Exclusive Interviews
Wendy McElroy on the Right to Pornography and The Art of Being Free
By Anthony Wile - March 17, 2013

Introduction: Wendy McElroy is a prolific book author, columnist, speaker and contributor to prestigious journals and magazines, often with an "alternative" slant. She made her reputation as a young writer commenting from a libertarian standpoint on feminism, and taking a pro-pornography position that was anathema to the feminist "old guard" that saw pornography as a tool of chauvinist oppression. McElroy has continued to speak out, nonetheless, on issues of the most importance to her: libertarianism, anarchism and, of course, feminism. She has served as a weekly columnist for FoxNews.com and is the editor of the feminist website ifeminists.com. McElroy is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and contributing editor to Ideas on Liberty (formerly The Freeman), The New Libertarian, Free Inquiry and Liberty magazines. Her writing has appeared in such diverse periodicals as National Review, Marie Claire and Penthouse. For over a decade, McElroy was a series editor for Knowledge Products. She has written and edited many documentary scripts for audio cassette, some of which were narrated by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and Harry Reasoner.

Daily Bell: We've interviewed you before. Remind our readers about your background and how you identified yourself as an anarchist.

Wendy McElroy: I am an anarchist in the style of Henry David Thoreau and Murray Rothbard. From Thoreau, I derive a benevolent desire to live my life in peace and harmony while wishing the same for everyone else. From Murray, I derive all of my economic theories, which are oddly the same simple ones my father taught me: Give an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. Of course, Murray would charge interest somewhere along the line. But close enough.

I am an anarchist because I believe it is wrong for me to impose my beliefs upon any other peaceful human being. I don't take it kindly when others attempt to impose themselves upon me.

Daily Bell: In our previous interview you said, "I never know what will capture my intellectual curiosity." How did you come to the life of the mind despite having no university degree and what is capturing your intellectual curiosity lately?

Wendy McElroy: It amazes me that people still equate a university education with intellectual curiosity or prowess. I believe the opposite is true. You want to kill an original mind? Put it through the idea-grinder that is modern academia where everything unPC, everything unsanctioned is stamped out.

Despite being published by university presses such as Penn State, I am a high-school dropout. I came to a "life of the mind" in the same way other people come to a life of music. I think it chose me. At five years old, I was the kid in the corner with my nose in a book, the one under the covers at night with a flashlight.

Daily Bell: Remind our viewers of the influence Ayn Rand had over you – and where you came to disagree.

Wendy McElroy: Rand was pivotal in my intellectual development. At 15 years old, I had no set of cohesive beliefs. My belief system then – such as it was – expressed the values I didn't want to pursue, the person I didn't want to become. Coming from an unhappy household, I knew authorities lied and could not be trusted. Coming from a working-class background, I realized many, many people do not rise through merit but through other factors such as appearance or other inheritance. At every turn, I tried to excel with what I saw as my only advantage: intelligence. Because I did so, high school was socially difficult, making me retreat even further into books and writing out my thoughts. I developed a strong but unspoken sense of an insight that Rand later crystallized for me: people will resent and dislike you for your virtues. At 15, I was a confused and negative person. I was a teenager.

Then I borrowed We the Living from my school library and I read it in one gulp. My identification with the novel's heroine Kira made me seek out Atlas Shrugged. In Kira, I saw a woman on the margins of society who used her spirit and independent mind to rise above the vicious hopelessness that surrounded her. In Atlas Shrugged (and subsequent Rand material), I found a cohesive and positive worldwide that I embraced uncritically. I owe Ayn Rand a massive debt of gratitude.

The first crack in my Objectivist armor came from a disagreement on the sexual ethics expressed by Rand and other Objectivist leaders. I simply did not believe it was a betrayal of "the best within me" to have sex with someone who was not my highest ideal; frankly, my sexual choices were no one else's business and I resented uninvited and moralistic pronouncements about them. The Objectivist criticisms of masturbation and homosexuality seemed particularly bizarre.

