Some reviewers have complained that Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind seriously overreaches when he writes stuff like this:
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of … animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite. (7)
He digs up fun quotes from old, odd sources.
“In order to keep the state out of the hands of the people,” wrote the French monarchist Louis de Bonald, “it is necessary to keep the family out of the hands of women and children.” (15)
At this point conservatives get ticked off: Louis de who?
Can’t pin us to some dead monarchist! Guy was French! Robin is guilty of tarring all of conservatism with the broadest, blackest brush. It’s paranoid stuff. Nasty sniffing around in the alleged id. No respect for the superego.
This sort of dispute is hard to adjudicate, because the only way to do so rigorously is with specifics – examples and counter-examples. But really Robin isn’t claiming that there are no counter-examples to his claim. He is saying his model is the paradigm. He is modeling the typical, not the invariable, conservative. The conservative response is that – today – only conservative extremists think in this bad way. It’s no accident that Robin has to run off to Old Europe for the juiciest quotes. The rest he gets from more contemporary conservatives when maybe they slipped in an interview and said something they didn’t quite mean, or they exaggerated for effect and … taken out of context …
Let’s take a crack at defending Robin, like so. Ross Douthat’s latest column in the NY Times is a good fit for Robin’s thesis. Douthat is no one’s notion of a radical conservative. He’s a squish (well, that’s what lots of conservatives think of him.) His job is to make conservatism sound reasonable to urbane liberals. None of that seamy underbelly, talk radio-style stuff.
So if even Douthat fits Robin’s model – that doesn’t prove anything. Still …
So what’s the issue? Read the op-ed. And the news article that goes with. The thesis: it’s an infringement of liberty – and fundamentally destructive to values of community – to force religious organizations to provide health insurance that covers contraception.
I’m going to trust your reading comprehension skills re: op-ed and article (although, if these skills fail you, in some demonstrable way, I reserve the right to point this out in comments.) Now: what is it that Douthat really wants?
Reading between the lines I just trusted you to read: it’s obvious to me he wants what Robin says conservatives always want. Douthat says the issue is liberty and community. But honestly: he’s a kinder, gentler, crypto- de Bonald. Much, much kinder and gentler, I’m sure. The crypto goes like so, in Robin’s formulation (following Karl Mannheim): “Because freedom is the lingua franca of modern politics … conservatives have had “a sound enough instinct not to attack” it. Instead, they have made freedom the stalking horse of inequality, and inequality the stalking horse of submission.” (102)
But reading between the lines can be tricky, admittedly. I suppose we can’t prove what’s in the man’s soul. But it is noteworthy that the structure of moral concern he’s expressing is implausible. So probably his actual concerns are somewhat different. (It is possible, I suppose, that Ross Douthat just has an implausible soul. What are the odds?)
Douthat says: Conservatives aren’t just about the rugged individualism. They are also about voluntarist communitarianism. That scene in “Witness” where they raise the barn, if you recall it. That kind of stuff.
Douthat says he is concerned about that stuff – voluntarist communitarianism – withering in the face of statism, exemplified by this forced-to-insure-contraception situation.
Here’s the problem: suppose we rewrite the “Witness” scene, like so. The good people are about to raise the barn for a lady who needs a barn but, at the last minute, they find she is on the pill. So they refuse to raise the barn.
You might say: that’s their right! You might say: jerks! You might say a third thing. But hold that thought, as we are not done yet.
A man from the government now shows up and tells the barn-raisers that, henceforth, if they are going to raise barns, they can’t refuse to raise them for women on the pill. (They don’t have to build everyone a barn, but this cannot be the exclusion condition.)
What’s the issue now? If you think it’s the nobility of voluntarist barn-raising, or lack thereof, you haven’t been keeping score. We can shift to “The Jerk” for adaptable filmic material: “He hates barns!” Or, more charitably, “He hates voluntarily raised barns!” If you think the man from the government is taking aim at the barn, you are a jerk.
No, seriously: if the barn-raisers really value voluntary barn-raising so damn much – if that is their first concern – they will build the barn, pill be damned. Likewise, if government man is mostly concerned with barn prevention, he won’t let them do it even if the woman gets off the pill. (I have intentionally made government man’s rule sort of dumb and potentially problematic to show that the legal intricacies of the situation, while no doubt very interesting, do not cut to the quick of what people are really interested in here.)
Does this point apply to Douthat’s column? Yes. Ostensibly, he is worried about “a darker American future, in which our voluntary communities wither away and government becomes the only word we have for the things we do together.” But if that were truly his concern, he would be urging the Catholic groups that say they are going to dissolve, rather than go along, to go along. Think about it. Suppose someone asked the barn-raisers: why are you troubled by the prospect of a woman taking the pill and getting her barn raised? Suppose they reply: we are worried that situations like this will undermine our willingness to raise barns, voluntarily. Could any problem be more easily solved by the barn-raisers themselves? Unless, of course, the sticking point is something else. The pill, to pick a likely suspect.
