Libertarian America: A conversation with Wendy McElroy, Part 1

Libertarian author and individualist feminist Wendy McElroy shares her thoughts on anarchism, technology, and intellectual property. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

MADISON, Wis., November 3, 2013 — Wendy McElroy, a Canadian individualist feminist author, has written numerous articles and several books on topics ranging from anarchist history to sexual expression. Her most recent effort, The Art of Being Free, is an exposition of the state of liberty in our world. An emotional connection to the social philosophy she cares about so deeply shines brightly in every word she pens.

McElroy holds nothing back and her opinions are refreshingly direct. In the tradition of her intellectual role models Benjamin Tucker and Samuel E. Konkin III, her distaste for the state is matched in intensity only by her love of humanity.


SEE RELATED: Book Review: Wendy McElroy’s “The Art of Being Free”


Joseph Diedrich: How does the reception of libertarian ideas differ in Canada from in the U.S.?

Wendy McElroy: Canada is more muted about almost everything than the U.S. is, and it does not have the same social dynamics or, at least, not to the same degree. This has some positive effects. For example, there are no pretensions of empire even though Canadian troops take part in United Nations campaigns. I think this makes Canada more receptive to libertarian ideas on some issues like anti-war. Thus, draft dodgers from the States were officially welcomed to Canada by the then-Prime Minister Lester Pearson. 

On the other hand, there are negative effects. For example, Canada has a longer history of some socialist-style entitlements such as universal coverage of health care. The system here is a single-payer one with the government being the holder of the purse full of stolen money known as taxes. Anyone who argues against the health set-up is almost immediately dismissed as a crank because most people have grown up with it, know nothing else, and are satisfied.

I write mostly for an American audience, however, as the political issues and atmosphere of the States have a marked tendency to spill upward over the border. I remember a contest run by the Canadian equivalent of Time Magazine. The goal of the contest was to come up with a saying that expressed what it meant to be Canadian in a manner akin to the U.S. saying “as American as apple pie.” The winner: “as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.”


SEE RELATED: Libertarian America: A conversation with Anthony Gregory


JD: What does being an “individualist feminist” mean? How is it different from conventional feminism?

WM: In terms of theory, individualist feminism demands an equality of rights for both sexes under a just legal system. A just legal system is one that exists to protect the individual sovereignty of every human being and applies the law without bias. In the 19th century, the demand meant pressing for women to have the recognized ability to contract for their own wages, property, and equal custody of children. Today, it means advocating the elimination of laws that privilege women and disadvantage men, particularly in family court and in matters relating to affirmative action. Equality under just law means equality.

In terms of history, individualist feminism is distinct from the mainstream movement in that it views government as the problem and not the solution. For example, the free love movement was overwhelmingly individualist. It called for all personal and sexual decisions to be left to the conscience of the individuals involved—not to government, not to the church. Free love functioned under the banner of “authority OUT!”

By contrast, mainstream feminism appealed to government for laws and assistance in furthering their political goals. Of course, their goals often involved becoming part of the political establishment in terms of voting and of being effective in implementing laws, e.g., prohibition, pure foods, child labor. Although individualist feminism might have agreed with specific aims like restricting child labor, as a general rule they did not appeal to government.


SEE RELATED: The 5 stages of becoming an anarchist


In terms of issues, individualist feminism stressed and stresses respect for the individual woman and her choices; all it asks is, “Do those choices involve consensual adults?” An example is sex work. Years ago, I conducted interviews and surveys with hundreds of sex workers, most of whom were prostitutes. I found it impossible to dismiss an adult, cogent woman who explained why she sold the services of her body as a prostitute rather than as a secretary.

I disagreed and I disagree with that choice, but I also disagree with people who work as morticians or who perform autopsies. I couldn’t do it, but that’s a personal matter. My reaction says nothing about the propriety of such work. Of course, mainstream feminism dismisses the choice of sex work because it views women who make that choice to be victims of patriarchy. That is to say, they have been programmed by white male culture to embrace their servitude as freedom. As an individualist feminist, I respect women’s peaceful choices even if the choice is one I cannot imagine making myself. 

JD: When and why did you become an anarchist?

WM: I usually credit one article by Murray Rothbard as tipping me from the position of limited government to that of libertarian anarchism: “Do You Hate the State?” And it is true that the article was the proximate cause of my conversion, but the seeds of it had been developing for quite some while. Several factors made me extremely receptive to Murray’s arguments.

