My country is steadily turning into a third-world police state, and people are up in arms about a Supreme Court case that asked whether the government could force Hobby Lobby to pay for over-the-counter morning after pills for their employees. WTF, man? This might be the most inconsequential political issue to ever set Facebook ablaze.
I know nobody wants to hear about this crap any more, and I really don’t want to pile on, but I think there is at least one important point that nobody on either side of this exceedingly stupid debate has brought up. And by the time I’m done, you’ll see how it fits into my overall evolutionary Weltanschauung regarding human society.
The left and right sides of the Hobby Lobby debate unsurprisingly see the issues through the distorting lenses of their own ideologies:
1) Leftists think it’s all about health care. As they see it, birth control is an important component of women’s health care, and “emergency contraception” in the form of anti-implantation drugs like Plan B qualify as birth control. Therefore Hobby Lobby’s exclusion of these drugs is just a mean-spirited misogynistic attempt to save money on health care costs by discriminating against their female employees.
2) Rightists think it’s all about religion. Starting with the observations that i) leftists despise religion and ii) Hobby Lobby’s management strongly identifies the company as Christian owned and operated, right-wingers conclude that the ruling is about religious freedom.
Both positions are wrong. The leftist position is absurd: the opposition of Christians to abortion stretches back for decades, at least to Roe v. Wade, and Hobby Lobby has branded itself as a Christian business, so opposing pregnancy-ending treatments could easily be seen as an absolutely necessary business move on their part. Moreover, the notion that they’re refusing to cover cheap, over-the-counter, and (hopefully) rarely employed drugs to save money is just silly.
In contrast, the right’s position is simply myopic. Rightists are correct to believe that this case protects religious freedom – the court cited the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act – but more importantly it protects a broad interpretation of the political rights afforded American citizens by the First Amendment. And here we get to my major point: rather than being strictly about religion or health care, this case is about the rights of political dissidents.
Obviously, Christians don’t see pregnancy-ending drugs* as health care or birth control. They’re poisons, and their intentional use is murder. Now, whether or not you agree with that statement, you have to acknowledge that it’s a heartfelt belief that literally hundreds of millions of your fellow human beings hold. Given that, treating this like an economic debate isn’t just wrong, it’s viscious.
If we acknowledge that the debate is at least in part about whether or not the government can compel its citizens to commit murder, then this debate becomes one about “conscientious objector” status, and is more comparable to the rights of anti-war dissidents than a typical First Amendment case. The United States has long granted conscientious objector status to people with deeply held and pre-existing beliefs about the sacredness of life, exempting them from military service even during periods of total war.
Note that choosing to take this status has often been extremely unpopular. Nevertheless, our courts, in the spirit of liberty under which the United States was founded, have affirmed the rights of objectors and protected them from the anger of the mob as well as from the rapacious clutches of the war machine.
So-called pro-life beliefs are exactly the same as anti-war beliefs. In fact, the proportion of the population that holds such beliefs – roughly 50% – is much greater than the proportion of people with anti-war beliefs. Forcing someone to take an active part in something they consider murder is flat-out evil. Imagine force-feeding a vegan a bacon cheeseburger. (wait, that might be kind of fun…)
This isn’t strictly a religious issue, either: there are many secular pro-lifers out there, just as there are many secular antiwar conscientious objectors.
Some have suggested that Hobby Lobby does have a choice: they can close their doors rather than submit to the government mandate. This is similar to saying that a Hobby Lobby employee has a right to quit and go work somewhere else that doesn’t have a problem with Plan B. The difference is that a protesting Hobby Lobby can’t open a different business and escape the mandate; as long as they are in the US they will be forced to submit to the law. In effect, then, the government says to Hobby Lobby’s ownership “commit murder or starve”.
But let’s not get bogged down in specifics here. Let’s go beyond hot-button issues like abortion and unpopular groups like CEO “one-percenters”. Let’s think about normal people faced with moral decisions that are unpopular with their superiors. How about soldiers asked to fire on civilians? Or to bomb American citizens? How about government employees ordered to commit rape and torture? How about journalists compelled to reveal personal information about whistleblowers? How about reams and reams of boycotts and strikes and peaceful protests? The Hobby Lobby case obviously doesn’t cover any of these diverse situations – but it is consistent with a centuries-old tendency of Western courts to uphold the rights of citizens not to be compelled to commit heinous acts or to endure immoral treatment without recourse to protest.
I’ll conclude by giving this an evolutionary spin. When I think of the value of the First Amendment, I tend to think of a “marketplace of ideas”. Three hundred million unique worlds exist in the brains of Americans, and amongst them there are many different sorts of ideas. Most of them are boring and nearly identical; many or even most that deviate are wrong or even dangerous; but some of them are very good, perhaps even world-changing. When these ideas are communicated, they compete amongst themselves for the conquest of minds, particularly the minds of young people. Ideas that benefit those that hold them become more common, those that hurt regress and disappear. In this way, the Zeitgeist of the nation evolves and adapts to its ever-changing physical and social environment.
It is foolish to think that the current orthodoxy is the best available to us in the present, much less eternally best for all future generations, just as it is foolish to think that the genes that serve us well today will always be best for our descendants in the deep temporal downstream. The entire notion of “progressivism” is intrinsically foolish — there is no telos toward which nature is pushing us or any other species. Nor is it reasonable to think that we can predict which ideas will be best for the future, since our predictions are themselves prey to our prior ideas. For this reason, it is wise to be tolerant of as wide a variety of ideas as possible, and to be extraordinarily hesitant to punish dissident beliefs, either with violence or economic sanction (e.g., by forcing businesses to either acquiesce to the current orthodoxy or close). Nations that repress dissidents suffer for it, both in terms of brain drains and loss of novel ideas. If the United States wishes to stop its slide into the dustbin of history it must continue to embrace its traditional acceptance of the rights of political dissidents. The Supreme Court has generally understood this, and Hobby Lobby is a good example of a proper decision on their part.
* I admit that when I first heard about this case I assumed that Plan B was just a brand name for RU486, the “actual abortion drug”. Having never fucked up so terribly as to contemplate the use of either, this is perhaps understandable. I know now that Plan B in fact works quite differently from RU486 – but nevertheless, the difference doesn’t seem to be sufficient that it’s unreasonable for a person to call it a pregnancy-ending drug.