere in our philosophy and don’t have another agenda. Which is made a lot harder by the fact that some people who call themselves libertarians have another agenda.

To put this in terms my fellow libertarians might understand, it’s kind of like handgun registration. Many advocates of registration have trouble understanding why anyone would oppose such a simple and harmless requirement. What they don’t realize is that hardly anyone in the pro-gun movement is really worried about registration. No, what worries gun owners is what comes next? What worries gun owners is that once registration is enacted, gun grabbers will use it to enact the next step on their agenda, such as a handgun ban. This is not paranoia: There really are advocates of registration who want to ban handguns, and some of them have been successful.

Similarly, when libertarians argue that the government should not force health insurance to cover contraception, women’s advocates are likely to see that not as standing up for small-government principles, but as an attack on birth control. That’s not paranoia either. There’s a long history in this country of outlawing various forms of contraception. During the Comstock era, it was even against the law to distribute pamphlets about contraception. The last of those laws was struck down as recently as 1972. And then there’s the current Presidential candidate who says (17:40) that contraception is “a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

No wonder some women don’t trust us. Even Jennifer — a fine libertarian writer who I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit as a blogger here — is beginning to have “a secular crisis of faith” because of the way this issue has played out.

If we want libertarian ideas to have a future in our political environment, it’s not enough that we believe we’re right. We’re also going to have to convince a lot of other people that we’re right. And just because they don’t agree with us, that doesn’t make them our enemies. We should treat them with respect. When women want a piece of healthcare reform to work for them, we’re unlikely to convince them our way is better by calling them “sluts” and “prostitutes.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a slut or a prostitute. We are, after all, libertarians. So let me end this with a quote from retired prostitute and occasional guest blogger Maggie McNeill, writing about advocating for sex workers:

For any given issue there are three positions:  Those who are strongly for it, those who are strongly against it, and those who don’t have a strong opinion either way.  And no matter what fanatics and demagogues may tell you, the third is nearly always the largest group on any issue.  When trying to sway public opinion, therefore, the wise writer or speaker targets that middle group, the “silent majority”.  It’s silly to waste energy in trying to convince those who are already convinced (“preaching to the choir”), and pointless to argue with those who are dogmatically committed to the opposite view (one can’t reason a person out of a position he didn’t reason himself into).  But the members of that third group, if they can be won, will decide the way the wheel turns.  They are the ones who took it for granted that black and white people couldn’t live together peacefully, but now abhor racism; they’re the ones who accepted the claim that homosexuals were perverts, yet now agree with equal conviction that they shouldn’t be mistreated.

And they’re the ones who take it for granted that the government is there to protect us from everything and provide for all our needs, but may someday realize that we’re better off not giving anybody that much power over us.

About Mark:
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.
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18 Comments

  1. lakeline
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. It’s right on, and a significant part of the reason I don’t comment at Reason anymore, or even share most of their articles with friends (I may agree with an article but the comment threads mean it’s like agreeing with Ron Paul then attaching one of the RP Newsletters). Libertarianism is making itself unwelcoming to women – even moreso than it was 10 years ago. A backlash against Democrats shouldn’t lead to a backlash against people Dems are trying to help – it should mean trying to.show those people why the current system doesn’t help and what the alternatives are.

    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      “A backlash against Democrats shouldn’t lead to a backlash against people Dems are trying to help – it should mean trying to show those people why the current system doesn’t help and what the alternatives are.”

      That’s a really good way to put it. And the backlash makes it hard to have a civil conversation about the issues that concern us. It’s easy to get drowned out, or worse, drawn in.

      • Frank
        Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        That’s all to the good AFA some are concerned – white men who hope to make the debate more and more about white men, because they’re convined the “issues that concern us” need not involve anyone else interests.

  2. Miranda
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I had wondered why people who were against covering contraception because they were libertarians didn’t frame their opposition differently. “I oppose covering contraception because I oppose the health care mandate” or “I oppose covering contraception because I oppose expansion of government power” would have been a reasonable and rational reactions. But that’s not what was heard from the loudest and must public voices. I am not a hard-core libertatian, but may be headed in that direction, so when faced with “libertarians” who are anti-woman, I rethink the whole thing. This post clarified a lot. Thanks.

  3. robc
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I dont think the gun registration analogy holds up.

    Libertarians who oppose gun registration dont do it just because it may lead to confiscation…the registration itself is a violation of our rights.

    Libertarians who oppose mandatory birth control coverage arent doing it because they oppose birth control, but because they favor religious freedom.

    What they do have in common is that in both cases the first step is itself a violation of rights, there really isnt a slippery slope argument necessary (and I dont think it exists in the latter case at all).