Douthat might object that it takes two to tango, not raising a barn-wise. The woman could pitch in from her side by agreeing not to take the pill, the better to stop others from not raising the barn. But the oddly negative quality of this suggestion really does indicate the problem with it. If the threat is a looming lack of voluntaristic community action, the barn-raisers should meet it head-on: stop stopping and start starting.
So Douthat will probably not focus on the woman but rather on the man from the government.
Douthat will probably say that the barn-raising metaphor is wrong, or should go more like this: the man from the government comes and says that, if you are going to raise a barn, you have to have a Planned Parenthood-raising, too, and everyone has to pitch in to whip up a batch of morning after pills. So the sticking point is this: being required positively to do something that you think is morally repugnant.
But this isn’t right. Barn-raising is volunteer charity, and it is reasonable not to expect anyone to do charity work they find directly morally repugnant. But employer-provided health insurance is a form of compensation for work, like plain old cash pay. If I disapprove of drinking, but one of my employees takes the money I pay him and spends it on beer, I have not, in any sense, been forced to buy him drinks. Obviously if I were forced to pay my employees in ‘beer dollars’, or literally in beer, the situation would be different. But medical insurance is not like paying people in ‘contraception dollars’. Being covered for getting your leg broken does not mean being obliged to break a leg, then get it treated. No one is proposing that anyone be forced to take any pill, just because they are covered for it.
Let’s make the case much weirder, but only by way of being very down-to-earth about actual motive – about what Douthat obviously actually thinks and feels. If you think it makes sense for Catholic employers to refuse to provide insurance for contraception, then you should think it makes sense for Catholic employers to refuse to allow their employees to spend their cash on contraception. And there is nothing special about Catholics. Every employer should be able to restrict pay by restricting what employees can spend it on. (If they don’t like it, they don’t have to take the job.)
Does this sound like a great idea? No. First of all, it sounds impractical. But that’s not the issue. It sounds like a bad idea. If there were some super-nosy technical means whereby employers could wield ultra micro-managemental moral authority over every aspect of their employees’ lives, by nixing any disapproved acts of consumption, on the ground that they don’t want ‘their money’ spent on that? Obviously that would just make the dystopian quality of the scenario more vivid. Exactly how bad it would get, in practice, is not clear. Most employers wouldn’t bother, and most employees would object and walk. That’s the best case. The point is this: the world would not get ‘freer’ or more ‘communitarian’, the more that employers exercised these coercive options, and the more workers found themselves unable to walk away, in practice.
But Douthat isn’t proposing anything so comprehensive. So what’s the relevance? Is this supposed to be a slippery slope? No, the point is closer to the opposite: this slope is obviously non-slippery. But it ought to be slippery, since the general principle about employer privilege really ought to apply broadly, if at all. (It really ought to take us nearly all the way to Louis de Bonald, sounds like.)
Douthat, being a much kinder, gentler De Bonald, would only apply the principle in small ways, to certain traditional sex roles and social hierarchies. He thinks a semi-subordinate status for women, where reproductive stuff is concerned, seems right. But he wouldn’t want to put it that way, because it sounds bad. There should be some way of making out how really the issue is freedom and community. That is to say, Robin is basically right about the way Douthat thinks and argues. This isn’t a big-deal false consciousness thesis or anything, be it noted. I’m just arguing that, surely, Douthat doesn’t defend what he really wants to defend here, and doesn’t really think the thing he says is the issue is the real issue. This sort of thing happens all the time. Happens to liberals. Happens to everyone. You take the low road. Robin’s thesis – namely, that modern conservatism only ever consists of this low road – is a bit more contentious.
Here’s a quote from Robin that I’ve seen mocked by some conservatives and libertarians as obviously preposterous.
“Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not. When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.” (16)
This statement really does need emendation. It is obviously false that libertarianism implies that you have to ‘see’ this way, or ought to ‘see’ this way. What Robin means to say – which is, admittedly, not what he says – is that, in point of actual fact, the typical conservative espouses a fair-weather libertarianism. You are exquisitely attuned to threats to liberty, where you want to see them. You want to see them when unequal social arrangements that you are unable or unwilling to defend on the positive merits are threatened. Libertarianism then becomes a kind of standard procedural block. States rights, when you don’t want to defend Jim Crow on the merits. That sort of thing.
“The Obama White House’s decision is a threat to any kind of voluntary community that doesn’t share the moral sensibilities of whichever party controls the health care bureaucracy … Once claimed, such powers tend to be used in ways that nobody quite anticipated, and the logic behind these regulations could be applied in equally punitive ways by administrations with very different values from this one.”
This is unconvincing. Of course, any power can be abused. But the principle that people should be treated equally – in the sense of enjoying the same basic rights and liberties – is only going to be used (as opposed to abused) against social groups or structures that don’t treat people equally, in that sense. Some such groups will turn out to deserve protection. But obviously, and rightly, there will be heightened scrutiny of groups that want to treat their members unequally. There’s no point feigning that it is their ‘voluntary’ or ‘community’ character that sets alarm bells ringing.
For the record: I don’t know a thing about Louis de Bonald, besides that he said that one thing.