Sex equality is not about maximising women’s labour productivity. If women choose to stay at home, it’s not the business of government policy to push them into work.
In the English, Commonwealth and American ‘common law’ legal systems, no-one can compel anyone else to enter into a contract, let alone into a contract of employment. The whole point of a contract is that it’s entered into freely and for mutual benefit. The price (or, in employment terms, the salary) reflects how much the potential employer values the prospective labour of the employee, tempered by the extent to which the employee wants or needs the job.
Introducing a law that makes someone work for somebody else is called ‘slavery’.
Yet that is exactly what Sarrah Le Marquand recommended last week in the Australian Daily Telegraph. She argues, astoundingly, that it should be against the law for anyone (though the proposal is really aimed at women) to quit their job to be a full-time parent, if their children are school-age.
Let’s put aside empirical arguments about how the absence of parents in the home results in a less nurturing and stable home life for children; economic arguments about how forcing both parents into the workforce will push up the demand for and therefore the price of childcare; or appeals to the obvious absurdity of one parent working simply to pay the fee of a childminder when they could be at home themselves providing a far better environment for their children.
It would still be a violation of a woman’s – anyone’s – freedom to tell them that they must enter into work if they don’t need to.
Le Marquand discusses the negative impact of the absence of many women from the workforce, as though the primary purpose of work were to produce a higher GDP for the nation state. This is a corporatist, authoritarian notion of economic life which humans anywhere on the political spectrum should reject. Humans work to feed and clothe themselves, not to enrich and grow the state, like a worker ant or Soviet Stakhanovite.
The purpose of work is to gain the resources necessary to provide for oneself and one’s family. Once that’s achieved, its secondary purpose is as a way for individuals to exchange their time and effort for money to spend on their hobbies and interests. Once fundamental needs are met, working is neither good nor bad; it’s a choice freely entered into for mutual benefit. The state should not have the power to make me work any more than it has the power to make be buy a house.
There is a further dimension to this, too, and it’s about the extent to which the state should legislate to support the choices some feminists – or any other ideological faction – regard as ‘right’.
The argument that’s made by radical radical feminists such as Le Marquand is that, left to their own devices, people will make the ‘wrong’ choices; that is to say, choices that they themselves would personally not have made.
Whether by biological instinct, social pressure, or some combination of the two (alongside the fact that women who want to bear children have to take some time off per pregnancy), a greater number of women than men will end up working part-time or dropping out of the workforce altogether to care for those children.
A liberal should have no objection to this choice, provided that the decision isn’t coerced. And a liberal should have a precise definition of ‘coercion’. Being persuaded to make a decision by an advert – or a government information campaign, or your religious leader, or your husband – is not coercion. Being threatened with the use of force is coercion. Since governments back up legislation with the threat of force, legislation is importantly different from advertising, preaching, media coverage, or any of the various ways radical feminists imagine women are reduced from the status of full rational agents.
Following J.S. Mill’s Harm Principle, societies with limited governments generally allow citizens to make their own preferred choices, provided that they do not infringe upon the freedoms of others.
The problem is that, somewhat ironically, radical feminism does not really believe that women have proper autonomy. It supposes that their actual decisions were not their own, but that they have been cajoled, against their ‘real’ will, by the ‘Patriarchy’; so state legislative force must be brought to bear in order to ‘correct’ their decisions. More typically, the radical feminist advocates that the government should correct the harmless decisions of everyone around them – all those cajolings of women whom the gender feminist imagines as stupid or suggestible – in order ‘fight’ the ‘Patriarchy’.
This argument, that women in a ‘patriarchal’ society do not have full autonomy because they have been duped by some male-led conspiracy or collective brainwashing strategy, is both insulting to women and a denial of the Enlightenment principle that all humans have equal access to reason and are hence able to make rational decisions for themselves.
This line of thinking suggests that legislators’ opinions on what makes a good or bad choice, in this instance whether working is a better use of one’s time than bringing up children, should actually be made mandatory for everyone else, regardless of their personal preference.
There are many reasons why this is a dangerous move. First, governments do not know all the untold thousands of details that make up the complex realities of people’s lives, the manifold factors that affect their decisions, and the values that they bring to bear when choosing their own behaviour patterns.
Hopefully we all agree that it’s proper for people to make decisions based on their own values, and the government should try to mediate between disagreements about those values rather than deciding whose values are proper and improper. One person who happens to be a legislator may have one particular outlook on life, while the postman in Weston-super-Mare might have another, and that’s OK.
It might, for example, be the case that one parent has a significantly more demanding career that lends itself far less easily to flexible working, while the other has a job more amenable to family life. It might simply be the case that the best salary one parent can earn is actually less than the cost of childcare, so that working doesn’t make financial sense. It might even be the case that one comes from a conservative Muslim family and believes that traditional gender roles are sanctioned by the Quran.
The fact is, it doesn’t matter what one’s private motives are. Individuals and families are the people best placed to make these complex decisions for themselves, based on the beliefs that they hold and the physical realities in front of them, not a government that is attempting to enforce some utopian vision it adopted based on the ideological whims of the PPE graduates who populate the House of Commons.
The radical feminists might be right, and it really might be the case that motherhood really does fail to realise women’s full potential, and that working in an investment bank or a law firm or a café or a restaurant or the military or the arts are all objectively superior to raising children, as a way for a woman to use her time.
But this is clearly a value judgment that, like it or not, not all people agree with. Even when we discover the truth, we retain our duty to be intellectually humble, and we do not automatically gain the right to make adherence to that truth mandatory for others by means of the strong arm of the state.
No government that is committed to upholding liberty and the right of private citizens to make their own decisions, reflecting their own priorities and information, would use logic of this kind to coerce its citizens. To do so would ride roughshod over a freedom as basic as the freedom not to enter into a contract. The purpose of government is to allow individuals to make the best choices for the flourishing of their own families, and private individuals are the best-placed people to understand what decisions will benefit themselves and their children.
Once a state vision of the good life is imposed in such a way that excludes the freedom to make choices that don’t reflect that vision, then one has conceded that it is government, and not the individual, that really knows best. This alarming impulse must be resisted.
Gavin Rice teaches Philosophy & Theology at a leading British independent school and read Theology at the University of Cambridge.
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