Thursday, June 16, 2011

Government bully girls are just as bad as bully boys

In her recent contribution to the Punch, Tanja Kovac illuminates her readers with a startling observation.  That I am talking about the risks of paternalist policies, colloquially labelled the ''nanny state'', for our economic and social freedoms.

Kovac singles me out for ''whipping off articles condemning the nanny state quicker than you can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.''

So why was I singled out for special attention?

Perhaps, in the minds of some pro‑nanny statists, critiques written by female classical liberals and libertarians are nothing more than a passing phase, a strange aberration, or obscure ranting by sisterhood outcasts that should never be spoken about?

So, Tanja Kovac feels a sense of indignation that the description of state paternalism has evolved into a highly gendered metaphor.  I don't know how she would feel, then, if she discovered that the phrase ''nanny state'' replaced the term ''grandmotherly government,'' which appeared in an 1873 edition of The Brisbane Courier?

In all fairness, the fellas don't get off lightly when it comes to gendered metaphors or colloquial phrases.  After all, the term ''big brother'' has been used ever since George Orwell's 1948 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty‑Four to describe governmental invasions of financial and personal privacies.

All of that said it's not Kovac's criticisms of me or my work that I worry about.  What shouldn't be left unchecked are her misguided economic and political strictures based on radical feminist theory.

Much of modern feminism perceives markets (remember, those things that provide us with food, clothing, shelter, entertainment and even paid care) are being fundamentally exploitative, often to the detriment of women.

For example, the American feminist economist Julie Matthaei once described a ''capitalist patriarchy'' whereby ''competition pervades the masculine economic sphere. ... The new ideal ... becomes struggling to advance oneself in the ''dog eat dog'' economic world, in which everyone is out to get you.''

Competition between sellers for buyers in a market might look ruthless, but in fact the outcome is social cooperation as successful transactions secure the peaceful and mutually beneficial exchange of products for money.

As the famous philosopher Sir Henry Maine once wrote markets fundamentally changed the nature of social relationships from ''status'' to ''contract'', meaning that anyone, regardless of race, religious belief, sexual preference or, for that matter, gender can arrange to strike a deal within free and open markets.

Prior to the second and third waves of feminism that barnstormed the Western world from the 1960s, feminists saw as their primary objective the elimination of government restrictions preventing equality of opportunities for both sexes.

This meant liberalising laws enabling women to acquire their own property and to participate in the workforce if they so wished.  The results of the first wave of the feminism project were nothing short of historically transformative.  The labour market opened up, and women were able to earn their own incomes outside the home.

Women today are free to choose any occupation that matches their skills, aptitudes and aspirations.

We see women driving huge trucks carrying iron ore in Western Australia, we see women dedicate time and emotional capital in the paid care of our elderly and disabled, and, yes, female Prime Ministers are now an Australian reality.  And the current debate about female representation on large company boards becomes somewhat irrelevant when we recognise that most small business entrepreneurs are women or, in effect, their own bosses.

Technological innovations, including in electrical whitegoods, and the market outsourcing of some previous aspects of home production, such as child care, have helped make the age‑old feminist agitations over the gendered division of home labour increasingly redundant.  Hubbie can not only mow the lawn but pop the clothes into the washing machine and change baby's nappy for good measure.

So, if we consider that markets are not detrimental to the interests of women or men, what are we to make of government?

Despite all the superlatives that Kovac wishes to attribute to it, the fact is that throughout history government has possessed monopoly power to coercively regulate and tax its citizens.

One might label some of the government's measures as ''nannying'', but perhaps we should really just tell it like it is.  With its powers of coercion in tow the government is a straight out bully, pure and simple.

No amount of skewing parliament's gender composition, such as the aim of Emily's List, can ever change the fact that government was, is, and always will be a bully.

It is cold comfort to feminists, that a female Prime Minister and Health Minister are taking government's bullying to new heights, whether it is alcohol floor prices, tobacco plain packaging, gambling precommitments, punitive carbon and mining taxes and so on. 

It seems that government bully girls are just as bad as bully boys.

The only fair thing to do is sound out concerns about bad public policy regardless of the gender of those pushing them.

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