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Equality vs. Freedom

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01/22/2001Wendy McElroy

The European Union cannot achieve its stated goals of prosperity and social harmony. In an attempt to explain why, I want to touch more specifically upon one of the issues that obstructs these goals -- namely, feminism--or, in the term that is used in Europe, "gender mainstreaming." 

In 1996, the European Commission issued a document entitled "Incorporating equal opportunities for women and men into all Community policies and activities." Here, they announced "a new partnership between men and women to ensure that both participate fully on an equal footing in all areas and that the benefits of progress are evenly distributed between them." From my perspective, "gender mainstreaming" is a disastrous policy. Why? The answer takes me back to why I believe the European Union cannot achieve prosperity or social harmony.

In 1733, the philosopher who has been credited with ushering in the French Enlightenment, Voltaire, published a work entitled "Letters Concerning the English Nation", which is also called the "Philosophical Letters." Some years before, Voltaire had been released from the Bastille after pledging to the authorities that he would stay at least fifty leagues away from Paris. He chose to go as far as England, where he stayed for roughly two and a half years. The "Letters" were written as though to explain English society to a friend back in France. In particular, Voltaire wanted to explain how extreme religious diversity -- a society in which Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim interacted with good will -- could exist so harmoniously in England when religious differences back in France had caused devastation.

Voltaire rejected the idea that politics had created the social harmony. Referring to the established Church of England, he argued that politics favored prejudice rather than good will. He wrote, "No one can hold office in England or in Ireland unless he is a faithful Anglican." Such political exclusion hardly promoted benevolence. Moreover, both legally and historically, England was no more a bastion of religious toleration than France: for example, in England, laws against what were called 'nonconformists' and atheists were still in force. Yet in England, and not in France, there was an air of co-operation on the streets which existed quite apart from what the law said. What, then, accounted for the peace and prosperity in the streets of London as compared to those of Paris?

In Letter Six of the "Philosophical Letters," a famous passage occurs. Voltaire observes, "Go into the Exchange in London [the Stock Exchange], that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt." After conducting business with each other, the Christian and the Jew went their separate ways. As Voltaire phrased it, "On leaving these peaceable and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others in search of a drink..." In the end, Voltaire declared that "all are satisfied."

Commerce, the free market, established an arena within which widely diverse people willingly dealt with each other solely for economic benefit. Then, they separated. They walked away from each other to pursue different interests and cultural values behind the closed doors of their own lives.

There are two parts to Voltaire's explanation of England's social harmony. First, the freedom of people to associate as legal equals. That is, the Christian and the Jew could trade with each other secure in the knowledge that their contracts would be legally binding despite their religious differences. Second, the freedom of people to walk away from each other and to not associate. That is, the freedom to peacefully and personally discriminate against anyone for any reason. The right to discriminate -- to close your front door behind you -- was a prerequisite of social harmony.

Let me be clear. I am not talking about embedding discrimination into the law. Quite the opposite. I am saying that the law must protect the person and property of all people equally. Passed this point, however, everyone has the right to refuse to associate with anyone else for any reason: religion, sex, the color of their skin, the music they hum.

The "Philosophical Letters" reversed a traditionally accepted argument in Voltaire's Europe on how to create a harmonious society. Traditionally, France had attempted to enforce a homogeneous system of values upon its people in the belief that common values were necessary to ensure peace and harmony. Common values were seen to be the social glue that held together the social fabric. Thus, those in authority needed to centrally plan and to rigorously enforce the values that should be practiced by the common people. After all, if people were allowed to choose and practice their own values, especially religious ones, then civil chaos and conflict would ensue.

Voltaire argued that the opposite was true. The imposition of homogeneous values -- the denial of the right to personally discriminate -- was what led to conflict and religious wars. Instead of common values and governmental control, it was diversity and personal freedom that created a thriving and peaceful society. Voltaire commented, "If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace."

If you carry Voltaire's logic beyond the issue of religion, it strikes a blow at any attempt by a centralized government to impose common values or common practices on diverse people. Interestingly, his argument against imposed conformity was not based on the rights of individuals -- although I think such an argument would be a strong one. Rather Voltaire argues from social harmony, from the need for a legal system that respects the right of individuals not to associate with each other.

The European Union is an attempt by a highly centralized governmental body to impose conformity on widely diverse communities in the name of prosperity and harmony. It is an attempt to deny the right to not associate. In my opinion, the EU takes Europe in the opposite direction from social harmony toward disharmony and impoverishment, both economically and culturally. 

In the proposed Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Article 21 -- entitled "Non-discrimination" -- reads, in part, "Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited."

