Does Classical Liberalism Need Intersectionality Theory?


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This essay was originally part of a May 2020 forum on intersectionality and liberty, hosted by the Cato Institute. We are republishing it in light of the discussion’s relevance to the current debate over critical race theory (CRT). In his contribution, Magness addresses the question of whether concepts from CRT such as Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework are compatible with the study of economics. Here Magness argues that CRT imports strong ideological biases against free-market economics, and suffers from internal inconsistencies that make it poorly suited for tackling the problems of racial and other forms of discrimination.

Although it remains a point of widely varying emphasis across the past two centuries, a clear strain of anti-discriminatory thought undergirds what may be broadly summarized as the classical liberal philosophical tradition. Its applications extend to race, gender, and religion, and generally aim to center the epistemic humility of toleration within its consideration of individuality. This approach was succinctly summarized by eighteenth-century liberal Whig forebearer Charles James Fox, who noted “Persecution always says, ‘I know the consequences of your opinion better than you know them yourselves.’ But the language of toleration was always amicable, liberal, and just: it confessed its doubts, and acknowledged its ignorance.” Such an approach prioritized assessment “from actions and not from opinions,” as distinct from prejudicial forms of reasoning that render value judgements out of fixed prior assumptions about an individual’s associations, characteristics, or identity.A

Although the specific occasion of Fox’s comment was a plea for religious toleration, its principle forms the basis of a broader recognition of the interrelation between discriminatory injustices and state institutions. We find a similar recognition in Adam Smith’s indictment of the colonial slaveowner who employed political leverage to entrench his institution with a complex system of subsidies and discriminatory laws. Indeed, Fox himself would lead a two-decade parliamentary campaign to dismantle this system’s sustaining lifeblood from the transatlantic slave trade. A common current flows through Richard Cobden’s intentional pairing of abolitionism and free market theory under the banner of Exeter Hall liberalism. Cobden’s economic program was branded the “dismal science” by its adversaries specifically from the threat it posed to entrenched racial and class hierarchies. So pronounced were these sentiments that the proslavery radical George Fitzhugh assailed the liberal maxim of laissez-faire in 1851 for making “war with all kinds of slavery” on account of depriving the state of its tools of hierarchical enforcement. And make war upon slavery they did.

The same liberal tradition provided one of the few consistent voices against progressive eugenic planning in the early twentieth century. Ludwig von Mises chastised Keynes in 1927 for unwittingly opening the political doors to mass atrocity by presumptively elevating this new “science” to a function of state policy. Friedrich A. Hayek’s withering dissection of the racial totalitarian Nazi regime a decade later explored the devastation wrought by the same intolerant lines of reasoning.

We find lesser-known manifestations of the liberal anti-discriminatory current in newspaper editor R.C. Hoiles, who took a nearly solitary stance against Franklin Roosevelt’s Japanese internment program, and who campaigned against the segregation of Mexican-American students in 1947 as part of an important case precedent for Brown v. Board. In the postwar era, classical liberalism provided a basis for scholarly investigation of the symbiosis between state power and racial discrimination, as seen in W.H. Hutt’s dissection of the South African Apartheid regime, Gary Becker’s empirics-driven formalization of an economic theory of discrimination, the public choice subfield’s investigations of discriminatory political institutions, and liberal constitutional theorizing around a non-discriminatory generality norm.

I suspect that Jacob Levy would join me in lamenting how the principles of toleration and non-discrimination have languished from underdeveloped attention in some libertarian circles. Yet I also question a presumptive claim from his lead essay that “[w]e astonishingly manage to forget that in the United States racism has been a source of statism, that state power has been expanded to enhance and entrench racial domination.” Clearly as the foregoing examples illustrate, cognizance of this very problem runs deep within the last two and a half centuries of the liberal intellectual tradition. Levy nonetheless proceeds from the belief that a gap exists in classical liberal theory’s treatment of racial and other forms of discrimination. His argument, then, holds that that this gap may be filled with what he describes as the “essential insights” of intersectionality analysis.

First posited by legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, intersectionality has become an immensely fashionable epistemic framework in academic discussions of race, gender, and other social identities, particularly as they interact under discriminatory or oppressive circumstances. Yet it also has come under fire for its own ideological baggage, and particularly its association with a number of far-left activist causes, including overt hostility to free-market economic theory. While Levy largely discounts these charges as a caricature of a mode of analysis he finds useful, they nonetheless warrant consideration when assessing the relationship between intersectionality theory and classical liberalism.

