“The Autonomy Myth” by Martha Albertson Fineman: Chapter 10: The Tenable State

Martha Albertson Fineman’s book, The Autonomy Myth, is not typically the type of thing that would make it on to my reading list. It’s in the category of academic work that I spent a great deal of time studying during the first half of my undergraduate years, but I’ve since moved on, deciding, as Gertrude Stein quipped about Oakland, there’s just no there there.

But this particular book, subtitled “A Theory of Dependency” was recommended to me to fill a perceived gap in my knowledge of the feminist/communitarian critique of classical liberalism. Given my concern primarily with the role of the state, I skipped ahead to the chapter setting out Fineman’s prescriptions for fixing government to better recognize (and enable?) dependency and caregiving.

Feminist Economics?

Unfortunately, my typical critique of leftist academic social theory appears confirmed: Fineman, a law professor at Cornell, appears to have little or no understanding of economics. Furthermore, she accepts without analysis the general idea that we should automatically turn to the state to provide anything we decide is good.

In a section lambasting the Republican Contract with America in the 1990s and its continuing legacy, she writes, “[a] goal of governmental policy is still to address market confidence, as though the market and not the government could be the primary guarantor of general citizen well-being.” She passes off the belief in the power of markets as mere ideology, unencumbered by empirical observation. And, in so doing, she makes a mistake so often found in academic screeds against the market: she sees only the faults without recognizing how much benefit the market has brought to society.

The point is a simple one. Since the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, standards of living have skyrocketed in the United States. The poor of today are, in many ways, far better off than the middle and even upper class of that earlier time. That there are still poor people in 2009 does not mean that capitalism has failed, just as it would be silly to claim that a drug that cures cancer is a failure because it only helps 90% of those who take it. An economic policy that makes almost everyone better off is always desirable over one that does the same for almost no one. By seeing marginal lingering poverty has a fatal flaw in liberalism and capitalism, then, the academic left risks doing away with the very system that is responsible for the dramatic improvements in quality of life over the last several hundred years.

The market is not perfect, but it is a good deal more perfect than the stagnant social democracy advocated by Fineman and her ilk.

To put it another way, when Fineman writes that “[m]issing from mainstream political and public discourse is any strong support for the state to act as a vigorous mediator of market excesses and active guarantor of a more equitable allocation of wealth,” she displays a total lack of recognition that we first need a system that can generate the wealth to be allocated. The state does not generate wealth, it only draws wealth away from the market in the form of taxes.

Fineman’s Vision for the State

Fineman’s critique is a common one: there are things in society that she values (caregiving) that she doesn’t think are adequately compensated — and, thus, facilitated and encouraged — by the market. The solution, then, is to use the power of the state to force compensation for those activities. The same refrain is heard over and over again, whether it’s artist clambering for funding or teachers demanding higher pay.

“This book has been concerned with remedying one obvious point of economic exploitation — that of those in our society who make the essential yet unrecognized contribution of caretaking.” Fineman’s proposed solution to this problem is clear.

Instead of fighting for the shrinking and weakening of a national government progressives should be focusing on articulating appropriate objectives for the state to pursue. Defining the norms and aspirations that should replace the impverished concepts provided by economics would be the place to start. There must be a change in the discourse of politics, with a new paradigm to guide state policy replacing that of the free market, in which there is no collective responsibility but only an exaggerated sense of individual autonomy.

Whether this would work in practice, and whether past experiences speak to its feasibility, is not a given, however.

The Trouble with Unintended Consequences

Absent from Fineman’s worldview is a recognition of incentives and the unintended consequences they lead to. Perhaps this is what she really objects to about economics: economists often take the role of party poopers, pointing out that, no matter how much we may want it not to be, the world we live in is one of scarcity. We cannot simply decree that there will be enough to go around and expect it to be so. As such, subsidizing particular activities will (1) draw resources away from other activities and (2) encourage people to enter the subsidized domain.

Imagine if, next week, the government decided to pay $100,000 per year all stay-at-home parents. First, that hundred grand needs to come from somewhere, most likely from an increase in taxes. The result is that, for every dollar the government transfers to a home-based caregiver, there is one fewer dollar out there to be spent on something else. Second, you can be assured that the number of people who decide to stay home to take care of the kids would jump dramatically. Those people would thus not be out in the economy generating wealth. This does not mean staying at home is not valuable, only that if we pay for it, that pay has to come from somewhere and we need to recognize that people will naturally flock to activities that will pay them. Clearly, our economy could not survive (and thus taxation would fail) if everybody stayed home taking care of kids. Where would the government get the money then to write its $100,000 checks?