In a consideration of the HHS mandate, Rachel Held Evans (who spoke at my institution a few months ago) asks whether it is OK for firms to refuse to provide contraceptive coverage as a matter of religious conscience. A few thoughts:

1. The problem with rights is that one person’s right is another person’s obligation. This isn’t a problem when we’re talking about negative liberty, or essentially the right to be left alone. It becomes a big problem when we talk about positive rights, such as a right to health care, a right to education, or a right to paid vacation. These things have to be paid for by somebody, and if we’re going to claim that health care is Peter’s right then we also have to claim that paying for Peter’s health care is Paul’s obligation. If Paul doesn’t want to pay for Peter’s contraceptives, mandating a “right” to health care for Peter requires bulldozing Paul’s conscience.

2. Evans asks: “How is it preserving “religious liberty” to allow employers to impose their religious convictions onto their employees regarding what they can purchase with their compensation?” I’m intrigued by the way this is phrased: who gets to do the allowing? I wonder: why shouldn’t we err on the side of allowing any voluntary contract? Why, for that matter, should we assume that we’re in a position to allow or forbid anything consensual?

3. The devil is in the details. What counts as “health coverage”? What counts as “education”? Who gets to decide?

4. This is teaching us an important Hayekian point. We do not and cannot have all the relevant knowledge about “the particular circumstances of time and place.” Attempting to engineer desirable social outcomes is dangerous because the people doing the engineering are human, just like you and me. They have limited information, and they face dysfunctional (and sometimes pathological) incentives. Suffice it to say that doesn’t make me optimistic about curtailing liberty for many and giving power to few.