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Passion and Politics

February 24th, 2003 · No Comments

A post last week from Ampersand illustrates what I think is a pretty common type of automatic inference, and while I could probably pick on any number of other instances, I just saw this one, so I’m going to use it as a kind of case study. Amp is making the case that “right wingers,” a group in which he includes libertarians, can’t really be feminists. I’m with him for a bit of this… if you think the divinely ordained role of women is to stay home, cook, and pop out babies once a year or so, it’s probably an abuse of language to call yourself a feminist. But even most conservatives don’t really think that way any more, and certainly libertarians typically don’t. So he moves on to another argument.

Amp’s dictionary defines feminism as a movement concerned with “the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” And while, of course, libertarians want both genders treated equally under the law, Amp thinks that’s not enough to pass muster, because we don’t care about “real” equality. He writes:

As long as women are equal in the strict letter of the law, libertarians don’t care if women are hugely unequal in ways social, political and economic. They see no problem in a congress that is 87% male; although they perform statistical somersaults trying to deny that a wage gap exists between men and women, at a more fundamental level they don’t mind that women get paid less. Their alleged concern for equality begins and ends with legal equality.

So: who can spot the hidden assumption required to make this one work? It’s the automatic inference that pops up in so many other contexts: “if you care about X, then you must be in favor of government action to promote X.” Yet we can think of plenty of cases where this is obviously false. Does Amp think that someone who doesn’t want public schools to promote creationism or hold prayers can’t be a comitted Christian? Would he assume that someone who opposes the censorship of racist tracts “doesn’t mind” the promulgation of bigoted views?

I’m assuming he (and other liberals) wouldn’t make the inference in those instances because (I’m supposing) he does care about combatting racism, but he wouldn’t squelch free speech as a means to that end, and he probably also cares enough about church-state separation that he wouldn’t want to have to concede that it’s necessarily opposed to religious commitment. But you don’t get to have it both ways. If, in those instances, fealty to liberal principles of state neutrality doesn’t imply a lack of concern about the goals that those principles constrain government from pursuing, exactly where is the cutoff point? How many limits do you have to place on government action before you’re deemed to no longer care about the goal? And do you still fail to care if, say, you devote time and energy to promoting those goals through civil society instead of merely voting for a candidate who promises to pass laws with a similar effect?

My point here isn’t to rag on Amp (again, I’m just using a few lines from his post for illustrative purposes), but to make a more general point about this weird (though distinctly partial) association of commitment to some end with enthusiasm for using political means to achieve it. What’s going on here, I think, is a kind of bootstrapping logic. That is, if you already have a fairly expansive conception of the proper role of government, then, of course, the only reason you wouldn’t be for a law or program to promote X is that you don’t rate X as particularly important. It’s a short step to projecting that background, inverting the logic, and assuming that having a more restricted notion of government’s legitimate scope is the result of not caring about all of the various good things government tries to do. But when you think about it, it’s an odd inference to make. Of all the things you can do to show your concern for a particular issue, surely the least demanding is to have a political opinion about it, to argue that people should vote this way or that. To my mind, flipping a lever in favor of more money for soup kitchens doesn’t display nearly as much concern for the destitute as, say, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or donating your own money to help keep one stocked with food. So if someone does the latter, but not the former, why exclude them from the ranks of those who care? Maybe if “caring” and “concern” weren’t so readily associated with politics, more people would feel more keenly their obligation to help in those other ways.

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