Blind Faith and Women

A good friend of mine, an economics professor, is a devout libertarian. Years ago, he explained that he was opposed to the Civil Rights Act barring discrimination in employment. In no way is this fellow a bigot; his long record of working with minority students and doing outreach belies that notion. Simply, he believes in the market. Those who discriminate lose the chance of obtaining the best possible employee, with dire economic consequences. What could be a greater penalty than that?

This kind of blind faith is at the core of the recent Supreme Court decisions on contraception, and provides a rationalization for steps that curtail women's rights. Critics have been denouncing the gender implications of the ruling, while its core rests in simplistic views of the relative roles of the marketplace and government.

Thus, in the Hobby Lobby decision Justice Alito wrote that "it seems unlikely" that "corporate giants" would make religious claims, endangering their stance in the marketplace. Furthermore, if a company of any size dropped general health insurance because of religious objections, it would place the firm at "a competitive disadvantage." As my colleague explained, what could possibly be worse than that? Would any company ever do anything that foolish?

In the subsequent decision regarding Wheaton College, Alito, speaking for the Court, again ruled that a Christian institution was exempt from the government's mandate to provide coverage for contraception. He was not worried about the impact on women's health, since it was clear that the market would provide for that. Alito argued that insurance companies providing health care to these employees would be sure to pay for contraception on their own, since the cost was so much less than paying for pregnancies. Leave it to the marketplace and all will work out.

There are numerous problems with treating Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations as a holy text. For better or worse, businesspeople are human, and like anyone else, make decisions based on their prejudices and beliefs, not necessarily on the profit motive. Chick-fil-A, for example, doesn't do business on Sunday, thus forgoing those sales, those profits because of their convictions. I am not objecting to their right to do so, only pointing out that it undercuts Alito's trust that the market will always opt for the profitable way of doing things, forgoing ideology in the quest for revenue. Businesses often make foolish decisions because of personal beliefs; the marketplace is no guarantor of personal rights.

Then there is the conflict between short and long term profits. Providing better health care -- or better wages -- costs more in the short run but makes for better long term returns thanks to increased productivity and corporate loyalty. How many companies take the long view of profit making? Or rather, how few?

Above all, Alito ignores that sometimes companies are at odds with the public good and have to be restrained and regulated by government. Companies that pollute air and water endanger all of us as they make money. Laws protecting the population are a legitimate exercise of government power.

Alito's decisions definitely hurt women. It endangers their health in fundamental ways, and prohibits them from controlling their own body. Yet it rests on a simplistic devotion, a conviction that an unerring doctrine exists and must be followed in all cases. In these cases the victims of such fanaticism were women.