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Arnold Kling

Libertarians and Social Conservatives

Arnold Kling*

"George argues that the progressives have pushed the state all the way toward actually prohibiting religious persons from acting on conscience."
In a collection of essays, Conscience and Its Enemies,1 Princeton University professor Robert P. George appeals as a social conservative for libertarian support. Libertarians generally have been on the side of progressives on what are commonly known as "the social issues." However, George makes a number of arguments aimed at convincing libertarians to change sides.

One of George's most compelling arguments is that the progressive side has gone beyond protecting citizens from state enforcement of religious values. He argues that the progressives have pushed the state all the way toward actually prohibiting religious persons from acting on conscience.

Consider the progressive reaction to a court decision that was rendered recently (subsequent to the publication of George's book) concerning the chain store Hobby Lobby and the mandate for employers to pay for their employees to obtain contraception. When the contraception mandate was first announced, those who objected to contraception on religious grounds protested. The Obama Administration then offered a compromise, in which religious organizations themselves did not have to pay for contraception to their employees, but other corporations had to comply with this mandate. Hobby Lobby did not want to comply, and it obtained a ruling in the 10th Circuit court that it was entitled to noncompliance on religious grounds.

The Washington Post editorial board disagreed vehemently with the court decision. They wrote,

The Justice Department should appeal this decision. The White House offered a fair compromise to religious groups. But private businesses should not be able to impose the religious views of management onto employees while calling themselves equal-opportunity employers.2

This strikes me as an instance in which George is correct in suggesting that libertarian sympathies should go to religious conservatives. The mandate is in no way necessary to protect the rights of employees to obtain contraception.

From an economist's perspective, I think of the health care mandate in general as an attempt to dictate the form of employee compensation. Although people often speak of employers "giving" health care to their employees, health insurance coverage is not a gift. Instead, it is a substitute for cash compensation. Other things equal, the more a company pays for health insurance, the less the employee receives in take-home pay. Indeed, as health insurance costs have risen over the past three decades, the growth in wage compensation received by employees has been noticeably less than the growth in total compensation (including health insurance) paid by employers.

Suppose, for example, that the cost of coverage for contraception is $500 per year, the cost of insurance for other forms of health care is $4,500 per year, and the value of the employee's work for the company is $35,000 a year. Leave aside taxes and other factors that affect compensation, and consider three possible arrangements.

  1. 1. The company pays the employee $35,000 a year and offers no health insurance coverage. The employee may choose to pay $500 for contraception and $4,500 for other forms of health insurance.
  2. 2. The company pays the employee $30,500 a year and offers health insurance coverage that does not pay for contraception. The employee may choose to pay $500 for contraception.
  3. 3. The company pays the employee $30,000 a year and offers health insurance coverage that includes contraception.

Regardless of the choice that the company makes, it seems to me that the company is an equal-opportunity employer. I do not see any grounds for forcing the company's owners to violate their consciences.

Religious conservatives would be violating the rights of others if they prevented people from obtaining contraception. But I think of the mandate for coverage of conception as dictating that $500 in compensation (in my example) must not be in cash and instead must be in the form of coverage for contraception. I see it as reducing the rights of both the employer and the employee.


See also Health Insurance, by John Cochrane in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and EconTalk podcasts on Health.

Of course, the same argument holds for the health insurance mandate in its entirety. It is a pure reduction in the rights of employers and employees. I believe that George would argue that the contraception requirement goes even further, infringing on the rights of conscience of the owners of the company.

George is no libertarian. On page 92, he writes:

The strict libertarian position, it seems to me, goes much too far in depriving government of its subsidiary role. It underestimates the importance of maintaining a reasonably healthy moral ecology, especially for the rearing of children, and it misses the legitimate role of government in supporting the nongovernmental institutions that shoulder the main burden of assisting those in need.

Like many of the arguments in the book, I found this eloquent but unpersuasive. A "healthy moral ecology" sounds like a good thing. But I need to be shown why this creates a rationale for a centralized authority to interfere with a decentralized order.

George expresses doubts about federalism. On page 103, he writes:

If same-sex "marriage" is legally recognized in a small number of states, it will spread throughout the nation, either through judicial action under the Constitution's full faith and credit clause or by the working of informal cultural pressures. Some states may try to hold out, but they will sooner or later be forced into line. That is why we need a national resolution of the issue, and probably a constitutional one.

