Gender Studies and Economic Development: United by Fear?

For a long time I’ve considered the fear of the uncertain as a barrier to economic development. For it leads to excessive regulation, which hampers the much-needed flexibility in such an unpredictable world we live in. And it seems that gender studies cause similar fear, as suggested by an interview Judith Butler gave in 2015, which I came across when trying to understand the polemics around her recent visit to Brazil.

Economics first.

The idea that freedom is equivalent to economic prosperity is conspicuous in the literature that stretches from Adam Smith’s classical liberalism to Ludwig von Mises’ libertarianism. Any attempt to run through it all would be pointless in this space.

This seems to be the real problem of economic development: how to determine the boundaries between different individuals’ freedom?

Therefore, I’ll just make a brief comment on the idea. It does not presuppose the existence of “oracular markets”, which would be capable of always making wealth-maximizing decisions. On the contrary, markets are made of humans, often not too rational, which will also make mistakes even when operating in freedom. However, freedom not only leads to a situation where mistakes are diffused, but also grants flexibility for one to learn from what went wrong before a systemic crisis comes about. Thus, prosperity is not related to the attainment of a pre-determined level of wealth resulting from ideal decisions. Instead, it is the allocation of available resources obtained when everyone acts according to their own beliefs of what is best for them, restricted only by their peers’ individual freedom.

However, with this last restriction comes what seems to be the real problem of economic development: how to determine the boundaries between different individuals’ freedom?

Through the centuries, the practical solution has been the adoption of a system of central control (a state operated by a government). Hence, the economic development problem has been reduced to a more technical question, namely how to regulate markets. However, this solution assumes that individuals are incapable of resolving occasional freedom conflicts on their own. Therefore, it implies a discussion on how to restrict freedom a priori, and thus, a discussion on which distortion from prosperity would be the least worse in order to avoid conflicts.

Nevertheless, we should never lose sight of the precedent question: why regulation needs to be centralized? Or, analogously, why can’t individuals self-regulate? Or even why do individuals prefer to outsource part of their decisions to an entity that will frequently act against their interests?

These questions are literally larger than life. In any case, I tentatively say that individual responsibility lies at its core. Individual responsibility would be the awareness of the consequences and limits of one’s own actions. It restrains expectations or demands of obtaining fruits not generated by one’s own actions. Therefore, it seems to me that the necessary condition for a superior authority to be dispensable is that all individuals take full responsibility for their actions. And if all individuals can be certain that all the others will also be responsible for their own behavior, we probably have the sufficient condition. This would avoid expropriations under a fully liberal economic model.

In a more straightforward way: if I can hold myself accountable for what I do, I don’t need any agency to do that for me. The more people take responsibility for what they do, the more diffuse their agreements can be and the higher the odds that each person will be able to live according to their own beliefs.

The problem is that all this freedom curbs the possibility of blaming someone else for whatever goes wrong. Individual responsibility thus implies the overcoming to a certain extent the fear of the unknown.

This is what leads us to the gender discussion.

There is some sort of resistance towards whatever is not previously decided, towards what one has to choose.

I don’t know much of Judith Butler’s ideas yet. Therefore, I should not voice any opinion on them, with the risk of putting myself in the same position of those yelling “burn the witch” in front of the venue where she spoke. Anyway, in her interview to the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper, the reply on why gender is feared called my attention.

Her answer sent me back to the fear of making choices. It starts with:

“My understanding is that some people fear that “gender” means there is no natural law to regulate the division of sexes. They want natural laws to establish gender for them.”

In other words, there is some sort of resistance towards whatever is not previously decided, towards what one has to choose. It goes on:

“Whereas some understand that lives may have several trajectories in terms of gender and sex, those who fear gender want only one kind of life to exist. And they want it to be fixed by God or natural law. All else is frightening chaos, and frequently they chose hate as the way to deal with their fears.”

For anyone who was born in disagreement with a certain gender pattern, being able to choose how to show themselves to the world is not an option, it is necessity. However, many people still seem to be scared by multiple choices and prefer to impose standards. Because they fear being accountable for whatever they may choose?

Through gender discussion, I came across Butler’s discussion on the fear of choosing. It is maybe the same fear that leads to the difficulty in taking responsibility for one’s own decisions. Maybe the same fear that hinders economic development.

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