A Libertarian Economist's Denialist Foray Into Feminism
Bryan Caplan's out-of-character diatribe refuses to even acknowledge that women ever had it bad
Over a decade ago, George Mason University free market economist, open borders advocate, and popular blogger (now substacker) Bryan Caplan devised an “Ideological Turing Test” in response to an invective launched by self-described “modern liberal” Keynesian economist Paul Krugman. Krugman claimed that “because people like me actually do listen,” (with the heavy implication that people who disagree with him do not), liberals could accurately describe the views of conservatives, but conservatives could not do the reverse.
Resisting the urge to attack Krugman despite all their policy disagreements, Caplan took the high road. He noted that although it would be “easy to scoff at Krugman’s self-congratulation,” the fact was that “at the meta-level” Krugman was “on to something.” Building off Krugman’s premise, Caplan suggested applying a computer science thought experiment called the Turing Test to the world of policy and politics.
This test was named after Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician famous for breaking Germany’s Enigma code, which helped the Allied forces intercept German communications in World War II. It consisted of an imitation game that Turing had devised in 1950 to determine whether AI had truly reached the level of human intelligence by testing whether a human judge could distinguish the responses generated by a machine from those of a fellow human.
Caplan’s variation measured the strength of an individual’s arguments by whether they are able to accurately and fairly represent their opponents’ ideas. “If someone can correctly explain a position but continue to disagree with it, that position is less likely to be correct,” concluded Caplan. On the opposite side of the coin, if “correctly explain[ing] a position leads almost automatically to agreement with it, that position is more likely to be correct.”
In response to Krugman’s musings on the “bizarre” and “dogmatic” views of his ideological opponents, who, according to Krugman, if asked to explain the basics of a Keynesian economic argument, “can’t get it remotely right,” Caplan proffers clear evidence that Krugman’s allegations just don’t hold up.
Simply told, “you can’t get a Ph.D. from Princeton econ without acquiring basic familiarity with market failure arguments and Keynesian macro,” says Caplan, but “it’s easy to get a Ph.D. from Princeton econ without even learning the key differences between conservatism and libertarianism, much less their main arguments.”
Failing His Own Turing Test
This same dedication to logic and reason over cheaply hurled ideological barbs has characterized much of Caplan’s career. As a self-proclaimed “libertarian economist,” Caplan frequently finds himself in the center of left-right debates. Although opinionated and often outside the mainstream, Caplan has nonetheless cultivated a reputation as a fair and reasonable man, one who avoids personal attacks and instead clearly and methodically disproves his opponents arguments on their own terms.
Which is why Caplan’s newest book, “Don’t Be a Feminist: Essays on Genuine Justice,” is so shocking.
The collection of essays, only the opening one of which is explicitly about feminism, begins with a letter to his young daughter, Valeria. Its stated purpose is to warn her about the evils of feminism, talk her out of becoming a feminist, and convince her that the notion that the world treats women less fairly than men is false (genuine justice!). Not only is the respect that Caplan extended to Krugman sorely missing from the volume, but the book itself fails to pass even the first part of his Ideological Turing Test by fundamentally and often quite uncharitably misrepresenting feminist beliefs, starting with the basic meaning of feminism.
Right off the bat, Caplan dismisses the definition of feminism embraced by most self-identifying feminists, namely, that men and women should be treated equally. As per Caplan, this definition is a cover for something more sinister and “makes about as much sense as defining feminism as ‘the view that the sky is blue.’” Then he constructs his own strawman and proceeds to demolish it.
Caplan points out that according to a 2016 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 94% of those surveyed agreed that “men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” And yet, he notes, 62% of men and 40% of women surveyed do not personally identify as feminists. This discrepancy in public opinion, as far as Caplan is concerned, proves that Americans intuitively understand that feminists don’t conduct themselves in accordance with their purported beliefs, and that feminism instead trucks in victimhood. That is why when feminists are asked if “society generally treats men more fairly than women,” asserts Caplan, “they’ll confidently agree,” even though, in his view, the reverse is closer to the truth.
