Capitalism and Caitlyn Jenner

I know I’m super late with a post on Caitlyn Jenner, but it wasn’t until today that I came up with the idea for this post. As almost everyone knows, the former Olympian known as Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner, forcing the transgender issue out in a way that it has never been before. As one would expect, the way the public has responded to Jenner is divided on cultural lines, with progressives saying, “You go girl!” while conservatives insist, “She’s a MAN, baby!” (I won’t get into the reaction of TERFs — trans-exclusionary feminists — which is a whole other kettle of fish) Since you already knew that, I want to examine the reaction to Jenner from an economic perspective.

Last week’s TIME cover story was about plastic surgery, namely how procedures once confined to the Beverly Hills set have now become accessible to the average Joe and Jane. Remarkably, the article stated that 2/3 of plastic surgery patients make less than $60,000 a year. While nose jobs, breast augmentations, eyelid alterations, and face lifts make the bulk of the procedures, it’s not hard to assume that more extreme procedures, such as those associated with sex changes are also rising in number, especially with the increased levels of transgender visibility. From a conservative Catholic view, the mainstreaming of plastic surgery is troubling, since the body is a gift given to humans by god, not a canvas for humans to paint on and paint over at will. Indeed, in Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, “Laudato Si” (which I’m going to do a post on at some point), he states that:

The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it”

As much as the pope and other religious conservatives grumble about how we shouldn’t tinker with our bodies, because it isn’t “natural,” there’s a huge demand for plastic surgery and an even bigger supply of doctors eager to perform such operations. The proof is in the plastic pudding, as Americans spend $11 billion on everything from Botox to liposuction. The TIME article indicated that the very conservative Islamic Republic of Iran is the nose job capital of the world, and plastic surgery is tax-deductible in Brazil, a country that is awash in both Catholicism and upstart Pentecostal sects. The problem (at least for American religious conservatives, who claim to love capitalism but hate the idea of transgenderism) is that the market is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do by providing transgender people demanding sex changes with doctors willing to perform the necessary surgeries. It’s unclear how much of the $11 billion that Americans are spending on plastic surgery comes from procedures associated with sex changes operations, but if the costs on this page are any indication (, it’s probably safe to assume that doctors who specialize in this particular field are doing quite well.

The main reason why the Catholic church has traditionally been ambivalent about capitalism is because it understand that the dynamism of the free market upends the static nature of traditional, agrarian societies. More to the point, capitalism was threatening to traditional elites, such as the landed nobility and the established churches. Industrialization disrupts established patterns of village life by luring peasants to the city, where they are exposed to new ideas and ways of life. People of “low birth” can start businesses that can potentially give them more money and power than the landed aristocracy.

American conservotrads don’t understand that the free market is inherently amoral, and that there is no difference from a GDP perspective between, say, a Catholic bookstore and an adult novelty store. If there is a demand for sex change operations, you can bet that someone is going to find a way to make some money off of it, and no amount of disapproval is going to change that. In this sense, religious conservatives are like environmentalists, animal rights activists, and labor advocates, all of whom say that certain aspects of capitalism are immoral and need to be reformed. However, these activists are open about their ambivalence towards the free market, whereas American religious conservatives have made economic libertarianism a key plank of their ideology. Consequently, it seems contradictory that they would praise the “liberty” capitalism produces, but then complain when markets for products and services they don’t approve of start popping up.

Unlike objectivists, who are at least consistent in their absolute support of all aspects of free market economics, religious conservatives who claim to be libertarians are “cafeteria capitalists,” who support certain businesses, while condemning others as contrary to their values. However, capitalism is even more of a package deal than religion, because you can’t reveal in the glories of Wal-Mart and Monsanto without acknowledging that these same dynamics allowed Bruce Jenner to become Caitlyn Jenner.