Applied Randology #2: Contra-perceptions

(OR, How Conservative Arguments About Birth Control Really Mean They Wanted More Radical Obamacare)

So contraception’s been in the news lately, and I could tell right away that the debate about it was relevant here, since the blog is about where progressives and libertarians meet and the debate is about that exactly. But I haven’t had the time to address it here until now, so let’s do this thing:

The issue has been framed two ways — one as a matter of women’s rights, and the other as a matter of religious freedom. For those who’ve been following this blog, these two views represent the two different types of liberty (which I discussed here).

Basically, when you consider the issue as one of reproductive rights, it’s a matter of positive liberty because you’re saying a woman has a right TO something. Considered as a matter of religious conscience it’s about negative liberty because you’re saying an employer has a right to be free FROM something.

So if the government guarantees women access to birth control, it is protecting their right to choose at the expense of their employers’ right to choose, but if the government leaves the employers free to choose, it will take choices out of women’s hands.

Rather than get bogged down in arguments about whose rights take priority, however, we could just acknowledge that this entire debate would not exist if individuals didn’t rely on their employers for health insurance.

Again, if individuals had any kind of negotiating power in the health care market, there would be no conflict of interest here. If we had, oh I don’t know, some kind of clear relationship between health care services and every single payer, differences in the moral beliefs of employers and employees that have no bearing on their business relationship would have no bearing on their business relationship. Women’s rights wouldn’t conflict with religious liberty at all.

So conservatives worried this is an attack on religious freedom are actually making a good argument that Obamacare wasn’t liberal enough.

Let’s, er, apply Ayn Rand as an example. The official Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on birth control  proves that Rand would have been on the progressive side of this argument — as if her hatred of religion and love of kinky sex hadn’t made that abundantly clear already. Yet in this case, protecting a woman’s right “to her own life and happiness” (Rand’s phrasing) would mean government interference in the economy, which she hated. So we know already that the current conversation is a tangled mess.

Let’s clean it up, shall we?

To start with we have individuals and doctors. Currently between them are employers, insurance companies, and government, all negotiating amongst themselves what the individuals and doctors can do. Despite all the controversy over Obamacare, that basic framework was true before it passed and it’s still true now.

The most radical liberal option during the health care debate would have been to break the backs of the insurance companies and replace them with a single-payer system that would remove employers from the equation too, leaving only one arbiter between people and their doctors, and the same arbiter for everyone, thus radically simplifying people’s interactions with health care providers and making it clear who to petition for changes in the system in the future. Counter-intuitively, even though this would be the ‘big government’ solution, it would in many ways increase individual liberty — positive liberty.

But that course of action wasn’t on the table. A ‘public option’ would have essentially been a single-payer system competing against the insurance companies in the free market, which is a more American approach to reform anyway. But that would’ve meant the insurance companies would have to actually, you know, compete. So powerful corporate interests that they are, they mobilized an army of lobbyists (like Rand’s Wesley Mouch) to water down the law as much as possible and stop it from being too innovative or efficient. The individual mandate, which is obviously a huge infringement on negative liberty, was originally a Republican idea in the ’90s and basically hands the insurance companies lots of new business.

Which means, if we review the chain of events really quickly, well-established corporations with well-funded lobbies and a status quo bias (the villains in Atlas Shrugged) were facing upstarts who wanted to boost efficiency (just like in Atlas Shrugged), and they sabotaged this effort by helping to rewrite the law in their own interests (just like in Atlas Shrugged), the results of which have led to unnecessary conflicts and limits on freedom (just like in Atlas Shrugged), conflicts now blamed on those who were attempting reform in the first place (just like in Atlas Shrugged), reformers who in this case were progressive elected officials (the exact opposite of Atlas Shrugged).

So. As I have pointed out on multiple occasions, people who claim that real life since 2008 is just like in Atlas Shrugged are actually on to something in terms of the plot, because that comparison is revisiting the book in reality’s terms, retrospectively. But taking Rand’s political prejudices in Atlas Shrugged and prejudging real people by them in terms of character, the comparison is reframing reality in the book’s terms, which is just failing to face reality on its own terms.

And in that ideological mismatch, Rand fans end up supporting policies and politicians that only worsen the economic problems that scared them in the first place… which is just like in Atlas Shrugged.

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