by Dr. Roy Cordato
Senior Economist, Emeritas
This is an excellent post at the Bloomberg View blog by Megan McArdle explaining why the left and the right view the outcome of the Hobby Lobby case so very differently. It’s a clash between how each side views what constitutes rights. As she points out:
Usually in political disputes, it’s broadly understood which side is being forced and which side is doing the forcing. We may argue about how much people should pay in taxes or how harsh incarceration policies should be, but both sides can generally agree on who is being coerced and who is doing the coercing. Here we have a case in which folks on both sides genuinely believe that they are the ones being imposed upon. How is it possible that we disagree on something so fundamental and obvious?
McArdle’s argument is difficult to fully explain in a brief summary but I think the essence of the problem can be captured by stringing together a few key sections. In McArdle’s words:
Consider an argument I have now heard hundreds of times… “Hobby Lobby’s owners have a right to their own religious views, but they don’t have a right to impose them on others.”…the statement itself is laudable, yet it rings strange when it’s applied to this particular circumstance. How is not buying you something equivalent to “imposing” on you?…
All of us learned some version of “You have the right to your beliefs, but not to impose them on others” in civics class. It’s a classic negative right. And negative rights are easy to make reciprocal: You have a right to practice your religion without interference, and I have a right not to have your beliefs imposed on me….
In this context, “Do what you want, as long as you don’t try to force me to do it, too” works very well, which is why this verbal formula has had such a long life. But when you introduce positive rights into the picture, this abruptly stops working. You have a negative right not to have your religious practice interfered with, and say your church forbids the purchase or use of certain forms of birth control. If I have a negative right not to have my purchase of birth control interfered with, we can reach a perhaps uneasy truce where you don’t buy it and I do. But if I have a positive right to have birth control purchased for me, then suddenly our rights are directly opposed: You have a right not to buy birth control, and I have a right to have it bought for me, by you.
For McArdle, this is a fundamental problem being faced by American society . Traditionally the “American view” has been dominated by the concept of negative rights and has seen such negative rights as essential to true liberty. But as positive rights come to dominate how our government and many in society come to think about rights, these kinds of clashes will become more and more prevalent.
There is much more to McCardle’s post than I can distill here so I recommend reading it in its entirety.