That brings us to the question of what intersectionality theory has to offer to the same classical liberal tradition. If it is a largely innocuous device for understanding how “racism and misogyny work and interact at a social and cultural level,” as Levy contends, such considerations might be expected to augment the aforementioned anti-discriminatory current to liberal thought. But if, as its critics often charge, intersectionality theory serves primarily to import anti-capitalist, Marxist, and other far-left ideological priors into social scientific analysis, an obvious tension emerges between it and the liberal tradition. Indeed, that tension would be tantamount to a complete inversion of the conscious historical links between anti-discriminatory toleration and free market theory, dating back to Fox, Smith, Cobden, and Hayek.

In attempting to answer these questions, I will note that it is not my intention to dispute whether the problems of discrimination may be interpreted through the framework of intersectional theory. Obviously they can, and they are with great frequency in the academic literature on race and gender. Rather, we must ask whether an intersectional framework is a necessary tool for understanding the interacting effects of discriminatory experiences, to the extent that any tradition that attempts to grapple with these problems will come up short in the absence of that framework. And we must also consider both the robustness of intersectionality as an analytical tool and its vulnerability to epistemic or ideological baggage, as the concept’s critics allege.

Between Two Intersectionalities

Before turning directly to these issues, it is helpful to develop a functional definition of the concept of intersectionality. In doing so, allow me to suggest that there are actually two forms of the concept at play in the associated academic literature, including Crenshaw’s original presentation. For convenience of this discussion I will designate them as its elementary and compound forms.

Elementary intersectionality offers a relatively straightforward observation. Drawing on the analogy of a traffic intersection in which cars flow from multiple directions and, should a collision occur, the quickly compounding effects that follow, Crenshaw presents the term as a mental model for understanding social interactions as well. Elementary intersectionality thus asserts that interactions traversing multiple social identities (race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, politics, and so forth) will produce distinct modes of experience that are different from the experience of any one of those identities when viewed in isolation. This in turn shapes how a social encounter is received by its participants, especially in face of discrimination against one or more component social identity. “[T]he intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism,” she explains. As a result “any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which” a member of multiple identity groups (Crenshaw uses the example of an African-American female) experiences discriminatory subordination.

Crenshaw’s claim here is fairly innocuous in its elementary form and rings true as a simple descriptive observation. This elementary usage is also consistent with what Levy refers to as intersectionality “rightly understood” in his essay. But that “truth” is also banally so, even to the point one might legitimately wonder whether its basic insight is significant enough to warrant so much ink—or whether such interactive complexities were not already a matter of other human intuitions long before the specific coining of the term.

Intersectionality’s academic fashionability likely derives from the path dependency of the scholarly literature it emerged from, as Levy also acknowledges. Crenshaw first presented the concept as a corrective to the shortcomings of earlier feminist theory, which in her critique had placed the white middle-class female experience at the center of feminism to the neglect of other identities, including overlapping experiences that diverged from this archetype. This critique may be entirely appropriate given where mainstream feminist theory stood at the time of Crenshaw’s original article. Its extension to other modes of analysis becomes another matter, particularly given that the intersectionality literature has long since expanded its reach beyond the mid-century feminist genre typified by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Here we also begin to encounter the concept’s limitations.

Outside of the normative philosophical universe of critical theory, social scientists have long used a fairly similar conceptual tool to place the study of compound social interactions of almost all types on a firmer empirical basis. Levy’s lead essay openly acknowledges this similarity by way of comparison. But multivariate regression analysis aims not only to quantify the effects of multiple variables upon an observed social phenomenon—it also provides a testable approach for discerning correlations between those terms.

Teasing out the compounding effects of multiple interacting variables is arguably the great challenge of this line of empirical analysis, and it carries with it a benefit that casual intersectionality theorizing often lacks: scientific falsifiability. Of course a related challenge is the limitations of empirical approaches in assessing variables that are not easily quantified, which is where Levy proposes the parallel value of qualitative intersectional analysis. But “difficult to measure” does not mean “impossible to measure.” And in this elementary form, even a charitable interpretation of intersectionality theory begins to look a lot like armchair multivariate regression wherein weak or missing data are made up for by injecting unfalsifiable normative speculation about how race, gender, and other identity categories interact with each other.

Let us turn then to the second form of intersectionality theory though, which I again refer to here as compound intersectionality for purposes of convenience. Whereas I’m somewhat inclined to agree with Levy that conservatives have caricatured the elementary intersectionality claim as delineated above, their charges against the concept gain greater salience when redirected to the compound form.

So what do I mean by compound intersectionality? Here I refer to the scholarly literature, including subsequent contributions by Crenshaw, that takes the relatively uncontroversial if also mundane elementary iteration of the concept then extends it to a universal mode of socio-political analysis and, with it, socio-political activism.