One doubt led to another and I came to reject Rand's aesthetic theories, especially her celebration of Romanticism over all other schools. Instead, I adopted an art-for-art's-sake position that echoes Oscar Wilde. Of course, the most significant schism resulted from my reading and subsequently befriending Murray Rothbard whose influence converted me solidly from limited government to individualist anarchism.

In retrospect, however, the most amazing aspect of my journey away from Ayn Rand is how little I have strayed from the vision that transfixed me at 15 years old. The entire Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology, much of the ethics and a good portion of the politics remain my worldview.

Daily Bell: Tell us about your viewpoint in terms of Austrian Economics. Where do you agree and disagree?

Wendy McElroy: I disagree with Austrian economics on a few specific issues about which controversy exists within that school itself. For example, I do not believe fractional reserve banking is a fraudulent practice, as do Austrians such as Walter Block; I think it naturally evolves in a free-market setting. (I am indebted to economist Larry White for this insight.)

As a more general matter, however, I am uncomfortable with calling my economic position "Austrian" because it is virtually a synonym for capitalism. Capitalism is most definitely the economic system I prefer because it expresses property rights, encourages prosperity and establishes civil society. Nevertheless, my primary commitment is to economic freedom, which includes any arrangement that is peaceful from communes to anarcho-syndicalism. Many Austrians dismiss the 19th century individualist anarchist movement in America because of its rejection of such practices as charging rent and interest. I think their rejection was in error but I find their economic experiments to be fascinating because they were peaceful alternatives to the status quo of capitalism. Josiah Warren's "Time Store" was based on the labor theory of value but some of his marketing innovations were remarkable. His store was an expression of the free market every bit as much as capitalism was and is.

Daily Bell: Rothbard wrote about everything, but Austrian economics does not deal a great deal with sexual issues and feminism as you do. Why not?

Wendy McElroy: There are probably as many answers to this question as there are Austrian economists.

Daily Bell: Remind our readers about some of your books such as XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. Do you still receive feminist feedback on it?

Wendy McElroy: Yes, I do. But I have been focusing on other issues for the last few years. Feminism can become something of a pink ghetto. How many times can you write the same defense of reproductive rights, the same denunciation of affirmative action?

I once tried to define happiness. The closest I came was "being engaged with life while surrounded with people I love and in the absence of pain." For now, at least, feminism feels like being disengaged from life because there is nothing I haven't thought about, nothing I haven't addressed to my own satisfaction.

What grabs my intellectual curiosity today is the hands-on freedom movement. Specifically, I have been working with The Dollar Vigilante and exploring what the world outside of North America has to offer.

Daily Bell: Explain the term pro-pornography and how you characterize it in terms of your personal development.

Wendy McElroy: I am not pro-pornography in the sense of advising people to consume the genre. That would be presumptuous. But I am a freedom of speech absolutist and I see no harm in any depiction of sex between consenting adults. Sex in all its forms is an essential and delightful aspect of being human. I certainly have my own preferences and some depictions of sex do not appeal to me at all. But even the depictions I do not like still benefit me. To draw a parallel between sex and food … I do not like seafood and I will not eat it. But when I am in a restaurant, I benefit from having tasted seafood because it is as valuable for me to know what not to order as it is for me to know what I want.

I was fortunate to become adult in a period of great sexual tolerance, when Playboy and Penthouse were sold at convenience stores. Ultimately, my sexual choices settled into a rather traditional mold of marriage and monogamy. But having a wide range of alternatives and information available to me meant that marriage and monogamy was an active choice, not a default position. And, so, I am most definitely pro-pornography in this one sense: I am pro-alternatives and pro-information.

Actually, it always throws me a bit off-guard to be called pro-pornography because it seems like being called pro-banana splits or pro-blue. Pornography is out there as just one more thing that some people enjoy, and the demonization of it as "the cause of evil in the world" is bizarre. You don't like banana splits? Then don't eat them.

I championed pornography because it was the focus of a political witch-hunt that threatened freedom of speech, freedom of sexual expression. Besides which, I admit it freely. I have enjoyed pornography. And I don't appreciate people reaching into my personal life to pass political, moralistic judgments on what is none of their business. So part of my being "pro-pornography" is a prickly reaction to anyone who tells me what I should feel sexually or who I should be. Especially when the 'who' they should be is someone who minds her own business.