I think Murray’s article became the final straw because it connected with me emotionally. “Hate” is a very strong word and an emotion I don’t like to direct at anyone or anything because of the sick feeling inside that always seems to accompany it. Nevertheless, Murray’s point was emotionally compelling to me. His point: there is a marked psychological difference between those who accept limited government and those who reject the State.

The difference manifests itself in many ways. For example, an advocate of government does not accept the institutional analysis of government as organized, legitimized violence and he or she will tend to hedge criticisms or call for modest reform, like accountability, rather than for revolution within the system. I think I identified the state as force on a visceral level before I became convinced on an intellectual one because I tend to feel things before I come to conclusions. Murray successfully expressed the revulsion I had come to feel toward the state’s brutalization of peaceful people and I couldn’t express it in a hedged manner. At that moment, I was a self-conscious anarchist.

JD: If you could meet any economist, philosopher, or libertarian of the past, who would it be?

WM: I would most like to meet the 19th century individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker. It is not merely that I have read every word he published over and over again, it is that I have important disagreements, for instance, on the labor theory of value, to which I would love to hear his answers given the advances in libertarian economic theory since his day. Tucker knew every radical of import during his time and actively addressed every significant issue and event, such as the Haymarket fiasco.

I also have a hidden agenda. Tucker died in the stated belief that he had wasted his life in advocating anarchy. I’d like him to know that, one century afterward, there are people like me who are quoting his words and honoring him as a mentor and forerunner. I am sure he would be stunned by the knowledge. And I would like to be the intellectual brick upside his head that stuns him into realizing the importance of what he wrote and did for some many years for no other reason than a belief in freedom. 

JD: What has been the greatest invention of the last two years?

WM: The perfecting of 3-D printers has the potential of doing for manufacturing what Gutenberg did for publishing. That is, they could give individuals the power and the freedom to provide for their own physical needs or wants by setting up a device in their own garage, as Gutenberg provided individuals with the ability to provide for their own intellectual needs and wants. Individuals could become independent of the big businesses that monopolize the manufacture of certain goods like cars. This would also give independence from the taxes and other government fees attached to those goods. Moreover, a 3-D printer in a garage allows the privacy required to own a gun without going through incredible harassment of state requirements. The printers are revolutionary because they empower the individual.

As an anti-IP (intellectual property) libertarian, I also hope that 3-D printers strike a severe blow to patents, just as Gutenberg and Xerox printers struck a blow to copyright.

JD: Before Kinsella, Palmer, Boldrin, or Levine, you were making the modern case against IP. Who or what helped you reach your conclusions at the time?

WM: Four people had a deep impact on my approach to IP. Samuel E. Konkin III (SEK3) and I discussed IP almost constantly at several parties in anarchovillage, an apartment building in which he and several other anarchists lived. SEK3 was the first anti-IP advocate that I knew personally and he was quite patient because I had not given the issue much thought before our conversations.

At the same parties, the SF novelist Victor Koman chimed in and one comment he made had a deep impact upon me. He said, “whenever I hear an idea, it immediately becomes a different idea than the one expressed because I integrate it with my knowledge or ignorance, my psychology, etc.” The idea not only changes but also becomes an aspect of the listener and so to claim ownership of the idea becomes a claim of ownership over another person.

I credit Benjamin Tucker—the editor of Liberty (1881-1908)—for refining my approach and being extraordinarily good at drawing distinctions, such as the difference between patents and copyrights. Reading his many articles on IP was like taking a college course.

Oddly enough, I was also pushed toward anti-IP by Lysander Spooner’s radical defense of copyright and patents. I had and have a great deal of respect for Spooner and I was not willing to dismiss his “Law of Intellectual Property” lightly, so I poured over it instead. Frankly, I found Spooner’s arguments to be so unreasonable that I came to agree with Tucker’s assessment that the work was the only truly foolish thing written by Spooner.

 

Watch for part 2 of this interview in The Business of Living.


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Joseph S. Diedrich

Joseph S. Diedrich has been a columnist at The Washington Times Communities since early 2013. He covers non-electoral politics from a libertarian perspective. His work has also been featured at the MacIver InstituteThe College Fix, and elsewhere.

Joseph is also a classically-trained composer and somewhat of a gastronomy enthusiast. Find him on Facebook, LinkedInGoogle+, and Twitter @JSDiedrich.

 

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