    • Posted March 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      I was thinking gun owners in general, not just libertarians. I agree there’s a libertarian argument against mandatory gun registration itself, but that same argument pretty much also applies to mandatory vehicle registration, yet it hasn’t generated a lot of vocal, organized opposition. I think that’s because nobody’s really worried about mass vehicle confiscation the way gun owners are about gun confiscation. The vehicle registration system is (by government standards) run in good faith.

      As for birth control, you’re right that most libertarians don’t oppose it (for reasonable values of “libertarian”), but to a lot of progressives and moderates, libertarianism is part of right-wing conservatism, and some of those people certainly do oppose birth control. We know the difference, but we should probably make sure progressives and moderates can see the difference too. For better or worse, we should be prepared to defend against the accusations that libertarianism is a smokescreen for a less egalitarian agenda.

      • robc
        Posted March 29, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

        Smokescreeen? Libertarians do favor a less egalitarian agenda, at least as progressives define the term.

    • Miranda
      Posted March 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      I think “religious freedom” is a straw person. Those same university and hospital institutions had been covering b.c. under state-run systems for decades. And they pay for Viagra through insurance, and don’t ask the men what they do with their boners. The religious freedom argument seemed disingenuous from the start, and the reaction to Sandra Fluke’s testimony showed that it was. The anti-government regulation one seems much more motivated by true libertarian concerns and less like a conservative culture war.

      • darius404
        Posted March 31, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        I must wholeheartedly disagree with you. I believe 1) that people shouldn’t be forced to purchase health insurance just for existing, and 2) that religious employers, or for that employers period, should not be forced to pay for things that they find unethical. The best solution would be to sever insurance from employers entirely, though that is unlikely to happen.

        I don’t find the issue of religious freedom to be disingenuous, though I DO think the rhetoric about a “war on religion” to be rather overheated and hyperbolic. Also, it’s puzzling to me that some people seem to be attributing reactions to Fluke to libertarians, when it seems to me to be largely conservative in nature. Not that libertarians COULDN’T be reacting in poor form as well, but to blame libertarians for the backlash against Fluke seems disingenuous, when the only libertarian views on the subject that I’ve read are much more about the nature of her arguments than about the women herself.

        • Posted April 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          I don’t bother reading conservative websites, for the most part; I wrote that blog post complaining about libertarian comment boards and libertarian Facebook posters.

          Like I said downthread (man, I HATE threaded comments!), I’m damned sick and tired of the attitude “Lets pretend it’s libertopia already, and make laws accordingly.” So, the law now effectively makes it impossible to buy decent health insurance on your own — you have to get it through your employer or don’t have it at all — yet even under these warped circumstances, “freedom” means that employers should have the right to pry into their employees’ medical records, and make decisions regarding employees’ medical care. And if that means Sandra Fluke’s friend loses her ovary, because medical treatment for ovarian cysts hurts her employer’s widdle weligious sensibilities — let freedom ring! The system works as advertised!

          I’m imagining today’s libertarian-utopians circa 1850: “Yeah, in libertopia, divorce will be legal, and wives will be free to leave abusive husbands. Until then, though, it would be antithetical to freedom if we pass laws telling men they can’t beat their wives. We can’t let the government interfere with the family! Men NEED the freedom to manage their households as they see fit, and women still have the freedom to just say no to a marriage proposal from an abuser.”

  4. Silvermine
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I dunno, I don’t see that. My insurance also doesn’t pay for advil or tylenol. Does that mean there is a War on Headaches? If insurance doesn’t cover lactaid milk, is it a war on the lactose intolerant? I can’t eat wheat — should I demand everyone buy me rice crackers?

    I think there is a certain expectation of health insurance being for certain things — not for just a routine oil change, as you said above.

    But yes, the real issue is with the mandate and minimum requirements from the government, I no longer get to choose what I want. I have to cover what everyone wants. Only I really odn’t have that choice now — I get to choose what my employer chooses.

    I wish there was just a free and open market for insurance. I’d pick one that doesn’t cover services I would never use. (Such as alternative medicine nonsense….)

  5. bobl
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I may have missed something hidden within all this verbiage, but I thought the issue was that the mandate states that birth control be covered with no copay. I consider it insulting that the gummint would mandate (anything, actually) no copay for a drug which treats no life-threatening condition, as opposed to, say insulin. Why no copay for birth control, but a copay for insulin? So we see where this all goes, and that’s why the gummint should be out of it (as with just about everything save true interstate commerce and national defense.)

  6. Posted March 28, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Hello, Mark! Thanks for the link; you expressed what I was/am thinking, in some ways, better than I did. I’m still debating whether I even want the l-word in my blog’s subheading anymore.