Daily Bell: Where do you stand on issues such as gay marriage? Is it important for the state to sanction marriage?

Wendy McElroy: The first thing to note about gay marriage is that it is not a rights issue. No one has a right to be married by the state; I may have the legal ability to do so but not the right. To the extent anyone can be said to have a right to marry, it is only as an extension of the right to contract. And that is what marriage should be – a private contract between two adults … or as many adults as are involved. Marriage by the state actually denies this freedom of contract because the state imposes its own terms on marriage and divorce, as well as upon any children there may be.

I understand the passion with which people argue for gay marriage. About two years ago, I wrote an article entitled "The Lurking Urge to Applaud Gay Marriage." This is one of the few issues on which my mind and my emotions are at odds. Intellectually, and as a final position, I want government OUT of all aspects of personal and family life. The "lurking urge to applaud" comes from how vividly I remember the shame, the fear and the outright danger with which gays lived only a few decades ago. When I get discouraged about society, I remind myself of the areas of life that are now far better. The acceptance of gays is one of them.

And, yet, I suspect much of the drive behind gay marriage is not justice but a desire for entitlements such as the mandated health coverage that heterosexual partners often receive from an employer. Again, I applaud any employer who treats gay couples as he would all other employees. But no one – heterosexual or gay – has the right to impose the cost of a personal choice, like marriage, on an unconsenting third party, like an employer. Fully half the articles I've read on gay marriage laud the extension of marriage "benefits." This means a heavier burden on taxpayers and employers. I do not want to expand entitlements to gays. I want to end entitlements for heterosexuals.

Daily Bell: Why are people who are not in traditional heterosexual relationships so quick to turn to the state for protection?

Wendy McElroy: In two words: identity politics. A fairly standard definition of the term is "the politics of group-based movements who allege to represent the interests (and thus the identity) of a particular group." The group is often based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Identity politics is now the defining force of society.

Society has been divided into distinct political classes that are said to have antagonistic interests: blacks against whites, women against men, gays against heterosexuals. It is a politics of oppression that puts Marxism to shame. It focuses, not on the individual rights of the group members, but on the interests that all members allegedly share. Receiving the same treatment from government as other groups 'enjoy' is high on the hierarchy of shared interests.

This is a sharp departure from the conception of rights as being universal to all human beings. It is a sharp departure from the steady progress of liberty that has occurred over the last centuries. One way to look at the growth of liberty is as the breaking down of barriers between human beings so that freedom is equally claimed. For example, instead of only the elite having a right to property, the peasants did as well. Instead of only men being able to contract, women could sign their own as well. Not just whites but blacks … and so on.

The steady expansion of individual rights has been halted in its tracks and is being reversed by a political correctness that views secondary characteristics (such as race and gender) as more important than our shared humanity. It is our shared humanity that is primary. First and finally, we are all human beings.

Daily Bell: Why is feminism so anti-pornography, do you think? You wrote Sexual Correctness to deal with that issue, did you not … among others anyway?

Wendy McElroy: Again, the answer is identity politics: the idea that women and men are separate and antagonistic classes. I am sure there are specific feminists who merely detest sex or, at least, they detest heterosexual sex. But that does not account for the overall anti-pornography and anti-sex tone of the mainstream movement.

Daily Bell: All right. Now let's move on to an even more important subject, which is your new book, The Art of Being Free. Tell us about it. We've heard comparisons to Harry Browne's Living Free in an Unfree World. Any truth to that?

Wendy McElroy: I would be thrilled if my book weathered well and came to sit beside Harry Browne's on a bookshelf. That is my idea of keeping good company. In The Art of Being Free, I explored how to make freedom a personal issue in a political world.

Daily Bell: How did the book come about?