But, in fact, if you dig deeper into the survey’s data, it becomes clear that Americans, contrary to the picture Caplan tries to paint of where they stand, consider feminism to be an equality—not a victimhood—movement. Indeed, when a random half of respondents surveyed were asked if they personally had a favorable impression of feminism, 58% said yes. Yet only 32% said they felt feminism generally was viewed in a positive light. In other words, their own opinions about feminism were unswayed by the negative perceptions that critics like Caplan push. This is an affirmation of feminism—not proof of skepticism toward it.
Furthermore, 66% of the respondents—including 68% of men, 3 percentage points more than women—said feminism in the United States is not outdated, and 63%—including 58% of men—said there is still a need for a strong women’s movement today. Notably, 73% of men said women face some or a lot of discrimination in our society today, and 69% said the country needs to continue making changes to give men and women equality (all these numbers were higher for women). And, while 36% of men surveyed said the feminist movement had done nothing to improve the lives of “people like you,” 44% said it had done a lot or at least some.
All of this stands in stark contrast to Caplan’s own estimation. Feminism, Caplan writes, “combines antipathy for men with the encouragement of self-pity for women.” It “turns you against your family.” True feminists, according to Caplan, are not “happy” or “kind.” They have “dire character flaws.” They “treat [themselves] poorly” and “see [themselves] as a victim.” Their “only reliable allies” are those who are as miserably unlikable as they are. As far as Caplan is concerned, feminists are bitter women who hate men.
Conflating Patriarchy with Meritocracy
But, of course, feminists don’t actually assert that “society generally treats men more fairly than women.” Caplan knows that. He also knows that “core feminist doctrine” holds that “patriarchy is bad for both genders”—his words.
But Caplan totally disregards this. He dismisses the standard definition of patriarchy—a “system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it”—and substitutes his own definition, namely, “a society where males are more successful than females in business, science, technology, and politics.” Then, in a surprising twist, Caplan accepts that in fact, by his definition, “we plainly live in a patriarchy.” Even more stunningly, he suggests that that’s a good thing too because this system is essentially indistinguishable from a “meritocracy, where the top rewards go to the highest achievers.”
Yes, Caplan says, men are more likely to hold high-powered and high-paid positions, but this is because they are more willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get there. There is nothing unfair about the gender discrepancies we see in these fields. “Men are simply more likely [than women] to obsessively focus on success”, he explains.
Meanwhile, he neatly sidesteps the centuries of legal history, even just here in the United States, proving that the government systematically excluded women (and many other marginalized groups) from the political, civil, legal and economic rights it granted landed, white men.
And that might be an overly positive characterization of what Caplan is doing: In fact, he seems to be outright denying that any such inequality ever existed. Yes, “women used to endure what we would call extreme hardship,” says Caplan, but “so did men.” “Don’t just dwell on the plight of an American mother ... in 1900,” says Caplan. “Instead, compare her plight to her husband’s.” And, of course, men in the Victorian Era did live much worse lives than women living in America today. But their lives, hard as they may have been, were still significantly less encumbered by the state—and social conventions—than those of their wives.
It is certainly difficult to take an argument seriously that suggests that, two decades before women were even granted the right to vote, they were in no way less well off than men of that era. Yet, Caplan insists, if the world is unfair to any one gender, that disparity is “probably in women’s favor.”“We expect men to be stoic and chivalrous—to gladly and silently sacrifice for the sake of women,” laments Caplan. As a result, they have died by the thousands in organized warfare throughout history. Even worse, he says, men face “far more intimidation to stay silent” about the difficulties they face than women do. And, while both men and women face societal pressure to conform to rigid gender norms, the pressure men face is “definitely more punitive and unforgiving.”
But, in defining patriarchy in such a way that it only refers to career success in certain select fields while further attempting to shoehorn the concept into some sort of resentful gender war, Caplan completely misses the point. It’s not feminism but patriarchy that promotes the idea that “men are somehow born with a duty to face mortal danger,” or that they should “man up” and stay silent about their feelings. And, it’s not feminists who label sensitive or otherwise less traditionally masculine young boys as “sissy,” as Caplan complains often happens. In fact, these are all specific issues that feminists regularly highlight as problems with our inherited patriarchal consciousness.
