Saturday, March 3, 2012

Birth Control

It’s quite clear which side conservatives are on in the struggle between the Catholic bishops and the Obama administration.  But whose side are the bishops on, and the administration?  When the federal government mandated that employers – including religious employers such as Catholic hospitals and universities, but not including actual religious institutions such as churches and synagogues – pay for insurance coverage of contraceptives, sterilization procedures and abortifacients, conservatives were up in arms.  They claimed that requiring a religiously based institution to pay for services which directly contradict its essential moral doctrine is a radical and unconstitutional infringement of religious freedom.  They see the mandate as a stark example of the sort of heavy-handed statist intrusion into our everyday lives that characterizes modern liberalism.  Responding to the pushback, the Obama administration offered a compromise whereby insurance companies themselves, not employers, would pay for such reproductive services.  (Such payment is not passed along in premiums, since bringing a baby to term is much more expensive than preventing pregnancy in the first place.)  But conservative fury is not to be mollified.  Some now claim that no employer, not even an individual employer, should have to pay for medical products he considers immoral.  Some point out that many institutions self-insure and therefore the compromise still requires them to pay.  Some, such as Catholic apologist George Weigel, go a step further and claim that the Obama administration is using health insurance policy to further the sexual revolution; that cultural liberalism is, in Weigel’s words, “determined to use the instruments of law to impose its deconstruction of human sexuality and its moral relativism on all of society”.  That is, Obama delivers us to the love-in at the point of a gun, insisting we check any antiquated sexual compunctions at the door.

But an analysis like Weigel’s contains an implicit admission about who wants to impose sexual rules upon whom.  In Weigel’s view, allowing (particularly) women more access to family planning services will enable more non-martial and non-procreative sexual activity, thereby morally damaging society.  In other words, he implicitly concedes that there are many who lack the income or insurance coverage necessary to dependably use such services, and he hopes to keep it that way. This is, of course, a hope shared by presidential candidate Rick Santorum and by other conservatives.  Weigel and Santorum are not just upset that the Catholic Church might be forced to pay for or provide services it finds immoral; they are hopeful it will continue to use its power as an employer and health provider to make it harder for its employees and patients to make use of birth control, all in an effort to promote its rather constricted view of sex.  Liberals, on the other hand, would like all the relevant options made available to every adult, so that each might make up her own mind based upon her own judgment, unrestricted by income or the dogma of her employer.  Yes, liberals do want to use the power of the federal government to directly intervene into the relationship between employer and employee and between hospital and patient, but not to curtail freedom, rather to enhance it, to allow individuals more control over their own lives.  In this case at least, liberals wish to increase individual freedom while conservatives wish to constrict it.

How do we explain this seeming role reversal?  By noting that it’s not a reversal at all.  Conservatives typically portray themselves as champions of freedom against the onslaught of regimenting, leveling statism.  But historically, American conservatives have not defended individuals against government in general, so much as defended local and parochial institutions, traditions, and powers against the federal government in particular.  And those parochial institutions have steadily declined over the course of American history.  More to the point, their ability to control the people in their charges has declined.  Consider the good old days when local communities enforced mores and sectarian doctrine.  Consider the terrible working conditions and meager pay under early industrialism.  Consider the patriarchal family.  Consider state sovereignty in the service of slavery and Jim Crow.  In each of those cases, conservatives defended parochial authority against what Weigel calls “deconstruction”, that is, against liberal reform.  Indeed, such defense seems to be the standard pattern of conservative policy.  Some conservatives, such as “libertarian” Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and his son Senator Rand Paul, still express reservations about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which ended the right of private businesses to discriminate against employees and customers on the basis of race.  That is, state law, local custom and individual prejudice all conspired to drastically limit the lives of black Americans.  But almost all conservatives in the Jim Crow era (and apparently some even now) defended the right of business owners to enforce those limitations, while liberals used the power of the federal government to lift them.