Wendy McElroy: Jeffrey Tucker. About two years ago, he and I were discussing the how and what of resurrecting Laissez-Faire Books under Agora's management when he began a concerted push for me to put onto paper the new approach I had been voicing about 'being free.' It is not possible to give Jeff too much credit. I trust it does not embarrass him for me to reveal (but, then, what are friends for?) that he offered to bankroll the book out of his own pocket because he believed in it so deeply. Happily, that was not necessary. But the book exists because of him.

Daily Bell: You're clearly not happy with the US's decent into fascism, as evidenced not only in the book but also by your recent writings at your own WendyMcElroy.com and ifeminists.com, and such other sites as LewRockwell.com and the Dollar Vigilante. Where along the line of authoritarianism does the US lie currently? Is the state the most important apparatus in the US?

Wendy McElroy: America is now a police state. A quick way to assess whether a nation has become a police state is to ask four questions: How many peaceful activities would make you a criminal if you did them? How much of your life is spent working to pay taxes and other government fees? How freely can you relocate your assets and person outside state jurisdiction? How freely can you use your assets and person within state jurisdiction? I don't think anyone can answer these questions honestly without realizing that the American government is now a police state.

And, no, the state is not the most important apparatus in the United States.

Daily Bell: Returning to the issue of how can we take our fate into our own hands, as you argue, and live free regardless of what the political elites are attempting to do to us: The worst mistake we can make is to allow our lives to be consumed by politics and the awful realities that surround us. Why so?

Wendy McElroy: Because the purpose of life is to live as deeply and fully as possible. It is not to cast a ballot or to support a cause; it is to live. This is what Henry David Thoreau called "the business of living." Life is creation and experience, not politics. In the final analysis, I want to be defined by what I nurture, not by what I oppose.

But there is an inner tension to my advocacy – a problem of logic, if you will. I feel as though I am crying out for people to see the true nature of the state and to make them understand how strong they are as individual human beings. They do not need the state; the state needs them. The most radical act in the world is to refuse obedience and walk away. There are smart ways to do so, and self-destructive ones. I want to contribute to the smart solutions.

The inner tension is the fact that I spend so much of my own time writing about politics and advising everyone "Do not take this seriously!" Clearly, I take it seriously. Sometimes I feel as though I am crying out "Look at this, look at the state! This is what you should be ignoring!" I am not sure how to handle the tension within my own position. It may well be a major theme in my next book.

Daily Bell: Your last chapter alone has been called one of the most inspired and inspiring pleas for real-life liberty ever penned. Give us a bit of synopsis.

Wendy McElroy: Rather than a synopsis, I hope you do not mind if I simply quote a few paragraphs that provide a flavor of the last chapter.

"An old friend, Samuel E. Konkin III (SEK3), forged his life so thoroughly around an opposition to government that, instead of answering his phone with "hello," he would answer, "Smash the State." I never saw SEK3 wearing anything but black—a symbol of anarchism. At parties, he would sit in a chair with his omnipresent pipe and 'hold court'; that is, he would take the other guests on, one by one, and argue them into the political dust. I remember one duly dusted arguer who wandered my way with a dazed expression and the comment, 'I haven't had a discussion like that since I was in the college dorm at night'.

"I used to wonder who SEK3 would be if he ever succeeded and the state withered away. Would SEK3 wither away as well? After all these years, could he bring himself to wear blue and green and yellow? Or would he go to the Old Anarchists Home and tell war stories of his glory days? SEK3 seemed to be a walking, talking cautionary tale against defining your life around what you reject.

"Then science fiction was mentioned in his presence and I met an entirely different man. His eyes lit up, his cheeks flushed and the timbre of his voice lightened. If the state defined what SEK3 was against, then SF defined what he was passionately for in life. It represented hope, the future, innovation, man overcoming challenges, man's mind scaling barriers… SEK3's knowledge of the literature was encyclopedic and his praise for writers like Doc Smith and Robert Anton Wilson seemed endless. Here was a subject that made SEK3 glow like a lightbulb. If the state withered away, then SEK3 would plunge himself even deeper into the other passion of his life: reading and writing science fiction. SEK3 had remembered to live after all!"

Daily Bell: Given what's going in the world are you becoming more apt to entertain conspiracy theories regarding the collapse of nation-states and an onslaught of world government these days?

