In his 1869 essay, “The Subjection of Women”, John Stuart Mill argues for social, and especially legal, gender equality. Mill asserts several lines of argument from utilitarianism, the moral and intellectual progress of society, and the liberties of the individual (“The Subjection of Women”) towards this goal. One key line of reasoning disparages the paternalistic assertion of women’s inferiority and attacks the legal enforcement of male chauvinism. As he says,
“the anxiety of mankind to intervene on behalf of nature, for fear lest nature should not succeed in effecting its purpose, is an altogether unnecessary solicitude. What women by nature cannot do, is quite superfluous to forbid them from doing. What they can do, but not so well as the men who are their competitors, competition suffices to exclude them from” (Mill 665).
To illustrate this point, Mill cites competition’s sufficiency in insuring blacksmiths are strong-armed men. For Mill, the individual, regardless of gender, is the best judge of ‘capacity and vocation’ (Mill 661), and when the individual errs, competition corrects. But while the blacksmith example effectively demonstrates Mill’s principle, the principle itself is only narrowly valid. To prove this, I’ll be presenting several cases in which individual judgment and competition in turn fail to deliver optimal results. But first, some background:
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), son of the Scottish utilitarian philosopher James Mill, wrote “The Subjection of Women” in 1869, possibly in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill, herself the author of “The Enfranchisement of Women” (1851) (“John Stuart Mill”; “The Subjection of Women”). An accomplished writer and politician, Mill was the first British MP to propose women’s suffrage (“John Stuart Mill”), and also advocated for women’s emancipation in his seminal work “On Liberty” (“The Subjection of Women”). Now, let’s return to Mill’s argument in “The Subjection of Women”.
After having shown the insufficiency of custom to justify the subjection of women, Mill “goes farther” and argues that the course of history has made the principle of [women’s] inequality contrary to the zeitgeist of 19th century Europe (Mill 660). This spirit, Mill asserts, is individualism and socioeconomic self-determination unmolested by positive law or interdiction (Mill 660); “law and government do not undertake to prescribe by whom any social or industrial operation shall or shall not be conducted, or what modes of conducting them shall be lawful. These things are left to the unfettered choice of individuals” (Mill 660).
He sees history as the progression of individual liberty, and that such self-determination is not only more satisfying for the individual, but indispensably efficient and effective in meeting society’s needs. Government and even social institutions are, by comparison, poorly suited to such tasks. “The modern conviction, the fruit of a thousand years of experience, is, that things in which the individual is the person directly interested, never go right but as they are left to his own discretion, and that any regulation of them by authority, except to protect the rights of others, is sure to be mischievous” (Mill 660).
Having framed his argument, Mill develops the example of strong-armed blacksmiths:
“Freedom of individual choice is now known to be the only thing which procures the adoption of the best processes, and throws each operation into the hands of those who are best qualified for it. Nobody thinks it necessary to make a law that only a strong-armed man shall be a blacksmith. Freedom and competition suffice to make blacksmiths strong-armed men, because the weak-armed can earn more by engaging in occupations for which they are more fit. In consonance with this doctrine, it is felt to be an overstepping of the proper bounds of authority to fix beforehand, on some general presumption, that certain persons are not fit to do certain things.” (Mill 661)
What are the essential elements? Mill believes free choice and competition are both necessary and sufficient to guarantee fitness for a given profession, including political office (Mill 661). Presumptions of inadequacy, however generally true, are open to exception, and to those for whom it does not hold, such a rule “is … an injustice … and a detriment to society” (Mill 661). But even if always true, such presumptions, when codified and enforced, add nothing to the order of things above what choice and competition may accomplish.
The argument gets at the essential contradiction in the notion of legislated exclusion from profession, suffrage, rank, or office. If women really are incapable of self-judgment and -direction, if they really are suited only for management of the home and for rearing, and if market forces and competition really are insufficient to regulate demand and winnow for vocational fitness, then government may, after all, be required to sort the qualified from the disabled, to regulate production and identify producers, and to restrict women to their natural limits.