This is not remotely meant to suggest that denying health care coverage for contraception is equivalent to systematically denying opportunities to racial minorities.  It’s meant to illuminate the typical dynamic of conservative-liberal dispute.  When there is a conflict between parochial authority and individual freedom, conservatives generally side with the authority and liberals generally side with the individuals.  To liberals the federal government, democratically representing the moral and political might of the American people, is simply a powerful tool for liberating individuals from the constrictions of those local authorities and powers (and, in general, from arbitrary limits on individual development).  When conservatives talk about defending freedom against the statist onslaught this is what they’re really talking about: protecting the traditional prerogatives of parochial authorities, including their right to dominate and limit the individuals under their power.  Even in economics, the one sphere in which conservatives are widely credited with genuine support for individual liberty, conservative policies amount to protecting the dominance of the economically powerful (the rich, corporations, Wall Street) while discounting impositions upon working people and the poor.  This is liberalism at its best and conservatism at its worst.

Conservatives, of course, don’t usually portray themselves as defending the ability of parochial authorities to interfere in the lives of individuals.  But they do spend much time lauding the good done by “civil institutions,” which amounts to the same thing.  For conservatives, the purpose of civil institutions – family, church, community, school – is to mold the individual into a morally healthy cog in the great moral machine of society.  That is, there is an objective moral order (typically understood to be the work of the deity) that a healthy society both represents and enforces through properly functioning civil institutions.  The family enforces morality by molding the minds and habits of children.  The church does so by preaching supernatural deterrence against sin.  The community shames the wayward.  The school teaches loyalty to faith and flag.  The marketplace rewards the industrious and punishes the lazy.  In conservative folklore, the institutional and cultural arrangement of the original America bequeathed by the Founders was an almost perfect and pure expression of the objective morality.  In that arrangement the proper role of the federal government was to muster the moral and military might of the nation to protect that original institutional and moral purity against any foreign power that sought to corrupt it.  But, in effect, the federal government has itself become a foreign power, hijacked by progressives, liberals, atheists, intellectuals and elitists.  When it undermines civil institutions it undermines the moral purity those institutions represent and enforce.  This was how secessionists viewed the assault on slavery and how segregationists viewed the assault on Jim Crow.  It is how free-market purists view unions and the minimum wage.  And it is how pro-lifers view federally mandated availability of contraception.  Weigel and Santorum are not primarily defenders of the rights of religious institutions; they are moral reactionaries, cultural irredentists fighting to reclaim honest American soil from the occupying alien libertinism deployed by the federal government.

Obviously, no society can possibly exist without healthy, independent civil institutions, without working parochial powers.  Individuals are not the abstracted and impoverished egos dreamt of in radical liberal philosophy.  Conservatives are correct when they deny that persons precede society, either logically or morally.  Indeed, society makes persons, and it does so through the instrument of the civil institution.  Where conservatives go wrong is in uncritically accepting that an actual historical social arrangement approximates the just and the good.  They resist the need to judge each institution on its merits.   Some institutional arrangements further human happiness and others do not, and we cannot abdicate our responsibility as democratic citizens by simply refraining from making such assessments.  Clearly Weigel and Santorum are half right: the sexual revolution has had both beneficial and destructive effects.  We have more sexual fulfillment but less sexual virtue.  But does the downside of sexual liberation demand that we place ourselves back beneath the weight of repressed authority?  Must devolving choice down to the individual result in the trivialization of sex?  Surely, Augustine and Howard Stern cannot be our only alternatives. 

The most charitable reading of Weigel’s argument is that government provision for contraception carries an implicit approval.  If the government is making something easily available then it must be OK, right?  A mandate for choice is an implicit mandate for use.  That is, a mandate undercuts not just the material power of the church to limit the sex lives of its employees and patients, it undercuts the church’s moral argument as well.  Weigel is, in effect, saying that the government only pretends to be morally neutral by giving employees additional choices.  On such a subject, no government policy can be morally neutral, so the only real neutrality is to keep out altogether.  But Weigel must know that failing to guarantee such coverage is not morally neutral either.  There are perfectly respectable reasons for wanting these services and there is much good that can come from them.  Contraception and sterilization give the individual greater control over her own sexual and reproductive life.  Expanding access to birth control expands opportunities, and probably lessens some of the downside of the sexual revolution, such as unwanted pregnancies, illegitimacy and abortion.  The vast majority of Americans are pragmatic enough to appreciate that individual control over reproduction greatly increases human happiness, and they are unwilling to forgo that happiness for the sake of obscure and callous dogma.  They also understand that real freedom must include the ability to opt out of unhappy cultural forms.  And they are perfectly willing to have the federal government enable both that individual freedom and that social good.