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intersectionality and jacob levy at the cato institute: a final comment

The Cato Unbound forum on intersectionality theory has now concluded. The first essay is by Jacob Levy, who argues that classical liberals should integrate intersectionality theory into their thinking. The responses are by Phil Magness and my self. I am semi-skeptical and Phil is 100% skeptical.

I won’t restate the arguments, as you can read the original essays yourself. But I think the issue that there are two versions of intersectionality theory: an empirical theory of inequality and a normative political theory. My criticism is that classical liberalism, understood as a belief in limited government, free markets as the primary form of production, and the protection of social and civil liberties, should really be concerned with intersectionality’s empirical claims but should reject it’s anti-market orientation. Phil thinks that the empirical claims are unimpressive and that Jacob overlooks classical liberalism’s long history of rejecting racism and opposing racially motivated regulations. What really concerns Phil and myself is that classical liberals really believe that free trade is generally a good thing, while most intersectionality theorists see free trade and the private enterprise system as one of the reasons we have multiple interlocking forms of repression.

In his final rejoinder, Jacob approved of parts of my essay, which sees links between liberal thought and intersectionality, but labeled my criticisms as part of an undesirable knee jerk reaction. Here’s may take. There are now multiple intersectionality theories. Sure, there are probably many social scientists who are happy to accept the hypothesis that people are “multiply marginalized” and some grumpy libertarians should mellow out and accept that. Jacob is definitely right on that point and accepting a “basic” intersectionality will help classical liberals understand illiberal social practices better. However, there’s a lot more to intersectionality theory than the “basic model,” including a tight alliance with Marxist theory and a deep suspicion of markets. At the end of the day, this more expansive, and very popular, version of intersectionality theory is simply incompatible with a normative framework built on a presumption that markets and trade are the best way to organize an economy.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 16, 2020 at 4:43 pm

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. Lucius Outlaw in “Race and Philosophy” (ch. 7) argues that U.S. Enlightenment thinkers and Hegel promoted universal individual rights while simultaneously claiming that African origin persons are inherently inferior. This contradiction suggests that the Enlightenment ideal of individual rights is fundamentally flawed because it denies group rights to non-whites that were (and continue to be) conceptually and institutionally excluded from enjoying liberal individual rights. It seems like classical liberals and libertarians would benefit from taking such arguments seriously. I view Outlaw’s argument as complementing the seminal work of Crenshaw and Collins.who show that the law and other institutions have systematically excluded black women.

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    Joel Stillerman

    June 16, 2020 at 5:08 pm

  2. Thanks for this, and for your terrific initial reply essay, Fabio. I learned from you, as I always do.

    Liked by 1 person

    Jacob T. Levy (@jtlevy)

    June 18, 2020 at 3:35 pm


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