Why feminists should embrace economic freedom

Sunday, 8 March, was International Women’s Day. A few days earlier Canada’s Fraser Institute published its Women and Progress 2020 report, which confirms that greater economic freedom – freer markets, less regulation, personal liberty, and strict State adherence to the Rule of Law – is not only necessary for prosperity for everyone, but also an important conduit for gender justice and equality. Gender equality under law is concurrent with economic freedom.

The report, subtitled “Women’s economic rights: What’s changed and why does it matter?”, looked at the advancement and decline in the economic freedom of women around the world. In general, as the world has moved toward more economic freedom, arbitrary restrictions on women’s rights have declined.

Women and Progress is essentially an extension of the Fraser Institute’s flagship project, the Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) annual report. Women and Progress utilises the Gender Disparity Index (GDI) to measure “the degree to which women around the world have the same legal rights as men” and then “to adjust the EFW index scores to account for any differences in access to economic rights”.

Thus, while a country like the United Arab Emirates might score quite high on pure economic freedom, the fact that its government treats women differently from how it treats men, takes it down several ranks, due to the GDI’s adjustments. Between 2016 and 2018, almost all 15 countries with the lowest GDI scores are from the Middle East and North Africa. These countries often restrict women’s freedom to travel, their right to own property, and daughters’ right to inherit, etc.

More welcome news is that the Democratic Republic of the Congo (up 0.3194 points) and Eswatini (up 0.1614) now represent the biggest improvements in gender equality and are joined by various other improving Sub-Saharan African states.

The report ascribes the setbacks in women’s economic rights as mainly attributable to restrictions on the types of jobs women are allowed to pursue, their ability to obtain identity documents and passports and open bank accounts. Nigeria (down 0.1081), followed by Papua New Guinea (down 0.0879), experienced the greatest setbacks.

On average, women in free economies can expect to live to 82.78 years, 15 years longer than the 67.34 years of their counterparts in regulated economies.

Where women experience economic freedom, an average of 13 women die during childbirth for every 100,000 births, whereas the number is 341 in unfree economies – a mortality rate that is 25 times higher.

Where there is economic freedom, women between 15 and 64 have a labour force participation rate of 67.97%, compared to only 50.52% in countries where there is less economic freedom.

Women are also engaged in formal employment at a higher rate in economically-free countries. Only 47.38% of women in these countries are engaged in informal employment relationships, compared with a staggering 71.39% of employed women in regulated economies.

The unemployment rate for women in free markets is 6.21%, but a disturbing 17.21% of women in the least free countries are jobless.

Recent incarnations of feminism have been unjustifiably hostile toward economic freedom – what they often call “capitalism” – arguing that it is nothing more than a tool used to further entrench patriarchal oppression in society. Women and Progress, however, calls upon feminists to embrace economic freedom. A pertinent point they make is that in freer markets, women are more financially independent. In regulated economies, only 33.52% of women have their own financial accounts, whereas the number in “capitalist” economies is 86.37%.

As the report concludes, “women living in economically free societies are healthier, better educated, have more success in the labor market, and have more financial independence. This suggests that feminists need to seriously consider the benefits that movements towards greater economic freedom can have on the lives of women across the world”.

It is true that correlation does not mean direct causation. For instance, the report notes that 96.70% of girls in economically-free countries finish primary school, whereas only 80.11% of girls in regulated economies do. This is probably not directly because of economic freedom but there can be no doubt that this is a downstream benefit of greater respect for individual liberty. Where markets are freer, economic growth and, therefore, economic participation is greater. This enables parents to raise their children in better circumstances compared to their own childhoods.

We are fortunate in South Africa that our score on the GDI is perfect. The Constitution has outlawed gender and sex discrimination since 1996, and no such discrimination is contained in our law. In this regard, South African law is an example to follow throughout the world. This does not mean women do not remain disadvantaged in many social and financial respects. There are certain cultural practices, for instance, that effectively prohibit women from inheriting land or meaningfully owning property. Women have a long way to go before they can fully and practically realise the rights guaranteed to them by law. It is nonetheless commendable that equality at law is taken seriously in South Africa.

Economic freedom – for everyone – however, has come under heavy attack in South Africa by those who claim to be its champions. Some of these organisations even have the words “economic freedom” in their names, yet the policies they advocate are its very antithesis.

While government might not be discriminating on the basis of gender or sex, the policies it has decided to pursue over recent years has led to a marked decrease in total economic freedom. The year 2000 was when South Africa achieved its highest rank in economic freedom (47th freest economy), but it has been downhill from there. The latest available data from 2017 indicates that South Africa now has the 101st “freest” economy – a massive decline. Increasingly, government controls every aspect of our lives.

If gender justice and equality, and general prosperity for all, is our goal, there must be a concerted effort to set the economy free from the unnecessary and overbearing interference of government.

For more information, visit womenandprogress.org.

Martin van Staden is Head of Legal (Policy and Research) at the Free Market Foundation. He is pursuing a Master of Laws degree at the University of Pretoria and is author of ‘The Constitution and the Rule of Law: An Introduction’ (2019).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Free Market Foundation.

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