The frustration of conservatives and other GOP voters about the giant red herring of “contraception” is palpable. For crying out loud, can’t we stop talking about this? We’ve got a terrible economy, a soaring national debt, gas prices and consumer-goods inflation on a tear, an Iranian nuclear-weaponization problem, a world increasingly in turmoil around us, and regulatory overreach of colossal proportions within our borders – and we’re talking about contraception?? How do we stop this?
The answer is, We can’t. Not in the context of current government. We bought into this mode of political discourse decades ago, when we decided it was a good idea to set up federal regulatory agencies and unleash them on every aspect of our lives. When the federal government is empowered by its regulatory charter to take sides on the issue of contraception, then contraception is something we have to talk about.
Anything the people don’t agree on becomes a government issue, if government is chartered to take actions of any sort that imply an opinion on it. This creates enough problems when the government in question is local. But when the government in question is the federal government, the implied outcome, no matter what the issue, is a “national policy” on the matter. As certain rights are enshrined in the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, so advocates wish to enshrine others in federal mandates.
This process is bound to come in conflict with the original concept of American rights, as it has lately done with contraception (a technology-accelerated social factor in today’s America) and religious liberty (a First Amendment right). And as we might expect, virtually all pundits on the right are reiterating that the issue with contraception and the universal mandate is religious liberty.
But that is only half the picture, and it is fatal – I mean that word seriously, in terms of the survival of our national idea – to speak only of religious liberty, as if it is a disembodied right that can coexist with any size of government. Catholic objections to funding contraception with mandated insurance premiums are the canary in the coal mine; the real, underlying problem is government so big that it goes around forcing us to do one thing and not another on an expanding host of matters.
The problem is big government. That cannot be said often enough. The problem is that we have chartered the US federal government to, in effect, have an opinion on your contraception, Sarah Fluke’s, and that used or not used by Catholics. When government is forcing us to do things with our money, property, and speech that we otherwise would not do, of course we have to talk about that. But again, it’s not just an issue of religious liberty. It’s an issue of the size of government.
That covers liberties of all kinds. Some conservative writers have been leery of presenting the contraception mandate as a general “liberty of conscience” issue, apparently on the theory that religious liberty is a stronger argument and easier ground to hold. But that posture itself accepts the premise of government so big that it interferes with the individual conscience on more and more issues. If organized religious organizations are exempt because of conscience, why shouldn’t individuals be? How you answer that question is exact information as to how big and intrusive you are satisfied with government being.
The more outcomes you insist on trying to control, the bigger government gets. America was set up for this day 70 years ago when the federal government used wage controls and tax incentives to induce employers to provide medical insurance. Other factors from decades back include the creation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Eisenhower (it became Health and Human Services in 1979); Johnson’s “War on Poverty” legislation, which provided contraception to low-income women and mandated that at least 6% of federal funding for maternal and child care go to “family planning”; and Nixon’s health industry reforms in the early 1970s, which enlarged federal oversight of private insurance plans and advantaged then-nascent HMOs over true “insurance.”
It is not possible and it will never be possible to grow government every decade, hand more and more things over to it for supervision, and expect to keep our liberties intact. If government is big enough to declare that objections to contraception are meaningless and that government ought to force private individuals to fund it, there will be a constituency for that. If it is big enough to preach opinions on sex to other people’s minor children, there will be a constituency for that. If it is big enough to make the use of salt illegal in restaurant cooking, there will be a constituency for that. And if government is big enough to suppress dissent by restricting access to the airwaves and internet servers – or increasing the cost of it until individuals and small organizations can no longer afford to use it as an effective vehicle for dissenting opinion – there will be a constituency for that. There will be a constituency for everything we let government be big enough to do.
We have put together a government this big by incremental steps, and for reasons that were often emotional at the time. But the future was always foreseeable. Politicians and pundits predicted as much as 100 years ago that we could not let government take over more and more things, regulate them, and prescribe levels of contribution from us on an invidious basis, without seeing compromised our liberties of thought, speech, and discretion over our livelihoods. They were right, and those who made fun of them were wrong. That remains the case today.
The problem isn’t social conservatives. The problem isn’t social liberals. The problem is big government.