    My insurance also doesn’t pay for advil or tylenol. Does that mean there is a War on Headaches? If insurance doesn’t cover lactaid milk, is it a war on the lactose intolerant? I can’t eat wheat — should I demand everyone buy me rice crackers?

    Buying Advil, Tylenol, lactaid milk or rice crackers does not require you to first visit a doctor to get the written permission necessary to own such things without fear of legal penalty. I currently do not have real health insurance; I can afford to take naproxen whenever I need to, but that;’s only because I’m not required to also buy permission from a doctor.

    Also, there are no legal bills before any state legislatures specifically granting employers the right to demand their employees explain and justify their use of advil or rice crackers. There is just such a bill regarding hormone pills (side effects include birth control), in Arizona.

    If true libertarian freedom requires codifying into law an employer’s right to peer into every aspect of an employee’s physical condition and personal life, then true libertarian freedom can go fuck itself with the taxpayer-subsidized dildo it pretends Sandra Fluke actually demanded.

    • robc
      Posted March 29, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      I smell straw burning.

      No libertarian justifies a law like that. Of course, in libertopia, the employer could make it a condition of employment. Then again, in libertopia, there would generally be no connection between employment and health insurance.

      Also, there are plenty of prescription drugs that have a copay. Like almost all of them. Mandatory lack of copay for any drug sends up a huge red flag that someone is gaming the system.

      • Miranda
        Posted March 29, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Part of the Affordable Care Act was to eliminate co-pays for preventative healthcare, I think, which is where b.c. falls in. Like, right now, I pay a co-pay for a sick child visit but no co-pay for a well-child visit.

    • Posted March 29, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Jennifer, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the kind words. I used to call myself a “classical liberal” rather than a libertarian. But that’s kind of a vague term, at least as I’ve seen it used. Eventually I decided that “libertarian” is close enough.

      I think libertarians need to think more about minimizing the damage when planning the order in which to dismantle the government. Deregulation of the airline industry has been a shining success. Deregulation of banking blew up in our faces a few years ago when banks were freed to do crazy things, but were still backed by the implicit too-big-to-fail guarantee. In Libertopia, in might make sense to remove the laws that prevent employers from poking their noses into our medical status and personal life, but the way things are now, that’s would probably do more harm than good.

  7. Posted March 29, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I think libertarians need to think more about minimizing the damage when planning the order in which to dismantle the government.

    I’d go a step further and say “libertarians need to quit pretending it’s already libertopia when discussing current policy.” Consider the libertarians who say they oppose gay marriage because they think government should get out of the marriage business altogether; meanwhile, they’re willing to stick with the status quo “straight people can marry and get all these government benefits that wouldn’t exist in libertopia,” and believe extending these privileges to gays too would be a step backwards, freedom-wise.

    Their arguments such as “Gay couples shouldn’t be getting government privileges” would be a valid anti-gay marriage argument if we lived in libertopia, where NO couples got special government bennies and gays were trying to make themselves the exception to that rule. But in our world, our real, utterly non-libertopian world, where such privileges are already doled out to everyone EXCEPT gays, such arguments reek of utter cluelessness at best, rank bigotry at worst.

    And so do the arguments about how health insurance shouldn’t pay to treat ovarian cysts with birth-control pills because that’s not how things work in libertopia. Well, we don’t live in libertopia. We live in a world where I might be obligated by law to buy a particular type of insurance policy whether I need it or not. We live in a world where the government tweaked the tax codes so that my boss can buy me insurance far more cheaply than I can buy that same insurance for myself. We live in a world where my underinsured self can easily afford various generic medicines, but have trouble affording the legally mandated doctor visit I need to get legal permission to buy those generic medicines without being arrested and imprisoned.

    In libertopia I wouldn’t need help paying for medicine, because in libertopia getting permission to buy that medicine wouldn’t cost upwards of fifty times as much as the cost of the medicine itself. In libertopia I wouldn’t be so dependent on employer largesse to get a decent insurance policy.

    And I do find it disconcerting, that in the world we actually live in, so many libertarians believe the lesser of two evils is protecting the religious sensibilities of the employer over the medical needs of all their (female) employees. The law requires expensive doctor visits for permission to take hormone pills with contraceptive benefits, but meanwhile the best way to deal with that is to let employers refuse to allow their employees’ insurance policies to cover those mandated doctor visits. In libertopia it’s fine for employers to demand intimate details about their employees’ medical records and sex lives, therefore it’s fine for employers to do that here. Et cetera.

    • Frank
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      True libertarianism defends anyone’s rights over anyone’s needs. The only needs recognized are the exercise of free trade and deadly force.