Libertarian Feminism: Rape Culture as a Spontaneous Order

Libertarians often respond to feminists’ claims of “rape culture” with lots of dismissive hand waving. On first glance, it seems like rape culture seems like an anti-concept. The conspiratorial notion that the entire male population is working together to consciously bring about a system of intimidation and control through the use of rape is implausible. After all, most men are not rapists and as a male, I can tell you there is no such heinous plot I’m aware of. But on second glance, and in an attempt to bridge libertarian and feminist thinking, can we apply traditionally libertarian insights to traditionally feminist concepts (such as rape culture)? I believe so.

In Women and the Invisible Fist: How Violence Against Women Enforces the Unwritten Law of Patriarchy, Charles Johnson uses the classic Hayekian concept of spontaneous order to better understand feminist theories of patriarchy. Johnson points out that historically, feminists have rightly pointed out centralized, state enforced forms of violence against women such as lethal abortion laws, the use of rape as a weapon of war, and the like. Libertarians likewise object to these instances of coercion.

Feminists are also concerned with forms of disperse, decentralized violence, such as rape, domestic violence, abuse, and the like. While libertarians find these instances of violence immoral and objectionable, they don’t go as far as feminists do when the latter identify them as both a symptom and cause of patriarchy. Feminists identify this kind of violence as pervasive, systematically structured by sex, and as having powerful “ripple effects.” So while libertarians often see this kind of violence against women as abnormal, feminists see it as a much larger, institutional problem.

Susan Brownmiller’s famous “Myrmidon theory” says, “It [rape] is nothing more than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” While this has been misunderstood to mean all men are rapists, which is obviously untrue, Johnson argues Brownmiller is really saying, “the practice of rape by some men functions to give all men a position of power over women.” This is where we can turn to economist and F.A. Hayek for some insight.

Most of the time, when libertarians think of spontaneous order, they think of the wonders of the market, of the great gains from trade, of Jeffrey Tucker prancing around a McDonalds. But Hayek’s crucial addition to libertarian social theory is also a crucial addition to feminist theory. In Kinds of Order in Society, Hayek defines spontaneous orders as “unlike orders that result from conscious organization according to a preconceived plan, are orders of another kind which have not been designed by men but have resulted from the actions of individuals without their intending to create such an order.”

Nothing about this conception of spontaneous order implies a voluntary, peaceful order; though that is often the way libertarians apply the concept. Johnsons distinguishes between three versions of spontaneous order:

  • Consensual rather than coercive (when “spontaneous” means “uncoerced”);
  • Polycentric or participatory rather than directive
  • Emergent rather than a consciously designed pattern (when “spontaneous” means “not planned in advance”)

Now we can see how spontaneous order can be used to analyze Brownmiller’s “rape culture.” While the kind of systemic intimidation and fear that afflicts all women is not consensual, it is “polycentric” and “emergent.” There is no conscious effort on the part of men to establish “rape culture” as we know it. However, the actions of rapists have unconsciously created an unplanned culture that afflicts all women and men. Not all men are rapists, but all men have been put into a position of power over women because of the actions of a few men.

In Hayekian terminology, male rapists have created a spontaneous order known as “rape culture.”

Clearly then, the libertarian dismissal of “rape culture” as an absurd and impossible conspiracy conjured up by men-hating feminazis is misplaced and not well thought through. Libertarians’ own social theories can explain what “rape culture” is, how it arises, and how it’s maintained. Hayek probably wasn’t thinking of violence against women when he was working on his theory of spontaneous order, though Johnson’s essay has shown that the Nobel Prize laureate’s work is complementary to feminist theories of “rape culture,” particularly Susan Brownmiller’s “myrmidon theory.”

This instance of libertarianism and feminism working together is not abnormal. It’s merely another in the long line of areas where the two schools of thought are on the same page. Libertarianism and feminism are natural allies and it’s time they were brought together to form a cohesive theory of liberation. Johnsons’ Women and the Invisible Fist will hopefully be among the first works that merge the two.

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