Wendy McElroy: No. I don't believe world government is probable. The few statist coalitions that exist are holding together with great difficulty. I don't expect the Eurozone to survive, for example, and that's a rich, highly civilized coalition. If the Eurozone is crumbling, then few others stand a chance.

The problem is that coalitions include nations with competing interests. Thus, Greece wants endless bailouts from nations like Germany, which staggers under the load.

Daily Bell: Is what we call the power elite trying to consolidate world government by creating these wars?

Wendy McElroy: From the phrasing of this question, I think we have a significant disagreement on the idea of power elites conspiring to consolidate power. I have no doubt that power elites meet together, and often in a private manner, to discuss strategies through which to enrich themselves in an extra-legal fashion. Sometimes they meet in a public manner and slap a noble-sounding motive onto the proceeding, like "Cap-and-Trade to Save the Planet," in order to disguise the huge profits being looted.

But I do not think there is one global power elite in the sense of a group with a consolidated interest. There are many, many conflicting interests among the world's elite. The Chinese do not seek American goals, Islamists do not hunger for Western government. The elites of the world seem to be more of a Hobbesian expression of "all against all" rather than a coordinated conspiracy.

Daily Bell: Is the economic depression from which the West is suffering authentic or the result of deliberate central banking policies?

Wendy McElroy: By central banking, I assume you mean the public institution through which a nation's currency is managed. Nothing within the preceding sentence is agreeable to me. The currency – the lifeblood of a society – is placed under state control where it becomes the natural prey of manipulation and corruption. Handing control of society's blood-flow over to the state is like handing it over to a vampire. Any bank that needs the state or the privilege of law to function is an enemy to the free market and, remember, the free market is nothing more than ordinary people trying to make an honest living.

As for whether or how much of the economic depression is authentic or manufactured… I don't know. Certainly, significant aspects have been manufactured by pumping up the volume of currency, bailouts, the debt burden and a refusal to let the economic cycle play out and correct itself.

As for how "deliberate" the central banking policies are… it can be difficult to distinguish deliberate corruption from a Keystone cop routine. I am willing to entertain the possibility that some Keynesian policies are/were well-intentioned acts by people who know no more about economics than Marxists who believe you stop scarcity by imposing price controls. In the final analysis, it does not matter. It does not matter if the person assuming control of your life is well-intentioned, well-informed, well-anything. He needs to take his fingers off your life.

Daily Bell: You indicated to us that China stood apart from the globalist conspiracy. Do you still think so?

Wendy McElroy: I do not believe there is a single globalist conspiracy. But I do believe China has distinct interests that will lead it down a different "conspiracy" path than America or Europe wants to trod. Again, by conspiracy I merely mean the privately-forged plans of powerful people by which they enrich themselves or otherwise pursue goals.

Daily Bell: Some in the alternative media consider Putin a hero. We consider him something of a thug. Where do you stand?

Wendy McElroy: I stand firmly on the "thug" side of this divide, but with a caveat. Putin is a politically savvy and charismatic thug, which makes him the most dangerous Russian leader since Stalin. Putin could pull off a 'cult of the strong man' rule in which the adoration of the Russian public is not diminished by atrocities he oversees.

I think the 'strong man cult' also applies to Obama, who is the only Nobel peace prize winner to have a "kill list," BTW. Obama's followers will forgive him anything… if, indeed, they even notice. A key difference between the two is that the Russian standard of living has risen under Putin's rule (as both president and prime minister) while America's has plummeted under Obama.

Daily Bell: How should sex be treated in a healthy relationship? Is there such a thing as a healthy relationship?

Wendy McElroy: Of course there is! There are many wonderful relationships in which people sustain each other, fulfill each other, complete each other. What does not exist is one encompassing definition of a healthy relationship any more than one definition of a healthy psychology exists.

As for how sex should be treated in a healthy relationship: consensually. Past that point, I prefer not to have an opinion. I prefer not to know. I have spent so much time working out my own relationship to sex and to my husband that I have no more time left in my life to be concerned about other people's sexuality. I can't even rouse an interest.