Examples of compound intersectionality theory abound in the scholarly literature, often taking the form of sweeping denunciations of disliked beliefs, concepts, and social institutions. In most forms it functions as a normative identification strategy to imbue the characteristics of racism, sexism, white supremacy, and other bigotries onto the oppositional target of the activist’s political agitation. Generalized assaults on “late capitalism,” “market ideology,” or the trendy pejorative moniker “neoliberalism” are commonplace in this literature, as are blanket denigrations of prominent thinkers and liberal intellectual traditions—Milton Friedman (frequently deemed an “architect” or “guru” of “disaster capitalism”), Friedrich A. Hayek (also a “chief architect” of “neoliberalism”), Public Choice theory, and libertarianism in general—as irredeemably tainted by white supremacy, even in the absence of tangible evidence for this charge. Marxist ideology and its many schismatic derivatives from the critical theory world are often baked into this same literature, as are overt activist strategies, making the heavy normative baggage of this mode of analysis an unavoidable feature. In fact, a prominent subset of the compound intersectionality literature is even explicitly devoted to protecting the concept from the supposed corrupting incursions of “neoliberal” hierarchies and “knowledge economies,” which are depicted as existential threats to the activist objectives of a supposed intersectional “political project.”

In its ubiquitous academic deployment, compound intersectionality theory functions as an epistemic trump card wherein the vantage point of an identity group or groups is invoked in the place of weak evidence to establish a social scientific claim as “true,” or to shut down and exclude a competing viewpoint with stronger evidence. We see this pattern frequently in arguments that seek to dismiss salient criticisms of a weakly attested normative proposition on account of presumptive observations about the critic’s own race, gender, class, religion, or other identity category.

While it may be tempting to dissociate these ideological manifestations from the core of intersectionality theory, simply returning to Crenshaw reveals a frank admission that an ideological project lay at the root of its elementary form. “Recognizing that identity politics takes place at the site where categories intersect thus seems more fruitful than challenging the possibility of talking about categories at all,” she explained in a 1990 expansion of the concept. “Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.” It offers no use to pivot back to the elementary form of the concept as a means of avoiding the substantial ideological baggage and far-left political activism of its compound iteration, as the two are inextricably linked in its original formulation.

In noting this conundrum, one need not embrace the oversimplified formulations of its underlying critique that come from the editorializing of the political right. Such arguments are still heavy on political rhetoric and uncharitable to the intersectionality concept, even as they touch upon very real problems with its compound form.

A more robust and intellectual criticism of the operative mechanisms may instead be found within scholarly criticisms of the broader critical theory framework. A handful of pertinent examples come to mind. Adam Martin’s assessment of “the New Egalitarianism” identifies two characteristics at play in much of this literature, and compound forms of intersectionality theory seem acutely susceptible. First, such contributions are often intentionally obscurantist, which is to say they adopt an intellectual style to “evade critical scrutiny” of their claims. Harry Frankfurt applies the moniker “bullshit” to this style of argumentation, differentiating it from an outright deception by noting that the academic bullshitter is characterized by a disregard for truth in the service of a narrative or persuasive aim. With its already tenuous relationship to falsifiability in the elementary form, compound intersectionality seems particularly susceptible to sliding down the obscurantist slope of purposeful indulgences in cluttered exercises of proprietary jargon that attempt to imbue its baser political aims with an air of intellectual sophistication.

The second feature of such literature, as Martin notes, is its epistocratic tendencies, achieved by self-invocation of the intersectionality literature as an arbiter of its own validity. Intersectionality’s origins within a relatively narrow slice of literature on mid-century feminism may render it particularly vulnerable on this count, as seen in Crenshaw’s “discovery” of what may in its elementary form be little more than a prosaic approximation of quantitative analysis, minus the social scientific validation of empirical testing. When shifted to its compound iteration, the process of self-validation becomes an acroamatic exercise, which is to say that intersectionality theorists adopt a posture of preemptively excluding viewpoints that emerge exogenously to the intersectional literature, including older and competing conceptual frameworks for the study of race, gender, and compounding interactions involving social identity. The very act of contestation of an intersectional claim, including its built-in ideological implications, thus becomes discountable by casting it as an untrained “misunderstanding” of what intersectionality means. The combination of the two, obscurantism and epistocracy, thus functions to elevate a weak and ideologically loaded social scientific claim into a position of being politically unassailable.