I want to address specifically the right to discriminate on the basis of sex -- the right to discriminate against women. Article 23--entitled "Equality between men and women"--reads, in part, "Equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas, including employment, work and pay." In other words, men -- as employers, teachers, and landlords, as human beings -- are not allowed to exercise the right to not associate with me because of my sex. 

I am what is called (in North America) an "individualist feminist." One of the basic principles of individualist feminism is that women should treated as equals with men under laws that protect their persons and property. Women should be neither oppressed nor privileged by the law. This means that it is my right, as a woman, to peacefully refuse association with every man in this room. I should be legally entitled to turn down a job, to refuse to rent an apartment, or to contract with you in any manner.

Equally, you should be legally entitled to refuse to hire me, or to lease an apartment to me or to contract with me on any matter for any reason. My gender. My ethnic background. My personal hygiene. Freedom of association--the freedom not to associate--means that you have a right to peacefully discriminate against me. I hope you don't, I hope instead that you judge me on my personal merits as a human being. But--if you choose not to--it is your right to walk away from me. And I defend that right.

This is almost certainly a different form of feminism than you are used to encountering. It is a feminism that says affirmative action, the legal enforcement of equal pay for equal work, the insistence on gender quotas is wrong and leads to social disharmony. If I were in North America, I would explain how individualist feminism--in fact, the entire North American feminist tradition--was rooted in 19th century crusade against black slavery called abolitionism. It as based on the idea of self-ownership: that every human being--simply by being human--has a moral jurisdiction over his or her own body and its peaceful use.  

In Europe, I speak instead of classical liberalism. To give you a quick frame of reference, individualist feminism draws heavily upon the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill and his wife Harriet Taylor, as well as other classical liberals such as Harriet Martineau. These thinkers demanded only that the law erect no barriers for women in the workplace, in education, in society. They demanded that the law be blind to gender. Past that point--past the point when the law protected the rights of all individuals equally--it was up to each person to decide with whom they wished to associate.

A few minutes ago I read Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights entitled "Non-discrimination." The article is misnamed. Although the wording would seem to prohibit discrimination based on sex, the implementation of the Article--especially when considered alongside Article 23 "Equality between men and women"--clearly requires that society discriminate in favor of women. By law, women are to receive preference.

The European Parliament has announced its intention to impose gender mainstreaming on "all relevant areas of EU policy." In short, the EU will impose equality for women on all the policies it implements. This goes far beyond equal treatment under the law and creates privileges that extend into every area of human endeavor. For example, consider

Employment: women by law would receive the same pay as men and be hired in equal numbers, which amounts to a quota system.

Foreign policy -- African nations that practice female genital mutilation would be subject to sanctions. 

Education: there should be as many women scientists graduating from universities as male scientists.

Government: a quota system must ensure equal representation of the sexes in commissions, committees etc.

There is no area or issue that gender mainstreaming does not impact. The legal demand for privilege based on gender is a radical change from the classical liberal insistence that the law erect no barriers. But many of you may not realize how radical the change is. 

Let me illustrate what I mean. Last November, I was at a university in Virginia debating a feminist named Kathleen Barry who is internationally known for her stand against prostitution. She insists that prostitution must be prohibited whether or not it involves only consenting adults, whether or not any violence is present. Kathleen Barry has been asked to write the Code of Human Rights for the United Nations with regard to women. This is part of a trend that has been growing since the United Nation's held The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995. That trend is what might be called the globalization of radical feminist policy -- the cementing of their agenda into international policies.

In this globalization of feminism, it is not merely that women are demanding to be treated with preference under one code of law. They are trying to create a legal system that contains two sets of laws -- one for men, one for women. For example, one of the points on which Kathleen Barry and I clashed during our debate was over the definition of the word "decriminalization" as it applies to prostitution. Both of us claimed to advocate decriminalization. By that word, I meant that there should be no laws regulating the sale of sex between consenting adults. Barry meant that no laws should be applied to the women involved in prostitution. Only the men should be arrested and punished. In other words, when a man and a woman commit the same act, the same crime, only the man would be legally liable.

This is very different from having one law that is applied unequally to men and women. The law being proposed would specifically and pointedly create two categories of people and two categories of punishment for the  same offense: women who are exempt, men who are guilty. For committing the same act. This is a hideous development.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights creates privileges: it does not protect rights. It divides society into antagonistic classes -- men versus women. It destroys one of the underpinnings, one of the prerequisites for social harmony...the right of every individual to discriminate. It creates instead social disharmony. It strengthens the power of the state, which assumes the role of a Father Figure upon whom women rely for protection. Moreover, the European Union virtually destroys the one institution to which Voltaire pointed as the main hope for good will between men within society: the free market.



Contact Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy is a Canadian individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a cofounder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist magazine in 1982.

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