Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist?

George Mason University's Robin Hanson
George Mason University economics professor Robin Hanson.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Andy Miah/Flickr.

If you’ve ever heard of George Mason University economist Robin Hanson, there’s a good chance it was because he wrote something creepy. Over the years, the libertarian-leaning professor has become notorious in certain circles for his odd and disconcerting dips into socio-sexual commentary; he once mused on his blog, for instance, about whether women who suffered a “gentle, silent rape” were really worse off than men who experienced infidelity. Last week, Hanson was back at it again. In a post that left many readers agog, he decided to use a heinous incident of misogynistic violence as an opportunity to contemplate the concept of “redistributing” sex to men who have trouble getting laid.

Hanson’s post was a reaction to the tragic attack that took place in Toronto last Monday, in which a man killed 10 pedestrians by running them down with a van. The perpetrator, Alek Minassian, was part of the online community of “incels”—“involuntarily celibate” men who tend to blame women and society at large for their inability to find sex. The movement has sprouted an extremist wing, where members talk openly about exacting violent revenge on sexually satisfied “normies.” Minassian decided to act on the rhetoric.

Most people might read this news and see a horrifying illustration of how toxic masculinity metastasizes on the internet. Hanson read it and, amazingly, saw an opportunity to razz progressives. His brief post is more or less a lame attempt to compare people who worry about income inequality with incels who worry about “sexual inequality,” and suggest that they’re maybe not so different. “One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income,” he writes, “and might similarly hope to gain from organizing around this identity, to lobby for redistribution along this axis and to at least implicitly threaten violence if their demands are not met.” Later, he imagines the policies that this new political movement of libidinously frustrated young men might want to enact—“Sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation”—and puzzles over the fact that society doesn’t seem to take their concerns very seriously. “Strikingly, there seems to be little overlap between those who express concern about income and sex inequality. Among our cultural elites, the first concern is high status, and the later concern low status.”

Some people have read Hanson’s piece and concluded that he believes women should be forced to have sex with men who strike out on Tinder, like some sort of giant socialized harem. I don’t think that’s the case.1 The professor, again, leans libertarian and, as he clarified on Twitter, opposes all sorts of government redistribution, including in this case. He further says that “redistribution” of sex, for him, means “changing the distribution” of sexual activity, and that he believes there are ways the government could help men find partners in bed beyond forcing women into sexual slavery.

Hanson’s meaning might be a bit more lucid if he didn’t have a weakness for the cheap provocateur’s trick of simply “raising questions” about volatile issues rather than taking clear stances, which leaves some room for interpretation. That said, he clearly thinks sexually frustrated men have a legitimate complaint about society and doesn’t seem to understand why their concerns are any less valid than those of people who’ve been ground down by the machinations of capitalism and working for poverty wages. In fact, this is an issue he has been pondering for years. In 2007, he decided it was worth contemplating why people feel sympathy for men who steal because they’re hungry, but not for men who rape women because they can’t find a willing partner. In a 2009 post about men’s rights activism, he wrote that “beta male complains [sic] about sex-starvation, and many other male complaints all seem to me legitimate candidates for group complaints.” In a follow-up, he copped to “being puzzled by what kinds of inequality bother people, and what kinds do not.”

“An especially striking example is inequality among men in their ability to attract women as lovers,” he wrote. “If you don’t like ‘alpha/beta’ labels, then call it what you will, but there are consistent correlations among men in this regard, which are consistently correlated with insensitive categories. While this inequality has large consequences for utility and happiness, there is no interest in reducing it, and people feel quite comfortable insulting these type of ‘losers.’ ”

Hanson does not seem to consider himself a men’s rights activist, per se (“I don’t really believe in ‘rights’; I take rights talk to really be complaints by a group about their roles and how they are treated,” he wrote in his post on MRA types.) But his concern for men’s rights issues has led him to some disturbing places, rhetorically. In a 2009 post arguing that all children should be subject to a paternity test, he compared female infidelity to sexual assault, writing that, “Biologically, cuckoldry is a bigger reproductive harm than rape, so we should expect a similar intensity of inherited emotions about it.” When readers recoiled, and pointed out that “rape victims are more often diagnosed [with] ‘post traumatic stress’ ” and “rape victims they know seem more expressively upset,” than men who have been cheated on, he turned to casual misogyny. “We all know that women tend to be more expressive about their complaints—you can’t beat ’em for wailing and gnashing of teeth,” he wrote. “But the fact that men act more stoic and complain less doesn’t mean they hurt less.” Later, he updated the post to add: “I’d prefer to be raped rather than cuckolded; any other men have a preference?”

A year later, he returned to his theme, with a twist: “It occurred to me recently that we can more clearly compare cuckoldry to gentle silent rape,” he wrote.

Imagine a woman was drugged into unconsciousness and then gently raped, so that she suffered no noticeable physical harm nor any memory of the event, and the rapist tried to keep the event secret. Now drugging someone against their will is a crime, but the added rape would add greatly to the crime in the eyes of today’s law, and the added punishment for this addition would be far more than for cuckoldry.

Even after all these attempts to make the cases comparable, however, I suspect most people will still say the law should punish rape far more than the cuckoldry. This even though most farming societies had the opposite attitude (I’m not sure on foragers). A colleague of mine suggests this is gender bias, pure and simple; women seem feminist, and men chivalrous, by railing against rape, but no one looks good complaining about cuckoldry. What other explanations you got?

Bloomberg’s Noah Smith later called out Hanson’s post in an article about how the economics profession, which often shrugs off material like this, is culturally hostile to women. Hanson, in turn, complained that his point was being mischaracterized—that he wasn’t so much trying to minimize rape, as explain how vile a crime infidelity is. “Just as people who accuse others of being like Hitler do not usually intend to praise Hitler, people who compare other harms to rape usually intend to emphasize how big are those other harms, not how small is rape,” he wrote.

That doesn’t help his case much. At best, Hanson’s inflammatory comparisons between cuckoldry and rape or progressives and sexually frustrated men reveal an incredible myopia. Women (and many men) are terrified of rape because we view our own bodies as sacred and vulnerable, and crimes that violate them are more frightening, and do more to diminish us, than things that merely hurt our pride. People worry about income inequality because money and wealth shape every aspect of our lives, and distribution is deeply intertwined with our political choices. Whether a few Redditors can get laid is, comparatively, not that important. If Hanson is baffled by that, it betrays a basic lack of human understanding as well as intellectual laziness.

But fundamentally, Hanson’s repeated forays into the subjects of rape, “cuckolding,” and male sexual pleasure are just creepy—as in, it’s impossible to read his stuff without feeling an ambient sense of unease. Peruse his blog, and it’s not hard to come away with the impression that he believes men are owed sex, that women are devious about it, and that rape is a subject that can be toyed with lightly as an intellectual exercise. I would guess that most women, and plenty of men, are automatically and rightfully suspicious of the sort of person who spends his time thinking about how “sexual redistribution” schemes would work in order to help lonely beta males, even if, as a good economic conservative, they don’t necessarily believe in adopting them.

So is Robin Hanson America’s creepiest economist? I’m not saying he is. But it is certainly a striking question.

1 It doesn’t help his case that Hanson is an opaque writer prone to producing half-baked, ambiguous blog posts.