As a final consideration, the compound and politically loaded form of intersectionality theory carries with it the distinct risk of crowding out more conceptually robust attempts to provide substantive understanding of the problems of racial and other forms of discrimination, including their overlapping effects. Perhaps this subject will elicit further discussion in the responses, but two potential avenues warrant brief mention. The first is within the classical liberal line of anti-discriminatory theory noted at the outset of my response essay, and perhaps most recently explored through the public choice literature on the operation of discriminatory non-market institutions. The second is to turn to the economic literature on race, and particularly the evolution of different barriers to economic and social life as experienced by persons facing discrimination. Such discussions, drawing upon a multitude of methods and intellectual traditions outside of the critical theory world, offer meaningful insights for combatting the harms of both explicit and soft bigotries. Social scientific analysis of this subject suffers though if competing and exogenous attempts to grapple with the problem of discrimination are pushed aside by or subordinated to the pronounced ideological activism of the intersectionality literature.

On Intersectionality and Classical Liberalism: Is there a common thread?

Returning to the question of what room, if any, exists for commonality between intersectionality and classical liberalism, allow me to offer a few observations in light of the foregoing discussion. First, I agree with Levy that the elementary form of intersectionality is largely non-objectionable when presented in isolation. It has also been uncharitably depicted in conservative editorializing, at least when understood as that same isolated elementary form. My one caveat, and where I likely diverge from Levy on the point, is that the elementary version of intersectionality just isn’t all that profound of an insight. It is perhaps a convenient neologism for a common intuitive observation. Insofar as classical liberal theory is concerned, its isolated form does not necessarily conflict. But our sympathies for the least well-off, and our legitimate desires to grapple with the persistent problems of discrimination and bigotry in social interactions, would be much better served by tapping the long and vibrant intellectual tradition of liberal toleration and its many anti-discriminatory extensions.

Compound intersectionality presents a much trickier set of problems vis-à-vis the same liberal tradition due its ideological baggage. Insofar as the compound form is an inextricable and consciously projected political activist iteration of its elementary framing—and as we’ve seen Crenshaw treats it as such—it may be irreconcilable.

Multiple prominent intersectionality theorists, expounding the compound form, have made no effort to conceal their own hostility to classical liberal thought and thinkers, to free market economics, to capitalism, to “neoliberalism”—whatever that is other than a derisive term for the aforementioned concepts —and to libertarian perspectives as a whole. And even more so, much of this hostility takes the form of invoking unfalsifiable esotericism to “detect” hidden strains of racism, sexism, white supremacy, and other contemptible bigotries in the DNA of that which the intersectionality literature derides for political reasons. In its most abusive manifestations, this serves little other purpose than to preemptively discredit any external scrutiny that might otherwise challenge the accompanying ideological propositions of the compound form by casting them outside of the realms of respectable dialogue. Whether classical liberal thought may still incorporate intersectionality theory, or at least its compound forms, may therefore depend on considerations beyond our control, as much of the intersectionality literature has already adopted an explicit rejection of the very same proposition.

This concluding thought will likely be unwelcomed among those who see greater hope for constructively adapting intersectional analysis to liberal philosophy. But it needn’t rest on my own pessimism toward the concept.

Crenshaw herself has effectively rendered the same judgement in her most recent book. That book amounts to a broadside against the very notion of economic sciences. “The emergence of economics as a discipline…” she contends, “suppressed the study of socially constructed institutions” by reducing human behavior to “the sum total of autonomous actions by universally interchangeable rational and self-interested acquisitive subjects.” This caricature is rendered all the more astounding in her identification of what she sees as a primary culprit for this supposed trend, namely the emergence of the public choice subfield.

This mid-twentieth century outgrowth of classical liberal economic theory might strike the independent observer as uniquely suited to the study of socially constructed institutions and the harmful incentive structures therein, including discriminatory collective action. Crenshaw, however, preemptively dismisses it. And she does so by adopting the above-mentioned patterns of obscurantist deflection and self-referential curation to exclude this line of analysis entirely. Drawing explicitly upon the conspiratorial historical falsifications of Nancy MacLean, Crenshaw contends “the ‘public choice’ paradigm…linked attacks on a broad range of public institutions (especially public education) with the preservation of American apartheid.” She continues, declaring that “the core logic of an entire academic subfield,” public choice, is “implicitly constituted around assumptions of white supremacy, even as it disavowed any racial intent and animus.”

If you still hold out hope that classical liberal thought can be constructively reconciled with intersectionality theory in a way that meets Crenshaw’s own terms, I can only suggest that you are likely being as dismissive of underlying problems with intersectionality as the political right is with intersectionality itself.

Reprinted from Cato Unbound



* This article was originally published here

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