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Why Aren't There More Female Libertarians?

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Close your eyes and picture a libertarian. Maybe Rand Paul’s grinning visage and satyr-like curls swim before your lids. Maybe you see that guy from college who hijacked a seminar on Madame Bovary by pontificating about laissez-faire economics. Either way, you are definitely picturing a white dude. 

Anything else would be pretty close to inaccurate, as a survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute earlier this week reminds us. “Compared to the general population,” the 7 percent of Americans who identify as libertarian (plus an additional 15 percent with libertarian leanings) “are significantly more likely to be non-Hispanic white, male, and young. Nearly all libertarians are non-Hispanic whites (94%), more than two-thirds (68%) are men, and more than 6-in-10 (62%) are under the age of 50.” A good deal has been written about why libertarianism is off-putting to so many people of color, especially after bigoted newsletters that were published in Ron Paul’s name in the 1980s and ‘90s resurfaced in 2011. But why are there so few libertarian women? Don’t women enjoy freedom, too?

The thing about freedom is that its heights are limitless, and its lows are bottomless. Libertarians, I presume, look at that void and never consider that they will do anything but rise. And “communalists,” as the Research Institute dubbed the other end of the spectrum, probably look and are horrified by the many eventualities that could sink them. This is Thomas Hobbes’s "state of nature": The strong snap up all the firewood and nuts and berries and whatnot, and the weak die starving and shivering in the cold. But what does that have to do with gender? In any state of nature that today’s libertarians would like to return us to, women seem as well-equipped to succeed as men, their paucity of brute strength not being such an issue thanks to modern amenities. So the divide must be more between how women see themselves and how men, especially libertarian men, see themselves—not how they actually are.

That conclusion shouldn’t come as a surprise to pretty much anybody, and beyond its intuitive familiarity, there’s plenty of research to back it up. Of course, Sheryl Sandberg and her class of professional superwomen have drilled home the ways women sell themselves short in professional settings. As one Sandberg acolyte writes at Slate, “A 2011 study by Carnegie Mellon University found that men were four times more likely to ask for a pay raise than women. Women were more likely to wait until a promotion or assignment was offered, rather than asking for it in advance.” And this same confidence gap defines women’s expectations of their personal prospects. According to a study, “almost half of American women fear becoming bag ladies” and living in destitution on the street. Forty-nine percent of women making $25,000 or more believe homeless is not outside the realm of possibility for them—and 27 percent of women earning over $200,000 a year carry the same anxiety. The study didn’t poll men, but I’d hazard a guess that their responses wouldn’t suggest the same level of self-doubt.

It takes a very particular person to ignore the risks that come with absolute freedom, and that particular person is usually a white male. Jonathan Chait put it best when he wrote for New York,

In [Ron] Paul’s world, state-enforced discrimination is the only kind of discrimination. A libertarian by definition opposes discrimination because libertarians oppose the state. He cannot imagine social power exerting itself through any other form. … The entire premise rests upon ignoring the social power that dominant social groups are able to wield outside of the channels of the state. Yet in the absence of government protection, white males, acting solely through their exercise of freedom of contract and association, have historically proven quite capable of erecting what any sane observer would recognize as actual impediments to the freedom of minorities and women.

Then again, maybe it’s not all bad that many women—and many men, too—admit the capriciousness of fortune that can, in fact, turn breadwinners into bag ladies. In Hobbes’s thought experiment, people cotton on to this pretty quickly: They realize they can’t all be winners, and most will be losers, and they make a social contract. In the past few decades, we’ve taken it a little further and, to the libertarians’ chagrin, made a social safety net. It’s to women’s credit that most of them are not in favor of throwing it away.