But if not, if none of these be so, why then ‘act as if we believed them’ (Mill 661)? Why legally interfere on behalf of nature but contrary to her? Why intervene on a system of selection already far more efficient and effective than intervention could hope to make it? Why indeed, but do so-called free choice and competition always lead to the best results for either individuals or society when applied broadly, beyond blacksmithing?
The principle that individual discretion is reliably superior to legal prescription in matters concerning personal interests, if ever true, has grown less so as the complexity of our social and technological environments has increased. The 19th century belief in the rational human agent collapsed under the weight of the 20th century’s irrational consumer (“Behavioral Economics”) and propagandized citizen (“Manufacturing Consent”).
Not only do humans behave irrationally, we regularly act against our self-interests. The “superior wisdom” of government (Mill 660) and NGOs can be an indispensable safeguard of the genetic caveman’s life in the space age, seatbelt and helmet laws being two ready examples (“Seat Belt Legislation”). Public health and safety campaigns, compulsory education, and consumer protection-focused policies all help steer individuals toward decisions more consistent with their self-interest than is common in the absence of their influence (“Public Health”). Evidence for the failure of individuals to behave rationally or effectively in their self-interest in the absence of social interventions (like those named above) is so readily available (“The Jerry Springer Show”) that no further argument need be put forward here.
Setting aside the shortcomings of self-determinism, does competition always succeed in matching individuals to the positions for which they are best suited? Though the informal Peter Principle (“Peter Principle”) may offer enough of a rebuttal, we’ll focus in on medical training in the United States as a case study that contradicts Mill’s assertion.
Nearly 85% of medical school matriculants in the US come from the top 3 economic quintiles, with 57% from the highest quintile as of 2005 (Jolly). This distribution, when superimposed over other demographic data, clearly reveals a strong bias against the sort of aptitude-based social mobility and professional selection Mill pretends open competition in the market leads to.
He seems to assume that government and social convention tend toward inefficiency and abuse, but that free markets and competition are somehow free from such tendencies. But free markets aren’t free – they don’t exist in a vacuum free of influence or agenda contrary to the interests of individual actors or society – and competition doesn’t take place on level ground. To entrust society’s organization and division of labor to such unregulated forces is as naïve as the “old theory” was paternalistic and unjust.
Mill’s blacksmith example serves his argument well. But his argument for the sovereignty of free choice and competition in matters of social organization and production fails to account for the poor choices and biased competitive environments that often produce less than ideal results.
Mill asserts that he doesn’t know what women are capable of because society has programmed them for limited roles. Only experiment, he says, may determine of what tendencies and exceptions women may be capable – a wise and overdue prescription. No doubt Mill’s arguments played a significant role in the abolition of legislated sexism. But socioeconomic prejudice remains as a potent and pernicious social ill long after the worst of codified anti-feminism has been remediated (recent US senate votes aside).
Class roles and reinforcing behaviors are as much programmed by society as those of gender ever were, and this illness has been fueled as much by market forces and competition as by the inaction of government to meaningfully intervene in the disparities of wealth and opportunity that define our still openly classist societies. Those who would borrow Mill’s arguments supporting suffrage and gender equality for a similar campaign for socioeconomic justice would do well to avoid his mistake: individual choice and competition are fallible and therefore insufficient to overcome our most enduring problems.
“Behavioral Economics.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
“John Stuart Mill.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
Jolly, Paul. “Diversity of U.S. Medical Students by Parental Income.” Jan. 2008. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
“Manufacturing Consent.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
Mill, John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 2nd ed. Ed. David Wootton. Hackett Pub Co, 2008. Print.
“Peter Principle.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
“Public Health.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
“Seat Belt Legislation.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
“The Jerry Springer Show.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
“The Subjection of Women.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Web. 24 Apr. 2012.
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