Feminism: Do I Really Fail My Ideological Turing Test?
A reply to Kat Murti's review of *Don't Be a Feminist*
While I was on vacation, the Unpopulist substack, edited by my friend Shikha Dalmia, ran a critical review of my Don’t Be a Feminist, authored by Cato’s Kat Murti, co-founder of Feminists for Liberty. The review, though decidedly negative, contains generous praise for me personally. Murti leads with a tour of my Ideological Turing Test, then faults me for failing to apply it. Why? Because I describe feminism in a way that feminists themselves would not accept:
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.”
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.
In all sincerity, I wish all of my critics were half so kind as Murti. Still, as you’d expect, I think that her criticisms are largely mistaken. The problem is not that I misunderstand feminism, but that I understand it all too well.
My disagreement begins with the subtitle: “Bryan Caplan's out-of-character diatribe refuses to even acknowledge that women ever had it bad.” How can I be accused of “refusing to acknowledge women ever had it bad” when the title essay explicitly states that women did have things very bad indeed?
All earlier societies have been much poorer than our own. As a result, women in all earlier societies endured what we would consider extreme hardship.
Moving on, Murti is unhappy with my suggested definition 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.’”
I stand by this. As the original essay shows, almost all non-feminists also believe that “men and women should be treated equally.” Hence, the “men and women should be treated equally” definition fails to distinguish feminists from non-feminists. Per the Ideological Turing Test, my default is just to grant feminists’ own preferred definition. Unfortunately, their own preferred definition is so self-serving that I can’t grant it without grossly misrepresenting everyone else’s views. Feminists really are one step shy of defining feminism as “the view that we should treat people justly.”
Murti goes on:
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…
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.
I agree that most respondents in the survey - including the non-feminists - have a more favorable view of feminism than I do. You could use this to argue that I need to strengthen my definition of feminism from “The view that our society generally treats men more fairly than women” to “The view that our society generally treats men much more fairly than women.” I’m willing to so amend my definition, but this would make my empirical case against feminism so defined even easier to make - and amplify the objection that I’m attacking a straw man. After all, it is much easier to refute “Our society generally treats men much more fairly than women” than “Our society generally treats men more fairly than women.”
Still, none of the additional survey results that Murti discusses save the standard definition of feminism as someone who "believes that men and women should be treated equally.” Why not? To repeat: Because almost all non-feminists believe the same thing. Even non-feminists who affirm that feminism is outdated, that women no longer face discrimination in our society, etc.
At this point, I’ve afraid, Murti misleadingly edits several of my passages:
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.”
If you peruse the quoted essay (“Right-Wing Grievance Studies”), the sentence reads, ”normally combines antipathy for men with the encouragement of self-pity for women.” This is a statistical generalization, not a universal law. While it fits a large majority of the data, there are exceptions. I don’t know Murti well, but she is probably one such exception.
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.
The original passage reads:
While many self-styled feminists are kind and happy, this is largely because they don’t take their doctrine seriously. Earnest feminism reliably leads to dire character flaws. Earnest feminism leads you to treat men unjustly – to reflexively blame them both collectively and individually for the sheer imperfection of life. Earnest feminism leads you to treat non-feminists unjustly – to respond to reasonable objections with condescension and thinly-veiled threats. Earnest feminism turns you against your family – to see the father and brothers who have always loved and cared for you as part of “the enemy.” And earnest feminism leads you to treat yourself poorly – to see yourself as a victim, whose only reliable allies are other earnest feminists.
Note my clear distinction between “self-styled feminists” and “earnest feminists.” (Not “true feminists,” whatever that means). For earnest feminists, of course, my many qualifications probably won’t matter. For the rest of us, they do.
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.”
If you read the title essay of the book, you’ll see that I consider two definitions of patriarchy. The second definition is “A society where males are unfairly more successful than females in business, science, technology, and politics.” Isn’t this almost equivalent to Murti’s "standard definition”?
Unlike “feminism,” “patriarchy” is not in wide use, so I’m happy to work with either definition. If you prefer the latter version of patriarchy, though, we’ve got to wade through a lot of social science to understand why gender gaps exist. By this point in the original essay, I had already done so - and concluded that there is little basis for accusations of especially unfair treatment of women.
Did I do so too hastily? Murti thinks so:
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.