Genuine Injustice: Denying Feminism Its Due
Caplan criticizes the left for denying that market forces have had a hand in creating economic opportunities for women and improving their status, especially in recent decades—and he is right to do so. That, however, is not a critique of feminism, which is not an exclusively leftist phenomenon, no matter how much Caplan tries to dismiss it by putting it in that box. Indeed, feminism comes in many different flavors with countless movements and thinkers, some of whom have pushed against the omissions of their leftist counterparts.
But just as some leftist feminists won’t credit free enterprise for improving the lot of women, Caplan won’t give feminism any credit either. He attributes “much of the progress that women have enjoyed since 1900” to rising economic prosperity that helped “men and women alike”—and he is absolutely correct. The story of women’s liberation is very much one of economic freedom—a point which Marxist feminists overlook. However, what Caplan ignores is that women simply would not have enjoyed as big a share of this prosperity—or the growth in other freedoms it brought with it—if feminism had not helped them obtain the same access to markets as men enjoyed.
Caplan is in such deep denial about the contributions of feminism that he claims that while the modern labor market is “probably fairer for motivated, high-ability women today,” most American women would likely have been better off in the 1950s because they could “count on the father of their children for financial and personal support.” Maybe that’s because Caplan imagines all husbands and fathers are like him—dedicated family men. That is far from the case for many men who at the time controlled the purse strings and didn’t always prioritize their wives’ or families’ well-being. Sure children were less likely to be born out of wedlock, but men were significantly less likely to perform any actual caregiving—even 30 years later, in 1982, a full 43% of fathers reported never having changed a diaper. However, it is simply a fact that women of the period were denied both equal treatment under the law and equal access to markets.
In many parts of the United States, women could not get a mortgage or buy a home on their own, and, once married, did not have equal rights over property held jointly with their husbands, who could legally make major decisions including selling or mortgaging properties without their wives’ consent. Most American women had little control of their own earnings, could not obtain a credit card or open a bank account without a male guardian, and did not have the same access to either business or personal loans as men did. The reason that modern American women do, legally speaking, have these rights today, is because of the feminist movement, not in spite of it.
That doesn’t stop Caplan from further leaning into this argument. He claims that although feminism is not responsible for diminishing unfairness against women since the 1950s, it is responsible for increasing unfairness against men. In particular, “feminism has created a workplace climate of fear and repression,” he laments, “where co-workers keep their romantic thoughts and feelings to themselves to protect their careers.”
But what about the decline in fear that women experience? One study published in the Harvard Business Review examining the impact of the #MeToo movement in the workplace found that women reported marked drops in both sexual coercion—down from 25% of women in 2016 to 16% in 2018—and unwanted sexual attention—down from 66% in 2016 to 25% in 2018. A 2019 study from the American Association of University Women found that 38% of women who’d experienced sexual harassment said it contributed to their decision to leave a job early while 37% said it disrupted their career advancement. That’s a lot of potentially talented women lost, something that should bother a meritocrat like Caplan.
Throughout the book, Caplan never truly grapples with actual arguments made by modern feminists. Instead, he lists a set of grievances that at times reads more like an MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) or incel rant than an academic assessment.
For instance, consider Caplan’s complaint that “women view men as ‘success objects’” and value them primarily for their earning potential—a counter to the feminist peeve that some men treat women as sex objects. Not only do such allegations come straight out of red pill dogma, they aren’t even a fair assessment of the data, which seems to suggest that it is men rather than women who place a heavy emphasis on their traditional role as breadwinners.
A 2013 University of Chicago study found that marriages in which a wife outearned her husband were 50% more likely to end in divorce. This statistic is often brought up as evidence that men are primarily or exclusively valued for their ability to provide. But that percentage dropped as the higher-earning woman took on more of the domestic (and traditionally feminine) responsibilities than her husband. The more likely a woman was to outearn her husband, the less likely it was that she would participate in paid work. The study’s authors refer to this as “compensatory behavior” intended to soothe men’s hurt egos.
A 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center found that although 71% of respondents thought it was important for men to be able to support their families financially—another popular stat among anti-feminists—men were more likely to hold these views. Meanwhile, 39% of women felt women should equally be able to support their families financially, but only 25% of men did.