The libertarian position is that government should not define marriage. Government does not have to declare that one particular contract is "marriage" and designate who is eligible to sign such a contract. George himself writes, on page 104:

Some of the benefits traditionally associated with marriage may legitimately be made more widely available... Private contracts between such people should be sufficient to accomplish all or most of what they consider desirable... The needs that domestic-partnership schemes seek to address have nothing to do with whether the partners share a bed and what they do in it. The law should simply take no cognizance of the question of a sexual relationship. It should not, that is, treat a nonmarital sexual relationship as a public good.

For George, a marriage is a traditional heterosexual monogamous relationship. It has significance because, in his view, it is a public good, which to me means that it must have important benefits for those of us not in the relationship. As with all "public goods" arguments, the economist would insist on the distinction between "good for the public" and "public good." The benefits of marriage for the people who marry are private goods, not public goods.

In fact, this issue of drawing a clear distinction between public goods and private goods applies to more than just marriage. I would raise exactly the same issue with regard to health care, home ownership, and education. In each case, one can make an argument that one household's consumption has benefits that "spill over" to the rest of us. However, I would still say that most of the benefits go to the household itself. I make an exception of vaccination, which is clearly a public good. Otherwise, the spillover benefit that I receive from your health care, home ownership, or education is not large enough to justify government intrusion in these matters, with all of the clumsiness, corruption, and loss of liberty that entails.

George in fact does appeal to the idea of spillover effects. On page 128, he writes:

The more we equate marriage with what amounts to a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership, the more difficult it will be for people to live by the stabilizing norms specific to true marriage... the erosion of marriage ideals will continue to harm everyone—children, spouses, societies as a whole—but especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

I would say that even if we grant these sorts of spillover effects, I am inclined to leave it to the non-governmental institutions of civil society try to address them.

Ever watchful for confirmation of my "three-axis" model of political language,3 I highlighted this on page 110:

[John Henry] Newman has the immense advantage over Mill of believing in human fallenness (what Christian faith knows as original sin), and so he is spared naive optimism and faith in human progress... He is cognizant of both the need for restraints on freedom, lest men descend into vice and self-degradation, and the supreme importance of central freedoms as conditions for the realization of values that truly constitute the integral flourishing of men and women as free and rational creatures...

To me, the concern about descending into "vice and self-degradation" fits nicely into the civilization versus barbarism axis that I describe as belonging to the language of conservatives.

Many Americans fear any combination of religion and politics, because of the dangers of religious intolerance. George explains how religious adherents can reconcile their own faith with a belief in freedom of religion. On page 120, he writes:

... the Second Vatican Council did not embrace the idea that error has rights; they noticed, rather, that people have rights, and they have rights even when they are in error.

I wish that the sentiments of the Second Vatican Council were echoed by progressives.

George makes a case against legalized abortion. He argues that upon conception, an embryo should be treated as a human being with rights, especially the right to life. Here, I might accuse him of committing a naturalistic fallacy: because the unborn baby is alive, it has rights.

It strikes me as plausible, although not necessarily persuasive, to argue that a child has rights only after its mother has undergone the physical and emotional trauma of giving birth. This would of course include birth by Caesarian section. It also would include a baby rescued from the womb of a deceased mother. However, until birth has occurred, the baby has no rights. Under this standard, if a woman finds out a week before she is due to give birth that her baby will have Down's Syndrome, she will have the right, but certainly not the obligation, to abort before giving birth. However, if the woman finds out the moment after she has given birth that the baby has Down's Syndrome, she has no right to murder the baby. She has already been through the birth experience, and at this point the baby has full rights to life (although, of course, the woman may choose to place the baby for adoption).

I think that libertarians will find George's book to be well-reasoned. He usually anticipates the sorts of arguments and concerns that libertarians would raise about his positions as a social conservative. On the whole I think that libertarians will continue to disagree with his views on some of the central issues. However, his book has made me aware that the more aggressive moves by the Left in the culture war are putting liberty of conscience at risk.


Robert P. George, Conscience and its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism. Intercollegiate Studies Institute (Wilmington): 2013.


Arnold Kling, The Three Languages of Politics. Amazon Kindle. See also the EconTalk podcast Kling on the Three Languages of Politics.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of five books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; and Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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