Daily Bell: Are women and men destined increasingly to be enemies as a result of the culture wars?

Wendy McElroy: Nothing is destined. Nothing is written. Men and women have co-existed for a barrel of centuries and we will continue to work out our relationships over time, individual by individual. My hunch: The worst of the cultural tension about gender is over. If gender feminists were not entrenched in state institutions like universities and gender feminism was not embedded into law, then the movement would have faded long ago.

Daily Bell: Should women serve on the front of wars?

Wendy McElroy: No. And men should not, either.

Daily Bell: That has never happened before in history it would seem, except under the Amazons. What's the point?

Wendy McElroy: Many gender and liberal feminists view female conscription as a Left vs. Right issue. Conservatives tend to argue that women are the weaker sex who are unable to handle dangerous or physically demanding jobs. The feminists push back against those arguments by asserting the ability – nay, the right! – of women doing so. In reality, of course, conscription is not Left vs. Right; it is the state vs. the individual.

Other feminists see the drafting of women as a statement of equality — if not equality in terms of fundamental rights then equality in terms of treatment by government. It is a form of egalitarianism that falsely views an inequality of results to be proof of injustice. If women are not serving equally in Afghanistan, then a gender balance should correct "the problem." But perhaps the problem is that any American is in Afghanistan. The addition of women would only result in a gender-balanced injustice.

Still other feminists admit the injustice of a draft but consider equal treatment to be more important. The National Organization for Women (NOW) exemplifies this approach. Its board policy states,

BE IT RESOLVED, that NOW opposes the reinstatement of registration and draft for both men and women. NOW's primary focus on this issue is on opposition to registration and draft. However, if we cannot stop the return to registration and draft, we also cannot choose between sisters and brothers. We oppose any registration or draft that excludes women as an unconstitutional denial of rights to both young men and women. And we continue to oppose all sex discrimination by the volunteer armed services.

Would NOW object to a situation in which ten randomly chosen males were being executed by Nazis? Would they interrupt the proceedings to demand the "right" of women to become equal-opportunity victims or equally represented as executioners? At best, equality under injustice reshuffles the identity of victims. Usually, it expands the scope of the injustice itself.

What you are seeing with the call to draft women is identity politics in action. If it makes no sense to you, then you are the same person in the room.

Daily Bell: Are you personally worried about your safety or ability to make a living?

Wendy McElroy: The world is an unsafe and unpredictable place. It is becoming more so, and quickly. I am not among those who believe civilization is teetering on a collapse into savagery but I think a rise in private crime is likely if only because terrible economic times drive people to desperate measures. I am sure state crimes will increase, especially in America, which is now an outright police state. Of the two, I have much more to fear from the state because private criminals usually want money here and now, while the state wants obedience in perpetuity.

And, so, I am cautious about safety and I take steps to ensure it. For example, I preserve as much privacy as possible; I live on a farm in rural Ontario where the small community is peaceful, civil, and often armed since rifles are part of maintaining a farm.

I am always concerned about making a living, even when the concern has no basis. I ran away from home as a teenager and lived on the streets for a brief time. I was cold, I was hungry. The experience instilled me with what may be an overly healthy respect for self-sufficiency and economic independence. I say "overly healthy" because there are circumstances in which depending upon trustworthy people is appropriate. I am not sure I have enough emotional flexibility to do so, however. Yes, I am always concerned about my ability to make an honest living from my own efforts.

Daily Bell: You mentioned in a BookTV interview that you're working on a how-to book for putting into place some of the concepts you lay out in The Art of Being Free. How's that book coming along? Do you have a publication date yet?

Wendy McElroy: No publication date as yet. And I am an odd sort. Unlike every other writer who will talk your ear off until you flee in self-preservation, I refuse to discuss material that is 'in development.' Count yourself lucky.

Daily Bell: Thank you. We wish you great success with The Art of Being Free.

After Thoughts

Not much we can say except thanks to Wendy McElroy for this great interview.

She is really a first-class intellect and her arguments and observations fit together logically.

Listening to her is like listening to a song.

Buy her book and be enriched.

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