A 2019 study from the University of Bath found that while married men experienced the least psychological distress when their wives contributed 40% of household income, they became “increasingly uncomfortable” as their female partners’ income rose past that point; women in the same study, meanwhile, assumed that the optimum balance was for both partners to bring in 50% of household income.
In other words, it is men rather than women who are more likely to stress traditional gender norms around male breadwinning to the point that some men can feel threatened by an equal earning partner.
Similarly, many of Caplan’s other supposed strikes against feminism—that men are less likely to get custody of their children and more likely to pay child support in the event of divorce, that they spend more time at the office and less time with their children, that they face higher suicide rates, that they are more likely to be employed in manual labor, and even the prevalence of prison rape—are, in fact, issues that modern feminists do identify as problems and have discussed at great length.
To the extremely limited extent that Caplan acknowledges this though, he botches feminist arguments to such a degree that one wonders whether Caplan has ever interacted with an actual feminist at all, or if he has entirely encountered the ideology thirdhand through the half-legible tweets of internet trolls.
A Clever Marketing Ploy
Though Caplan’s arguments against feminism fall short, he nonetheless deserves an A+ for marketing. Caplan seems to imply that, as a tenured professor, he simply doesn’t care about marketing strategy, and is instead focused on sharing—as he notes—“the literal truth according to me.” But the book’s title and its supposed premise are brilliantly edgy and seem designed to drive clicks and draw praise and outrage alike—including from people who may not have even read the book but find the title confirms their priors, either about feminists (whom right-wingers don’t like) or about libertarianism, which Caplan vocally supports (but feminists and progressives don’t like).
So perhaps Caplan isn’t that reliable of a narrator. If feminism is as “culturally dominant” as he claims, it is also odd that he counsels his daughter in the first chapter of his book that “firmly rejecting feminism will help you network with male co-workers and mentors, who will probably continue to exert greater real-world influence.” Tellingly, he even refers to this advice as a tactical ploy—the “‘I’m not one of those feminists’ strategy works. Use it,” he writes.
And, that may be what he’s doing here—but for a different reason. See, the book itself isn’t actually about feminism despite the title. After the opening essay, Caplan pulls a surprising sort of bait-and-switch, rapidly moving from his diatribe against feminism to other culture war battlegrounds—including social justice (“no other movement is so dedicated to achieving the opposite of what its slogans proclaim”), wokeness, racism, political correctness and identity politics—to a series of well-written and reasonable essays on immigration, nationalism, economic redistribution and other similar topics.
Caplan’s volume is clearly trying to defy the usual package deal that the left-right binary forces us to accept: namely, that immigration advocates must be on the left and therefore support endless government expansion into our private lives. Or that if you are on the right, then you have to oppose immigration and be a flag-waving nationalist.
Trying to forge a new synthesis by examining each side’s issues on their own terms and picking and choosing the best arguments while rejecting the worst ones is an admirable exercise that, if executed properly, could show us a way out of our current polarization.
Unfortunately, Caplan’s is not such an exercise. Packaging this volume as a strident—and as it turns out—ill-considered attack on feminism may curry favor with the rising tide of angry populist men who culturally align with the right, but seems unlikely to actually convert the many nativists among them to becoming immigration advocates. Meanwhile, as with many similar overtures to the Alt-Right/NRX/Manosphere and other fundamentally illiberal audiences, it’s far more likely to alienate a large segment of the population that might otherwise be attracted to Caplan’s broader ideas about the benefits of immigration and free enterprise. And, in doing so, Caplan is likely to exacerbate rather than defuse our angry cultural divide.
It's amazing how libertarian men can clearly see the pitfalls and danger in relying on government, even government run with the best of intentions, and then still argue that women should happily give up their freedoms to live in a state of dependency.
I'm glad to see others noting the key thing that I noticed - Caplan is failing lately to ask himself if he can pass the ideological turing test, an idea I still treasure even if he apparently abandoned it. And his otherwise hopping on the anti-woke bandwagon is further proof of that. It's also odd for him to have this blind spot because he recognizes other areas where power imbalance stokes sadism - when he notes that politics is sadism. But can't quite grasp the feminism 101 idea that men having financial control often leads them to otherwise abuse their families. Maybe he's too good natured to realize that not all men are like him.