She has a point: I did sidestep centuries of legal history. Why? Because I wanted to focus on the world of the living. Which, frankly, is what almost everyone else cares about, too. But to be fair, I have some brief remarks on earlier times. Murti again:
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.
My point is not the obvious one that modern women live better that Victorian men.
My point is that it is not obvious that Victorian men lived better than Victorian women.
Long story short: In the Victorian era, state regulation of both genders was mild, but social conventions for both genders were strict. Women were expected to work long hours taking care of household and children; men were expected to work long hours providing for household and children.
Next, Murti makes a point that many readers will find telling:
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.
I strive to avoid hyperbolic claims like, “Were in no way less well off.” After all, it is child’s play to flag specific ways that any society treats one gender less fairly. For example, just a couple years before the 19th Amendment passed, American males were enslaved en masse to fight in World War I. 117,000 died out of a population of 105 million. Even so, that is just one metric out of many.
The worthwhile question, though, zooms out to the Big Picture: On balance, does society treat one gender more fairly than the other?
Whatever you think about this Big Picture, the right to vote shouldn’t change your answer much, because - at the risk of alienating readers - I insist that the right to vote is of little value. As I explain in my first book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, almost everyone privately realizes this. If you had to pay to vote, what’s your cutoff? $200 a year? If you could gain a month of healthy life, but lose the right to vote for the rest of your lifetime, wouldn’t you take that deal? (You could object that the right to vote, though of little value to any woman individually, is of great value to women collectively. If people voted selfishly, this would make sense, but almost all of the evidence says otherwise. The gender gap on abortion, for example, is minimal).
Murti closes the section on patriarchy with:
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.
Actually, my point is that such ideas about men’s social role are widely held by almost everyone, because almost everyone feels (even if they don’t consciously think) that female well-being - and especially female suffering - is more important than male well-being and male suffering. The ancient attitude of “women and children first” is alive and well, as the Ukraine War nicely illustrates.
In fact, these are all specific issues that feminists regularly highlight as problems with our inherited patriarchal consciousness.
Honestly, this is absurd. Go through any feminist tract and calculate the share of words they spend on female problems versus male problems. 100:1 would be an amazingly low ratio. Indeed, most feminist tracts probably contain more words celebrating male suffering than lamenting it.
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.
If someone attacked academia as a left-wing monoculture, non-left professors like myself could reply, “Academia is not an exclusively leftist phenomenon, no matter how much you try to dismiss it by putting it in that box. Indeed, academia comes in many different flavors with countless movements and thinkers, some of whom have pushed against the omissions of their leftist counterparts.”
However, that would be a silly reply, because the overwhelming majority of academics are indeed leftists. The reasonable reaction, rather, is: “You’re right, but I’m one of the rare exceptions.” (And the reasonable reaction to the reasonable reaction is: “Excellent!”) Similarly, when I talk about feminism as a leftist movement, it is silly to point out the existence of rare exceptions. I never claimed that feminism is an exclusively leftist movement. It is, however, an overwhelmingly leftist movement - and with good reason: Freedom won’t give feminists what the vast majority of them want. Government might.
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.
How exactly did feminism “help women obtain the same access to markets as men enjoyed”? Gender discrimination laws? I’ll give feminism partial credit for broadening gender discrimination laws, especially after the 60s. But since I think these laws range from ineffective to counterproductive to discriminatory, I don’t count that as a genuine victory for women’s liberation. (Reading the Feminists for Liberty webpage makes me think Murti wouldn’t count it either). If you just want to say that feminism inspired women to try harder, that hardly counts as “helping women obtain access to markets.” It counts, rather, as helping women take advantage of access they already had.
In any case, while feminism no doubt inspired some women to try harder, it also inspired a lot of antipathy and self-pity, neither of which are conducive to success in markets.
Early in her essay, Murti’s description of my views was reasonably accurate. By mid-essay, I’m afraid, she slips into hyperbole and caricature:
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.
No, my point is simply that in the 1950s, a much higher share of women lived with their kids’ biological father, and that almost all of these fathers had jobs. Those two conditions practically guarantee a modest level of financial support. In modern times, far more mothers lack this.
Murti began her essay by rejecting my definition of feminism as “the view that our society treats men more fairly than women.” As soon as she turns to empirics, however, virtually all of her claims consist in enumerating ways that our society does or has treated women unfairly - and in downplaying ways that our society does or has treated men unfairly.
