Reply to Magness and Rojas

I’d like to begin by saying how sorry I am that Melissa Harris-Perry wasn’t able to join us due to the ongoing schedule disruptions. I had very much looked forward to reading what she had to say on these questions, and her absence leaves our discussion less balanced than I think we all had hoped for. I look forward to conversation with her on these topics in other places in the future.

I think it’s also worth noting something that is slightly off to the side of these discussions, though maybe only slightly. I have been arguing for the value of treating intersectionality as a tool of social analysis available to classical liberal social theory, and below I will reemphasize that this is not the same as taking on board the whole raft of conclusions that have been reached or political views that have been held by people who also use that tool. But I think that the resistance among classical liberals to thinking about intersectionality has been in important part political rather than analytical or methodological: a dislike of the politics or political movements associated with rectifying (claimed) social injustice toward groups identified on the basis of race, gender, or orientation. The current online degeneration of the label “classical liberal” into something like “a trollish contrarianism about race and racial equality, an understanding of freedom of speech as primarily the freedom to flirt with racism without repercussions or criticism, and a belief that acknowledging patterns of racial disadvantage is a betrayal of moral individualism” didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did the overlap between the Ron Paul/ Rand Paul wing of libertarianism on one hand and Confederate revisionism and white nationalism on the other. There are historical, cultural, and intellectual reasons why many classical liberals and libertarians have often been slow to perceive or to prioritize racialized forms of injustice and unfreedom. But we have seen in the last two weeks, as we saw beginning in 2013, that an awareness of the particularized, racialized character of police violence, mass incarceration, and the whole deeply illiberal structure of the American criminal “justice” system can be a powerful motivator in the struggle for a freer society. To the degree that classical liberals resist intersectional social analysis because of a mood affiliation with their dislike of identity politics in general and the politics of anti-racism in particular, I would hope that the current mass movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd—and the fact that those opposing that movement include violent agents of state coercion as well as an executive pressing the limits on military involvement in civilian politics—could hasten a change.

But that is not a positive argument for adopting intersectional approaches to scholarship, and I don’t mean to simply reverse the sign on a mood affiliation. In their serious—and interestingly related—replies, Philip Magness and Fabio Rojas do emphasize the scholarship proper, and avoid the trap of treating “intersectionality” as a synecdoche for a whole complicated mess of phenomena involving activists, students, twitter fads, and so on, for “wokeness” and “cancel culture” and all the rest.

The three of us disagree less than it rhetorically sounds like we do, and Rojas’s essay in particular overlaps with both Magness’s and mine. Magness and Rojas both appeal to a distinction between the core insight of the interaction among axes of disadvantage and oppression and subsequent generations of intersectional scholarship that have joined that insight to general theories of social order that expressly reject key aspects of a liberal social order. (Rojas treats that as a change over time; Magness maintains that the illiberalism was already incipient in Crenshaw’s original work.). Rojas concludes his essay with just the kind of thing I meant to encourage: an account of how the central intersectional insights can be used to deepen classical liberalism without taking on board those illiberal entanglements. To Magness’s claim that even the core insight is banal and unproductive, I reply by pointing to the final two sections of Rojas’s essay. While both Magness and Rojas seem to have taken me to mean that classical liberals should abandon liberalism and embrace everything they find in the intersectional literature (which would hardly be possible; it’s simply not that unified), I didn’t say anything like that. Rather, I share Rojas’s hope that joining intersectional analysis to liberal social theory could enrich both, offering a version of the former free of unnecessary entanglements with economic views we have good reason to reject, and a version of the latter much more attuned to the experience of injustice, much more attentive to the various ways in which various populations are harmed by unfreedom.

With all of that said— and with due reluctance to argue with Rojas in particular, who knows far more about the scholarship on black social movements and black politics than I do— there are some genuine differences among us. Some of these are probably not of general enough interest to justify full discussions in Cato Unbound: I disagree with Magness’s emphasis on economic analysis as apparently primary within classical liberal social science, with his characterization of Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of “bullshit,” and with his application of that concept to often-jargony intersectional scholarship.

ButI do think it’s worth elaborating one area of apparent disagreement. There is a kind of intellectual tribalism to which Rojas comes closer than I would have expected, and which I think Magness openly adopts. If an idea is held by people with whom we politically disagree, how much reason does that give us to reject the idea? I think that Magness’s implicit answer is “a lot,” and Rojas’s is on the high side of “some.”

But surely most classical liberal scholars have at least some list of cases about which we know the answer has to be “none or almost none.” After all, every intellectual tool that has been even loosely associated with classical liberalism has sometimes met the same reaction: Hayekian information theory, public choice economics, law and economics, game theory, rights-based and contractarian political philosophy, polycentric institutional analysis, and so on. In each of these cases there’s some plausible affinity between the method or analytical insight and some political views, but there’s also plausibly some intellectual power to the method or insight that spills out past neat political borders. We have seen rich gains to intellectual trade when scholars who did not share the politics picked up and used the tools. And we’ve grumbled in frustration when others refused to entertain the idea of doing so, seeing the tools as merely disguised ideology. Indeed, Magness himself complains that Crenshaw has adopted this attitude toward public choice theory. But this is not a domain in which tit-for-tat norms of punishment apply. “You refused to learn from someone on my team so I refuse to learn from you” is self-destructive; learning is neither zero-sum nor a team sport.

Magness calls for us to look to “the long and vibrant intellectual tradition of liberal toleration and its many anti-discriminatory extensions,” joined perhaps to some economic analyses of race, rather than to intersectional scholarship. When I read that tradition, I find a Montesquieu whose attention to cultural and religious plurality in the world is regularly brought back into engagement with gender and family roles and power within various traditions. I find an Adam Smith who rejects what we would now think of as purely economic analysis of slavery and its durability, knowing that the love of domineering would outweigh ordinary financial interest. I find John Stuart Mill exemplifying the intersectionalist caricature of the white feminist, full of concern for the intellectual and moral opportunities open to the educated western woman he can see as an individual while justifying “despotic authority” over backward races—their men and their women alike—painted with the broadest of brushes. I find (indeed I wrote a whole book about) competing and complicated analysis of different patterns of abusive power, and I find reason to let liberalism incorporate that complexity. I find no reason to reduce the complexity of those patterns to something dissoluble by a “non-discriminatory generality norm.” Showing the difficulty with understanding what formal non-discrimination means when it sits atop socially complex patterns of discrimination is what inaugurated intersectional analysis in the first place.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jacob T. Levy describes intersectionality as “the analytical strategy of thinking about such phenomena as race and gender, or racism and sexism, as interacting.” As such, he suggests that this approach is a promising one, and he defends it against some common criticisms. Those who view oppression of all kinds as a primarily state-mediated phenomenon should want to add it to their repertoire of useful ideas, he argues.

Response Essays

  • Phillip W. Magness warns that intersectionality theory amounts to little more than a qualitative approach to multivariate regression analysis—and a doubtful set of ideological commitments. For centuries, those now known as classical liberals fought against slavery and other forms of discrimination, and their successors today don’t need any such new and dubious theories to continue the struggle.

  • Fabio Rojas expresses ambivalence about intersectionality’s relationship to classical liberalism. On the one hand, there is a clear line of influence running from Marxism and critical theory to intersectionality’s key proponents and texts, and this influence brings with it hostility toward the market process. But on the other hand, he finds that intersectionality can offer new insights into how states perform oppression, and how marginalized voices can learn to speak back. There is no marriage here, but there should be a dialogue, he concludes.