Review of Don’t Be A Feminist

Monday, May 22, 2023

I hesitated to write this because of the extent to which Bryan Caplan is talking past feminist concerns with his essay Don’t Be A Feminist. It’s pretty cheeky of him to write a supposed rejoinder to feminists without citing any actual feminist work, and it makes it a little hard to respond, since he’s arguing against an imagined position.

Here’s the really fundamental problem with this essay: Caplan wants the question of whether one ought to be a feminist to be empirically decidable. Now, no doubt, political beliefs involve factual beliefs as well as value judgements, but the latter can never be strictly reducible to the former (this is a version of the “is-ought” problem, as first articulated by Hume). Being clear on the epistemological distinction between facts and values is vital for accurately understanding political disagreements. What this essay does (and what feminists have argued that classical economics does more broadly) is smuggle its normative commitments rather than making them explicit.

Most people will notice right away that Caplan is using an unusual definition of feminism: “the view that society generally treats men more fairly than women”. His argument is that regardless of how people define the term “feminism”, this view accurately distinguishes feminists from non-feminists. This not being a generally accepted definition, some people will dismiss the rest of the essay out of hand. But I’m more sympathetic; I think what Caplan is trying to do here is identify the crux of the disagreement between feminists and non-feminists, and I do think crux-seeking is useful for understanding political disagreements! And here’s where I’m not so sympathetic: to accurately identify such a crux, he should have read some actual feminist literature.

It is impossible to empirically determine whether or not a situation is fair without first defining the concept, and fairness is a notoriously difficult idea to pin down. In fact, disputes over what constitutes fairness are at the heart of just about all political philosophy.1 John Rawls conceives of fairness as comprising several things in order of priority: universal basic rights, effective equality of opportunity, and the acceptance of inequalities only insofar as they benefit the worst off. Robert Nozick argues that fairness has nothing to do with outcomes at all – inequality is perfectly fine as long as it has come about through voluntary exchange and other legitimate processes. 

Bryan Caplan is a self-described libertarian, so I presume he leans towards something like Nozick’s theory of fairness. He hints at this by saying “there is a world of difference between unfairness and inequality.” He is also an economist, and clearly holds to a belief in rational choice theory (RCT) – the idea that people act in their own rational self-interest. This is central to his specific arguments about why women’s relative economic and political disempowerment is not “unfair”. He argues, for example, that the gender pay gap is fine because women prefer domestic work and caring professions and this work just happens to be less well paid (or not paid at all). It is unacceptable, I think, to make this argument and not reference a single feminist economist who disagrees. There is an entire tradition arguing that in fact, work “preferred” by women is systematically undervalued in our society. There is also a rich body of feminist literature arguing against preferentism altogether (the extremely influential Capability Approach was born out of a critique of adaptive preferences). Caplan’s commitment to RCT, belief in the justice of the free market, and lack of concern for outcomes put him at odds with most feminists; if it’s a crux he’s after, he should seek to understand these foundational disagreements.2 

On the actual empirical content of the essay, while I can infer roughly what Caplan means by “fair”, I was left in the dark about how he means to quantify it. What does it mean to say one group’s treatment is “more fair” than another’s? More domains in which unfairness manifests? Higher number of preferences thwarted? Greater magnitude of the consequences of said unfairness? The section of the essay tantalisingly entitled “Aggregating unfairness” makes no effort to spell this out, and indeed is so vague that I can’t even speculate as to what he has in mind. He thinks the most salient issues are violent crime and war (affects mostly men) and burden of childcare (affects mostly women), but offers no quantitative or qualitative way of comparing these. It’s also curious that he doesn’t mention abortion rights at all; surely one of the most pressing concerns of feminists in the US, and one that I would expect libertarians to also be exercised by! 

I’ll give Bryan Caplan one thing – I think he’s right that feminism is at odds with libertarianism. But, like most self-described feminists, I am not a libertarian. I think that outcomes as well as processes matter, that freedoms in the sense of meaningful capabilities are more important than freedoms in the sense of immediate preference fulfilment, and that preferentism is hopelessly status quo biased. I call myself a feminist because I think that women’s relative political and economic disempowerment points to there being ways in which our institutions and norms disadvantage women. Because I think that reproductive rights and the disproportionate burden of childcare are pressing issues that deserve our political attention (which is not to say that I don’t think there are pressing issues that disproportionately affect men; I don’t see it as an adversarial position or a zero-sum game). And because I care deeply about the rights and welfare of women worldwide.3


  1. The idea alluded to by Caplan in his Aporia podcast that there is a shared folk notion of “fair” is also clearly false. At the very least, people on the left/right side of the political spectrum will often disagree about what is fair, even if they agree about the facts.
  2. Some starting points:
  3. I was surprised by the idea that you ought only claim a feminist identity if there are pressing feminist issues in your own country. Feminism is usually understood as a universal creed, not just a concern for the rights of women domestically. Based on Caplan’s advocacy of open borders I expected a more global, universalist perspective. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.