I guess you could say that she is accepting my definition for the sake of argument, then showing that I’m wrong even on my own definition. But it doesn’t look that way to me.
Thus, here’s an inventory of alleged pre-feminist unfairness:
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.
Even before the 20th century, almost all of these conditions only applied to married women. Perhaps some of these practices were very unfair, but once you understand the context, matters are less clear. For example, back when single-earner families were the norm, it was reasonable for a bank to ask, “Wait, why does this married woman want to get a credit card without her husband’s knowledge?” It sounds a lot like she plans to spend a lot of money without informing the person who is legally responsible for paying the debt.
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?
This reaction nicely illustrates my point that feminists care little about male well-being and male suffering. I see not even a single sentence to acknowledge that there’s something to my concerns about the climate of fear and repression. (This is especially strange because Feminists for Liberty seems to oppose discrimination and sexual harassment laws). Instead, Murti moves immediately back to female suffering.
I, in contrast, gladly acknowledge both perspectives. Modern laws and norms strongly protect women from unwanted workplace attention. Granted, but at what price? Modern laws and norms also strongly “protect” women from wanted workplace attention. And yes, they create a climate of fear and repression. From a utilitarian point of view, I say that is a terrible deal. And from a libertarian view, you’ve got to admit that matters would be very different if businesses were free to balance these costs and benefits without fear of lawsuits.
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.
When you say things like this, it is very hard to believe that you take male suffering seriously. Yes, the MGTOW and incel movements are deeply flawed. Like feminism, they have a strong tendency to foster antipathy and self-pity. Even when MGTOW/incel complaints are accurate, their attitude is not constructive. Still, we should at least hear them out, and give credit where credit is due.
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.
It may well be that males emphasize their traditional role even more than women do. This hardly shows that women don’t greatly value male success in the mating market. If I produced studies showing that women care even more about their physical appearance than men do, would this show that men don’t treat women as sex objects?
Yes, you might reply, “Well, it’s because of male attitudes that women care so much about their looks.” Somewhat plausible, yes? And “It’s because of female attitudes that men care so much about their success” is similarly plausible.
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.
“Great length”? No, lip service at best. To repeat, in feminist writings, what is the ratio of words spent discussing female problems to male problems? 100:1 is generous.
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.
Let me level with you.
My main interaction with feminism has been living in American society for the last 51 years. During this time, I have heard an enormous amount of self-righteous, one-sided complaining about how our society treats men more fairly than women.
I also know that mainstream social science has found most of feminists’ top complaints to be grossly exaggerated at best. Furthermore, the social scientists who produce this research fear a wide range of punishments, especially if they dare to energetically promote their work.
I’ve read the standard feminist works, and seen that they exemplify self-righteous, one-sided complaining. They largely ignore the social science, and try to intimidate skeptics into shutting up.
More personally, I have interacted with many women who call themselves “feminists” but don’t take the ideas very seriously. They’re OK.
I have conversed with a small number of earnest feminists. They confirmed my negative expectations. They’re not OK.
Finally, I have conversed with a small number of self-identified “libertarian feminists,” who seem like good human beings who are struggling to square a circle. They’re better than OK, so I implore them to stop them wasting their time.
Near the end of the essay, Murti points out a tension in my position:
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.
To see where I’m coming from, read my essay “Dominance: Material Versus Rhetorical.” By “cultural dominance,” I mean dominance in the realm of words and ideas. In the modern West, feminists give almost all of the public sermons on gender relations. Feminists control what both men and women can loudly say to co-workers. This doesn’t mean, however, that they have a stranglehold on practical decision-making. There, men continue to more than hold their own. You can call it spiritual versus temporal power, or just talking versus doing.
I advise my daughter to avoid the talkers and befriend the doers. Unless you have tenure to shield your heresy, dear readers, you should probably do the same.
Let me close with questions for Murti. I can see why you would claim that my critique of feminism is overstated. But if you don’t even sympathize with my concerns, why bother to start “Feminists for Liberty”? Do you really deny that the feminist movement heavily relies on fear to silence dissent? Why do you find so little fault with the vast majority of self-identified feminists who would never join your organization? Is it because their hearts are in the right place, even though their favored policies are counterproductive? Is it because they’re “not real feminists”? Or what?