Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Liberty as a Form of Oppression

I have always known that Andrew Sullivan and I had substantive disagreements on the parameters of liberty, but I had thought we shared the same basic view of its nature. This post, however, gives me pause:

NOW, THE PILL: The increasing popularity of laws that allow doctors and pharmacists to opt out of certain practices or even certain kinds of patient is a worrying trend. It was designed in part by the religious right to prevent gay people from having access to good medical care, and also to protect doctors from being forced to perform abortions. Now, its effects are being extended to the birth control pill, which some believe can be a form of abortion. The slow and fitful attempt of the far right to control others' sex lives continues. If you approve, vote Republican.

So, like much of the left whom he generally repudiates, Mr. Sullivan is now asserting that laws giving people options are actually inhibiting the liberty of those that want to enforce conformity. This is not a new theory, of course. All anti-discrimination laws operate on similar presuppositions. The notion is that if a proprietor of, say, a bar has the liberty to refuse service to anyone, that entails his ability to refuse service to Blacks, Jews, Women, Gays, Non-Smokers, or whatever peculiar prejudice he happens to hold and therefore his liberty must be curtailed.

Now reasonable people can disagree as to whether such curtailment of the liberty to discriminate is a proper function of government. It is perfectly within the conservative tradition to argue that, in certain cases as noted above, the limitation on liberty serves a greater social good. I happen to disagree -- preferring to let the market punish such idiocy -- but I can appreciate the argument. If I came upon a bar that did not allow Blacks I would quite happily take my business elsewhere and encourage others to do likewise, but I can sympathize with the impatience of those who want a quicker, more definitive solution. But it is surely a little rich to characterize the libertarian position as an "attempt ... to control others' ... lives." Especially when the discrimination in question is based on demonstrably ancient and presumably sincerely held moral precepts.

To illustrate why this latter point makes a difference, suppose the bartender in my example was discriminating not against Blacks or Gays but against ... Alcoholics. The Civil Rights crowd might (although it tends not to) argue that such discrimination is unfair and that even drunks have a right to be served by a place of public accommodation. But would the bartender necessarily be trying to control the drinking habits of his clientele? Might he not simply wish to refrain from participating in self-destructive behavior? It seems that in such a case, the benefit of the doubt belongs with the bartender.

Now my analogy will not be as compelling if, as Mr. Sullivan asserts, such opt-out laws were "designed in part by the religious right to prevent gay people from having access to good medical care". I am not aware of such motivations and he offers no support for this assertion. But even if this is a factor, surely the predominant impetus has been in the abortion arena where doctors, nurses and pharmacists have been under pressure by the extreme left to provide abortions against their moral and religious convictions.

I do not hold the Roman Catholic position on birth control (nor the modified version of it presented in the BBC article), but it doesn't take much imagination to see how someone who did would want the same ability to opt-out. Charity, if nothing else, should dictate that such a person not be forced to choose between losing his job and violating his religion. But even a failure of such charity would not warrant that his scruples be mischaracterized as malice.

In a culture war, as in any other, the best way to avoid unintended casualties is to use the most precise weaponry available. It is regrettable that a warrior with the obvious marksmanship of Mr. Sullivan should choose to explode such indiscriminate ordnance in the midst of the marketplace of ideas.

UPDATE (In reference to Sullivan's post immediately prior to this one): If he has Blogger Block, what the hell do I have?

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