Bryan Caplan started a stir Monday, saying women were freer in 1880 than today:
Women of the Gilded Age were very poor … But from a libertarian standpoint, they were freer than they are on Sex and the City. … Marriage was still voluntary. … One exception to the feme covert rule [limiting wife property] was in the instance of a prenuptial contract. All colonies accepted these contracts, but few couples signed them. … In economies with primitive technology and big families, it makes perfect sense for men to specialize in strength-intensive market labor and women to specialize in housework and childcare – and for default rules to reflect this economic logic.
One way to deny an individual the ability to choose really freely is to raise her in a way that constantly cultivates and reinforces a set of preferences and expectations that fit comfortably within a social and legal order of paternalistic control and systematic inequality of status and rights. … I take it that [Bryan] would be unwilling to endorse slavery even if slaves could be conditioned from childhood to consent to their chains?
Judging relative freedom across centuries seems hard; so many things have changed. But the idea that we should discount voluntary choices in other cultures more than in ours because of their supposed cultural brainwashing is pretty arrogant.
Sure the choices of the Amish, or of Utah polygamists, are greatly influenced by their culture. Same for typical US folks of 1880. Yes, I might want a chance to warn the young of other cultures against committing to their culture’s life plan, until they’ve considered the virtues of my culture’s plans. Yes, I could imagine a hyper open culture that went out of its way to get its kids to consider a wide range of possible plans before committing. And yes, we are now are rich, and wealth can buy many freedoms.
But other than being rich, we are not an especially open culture; on the whole our young are just as brainwashed into doing things our way as are the young of most cultures. Is it really obvious, for example, that should devote so many of our early years to schooling? Our descendants may well be as horrified by our common commitments, as we are by those of our ancestors.
Most folks in most cultures voluntarily commit to their culture’s usual life plans. The young tend to be freer than the old, but once they have committed, they become less free. The young enslave their future older selves, tying them to choices favored by their culture. In this way we all become slaves to our culture. I’ve argued we should try harder to overcome this provincialism:
Try to celebrate, and truly listen to, honest intellectual travelers, who take the time to be trained in other cultures, disciplines, and schools, which then influences their thoughtful contributions.
But to just assume that others are less free because they don’t do things our way is simple inexcusable arrogance.
Added 10p: When the issue is marginal cultures, like Amish or polygamists, surely they are much more aware of dominant culture plans and arguments than vice versa. Remove the log from your eye before you try to remove the speck from theirs.