Of the many foolish things said about the Hobby Lobby case, a contender for most foolish is the “Buy your own contraception!” snark on the right that runs parallel to the left-wing exaggerations about bosses dictating contraception choices to women. What the snark disguises is that the principle at stake is the same for both sides: if you’re compelled to purchase a service, you—whether “you” are a business or an individual—want to have some say in what it is you’re buying. Since it’s no longer a market transaction when government insists that it must take place, the question of just what is being bought has to become a political and legal question. Women who say that they should get a basic service when they are forced to buy an insurance plan are in exactly the same position as a company that says it has religious objections to certain kinds of services. Neither claim is risible; both arise from the straightforward notion that you should get what you want, and not get what you don’t want, when you have to buy something.
If sex and religion are too polarizing to offer a clear illustration, consider whether “buy your own!” would make sense in a different context. If Washington commanded that everyone must purchase a car through his or her employer, but employers didn’t offer, say, headlights with the vehicle, would having to pay extra out of pocket seem reasonable, or would most people feel ripped off? Conversely, if employers were told that they had to offer, say, gold-plated hubcaps with all cars, wouldn’t they be entitled to object?
With auto parts, it might be possible to come up with a public consensus on what features were reasonable. That’s simply not possible, and not even desirable, where the questions at the heart of the Hobby Lobby case are concerned. Despite the best efforts of ideologues, sex and religion are still personal rather than political matters for most people. Americans do not want their relationships or beliefs supervised by the federal government, or by any government—not by a bureaucracy, not by a court, and not by the democratic process. Why should anyone get to vote on your faith or whether your insurance covers contraception? But the problem with the HHS mandate, and with Obamacare itself, is that it makes these very personal matters unavoidably public as well: matters for bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, politicians, Rush Limbaugh, and the people you do business with.
Apologists for the mandate can say that there’s already a public dimension to these things, which is true. There’s no wall of separation between the people as a political actor and citizens’ personal feelings about sex and religion, and there’s obviously not supposed to be a wall of separation between the people and their government. But there’s a difference between the indirect, tiered influence that private persons exercise on the public and the public exercises on the state—and vice versa—and the kind of simplification that ideologues wish to see, in which individual, community, and state are all harmonized according to a single, unchanging set of values. The trouble with ideologues left or right isn’t just what they want, it’s how oblivious they are to their own excesses: they can’t imagine that anyone could have a reason not to want to subsidize someone else’s contraception or that any woman might feel cheated and demeaned by a company failing to provide insurance that covers birth control. You don’t actually have to agree with the metaphysical apparatus behind either side to see that something conscientious and intimate is being traduced by closing the gap between government, business, and private life.
Public policy is going to involve a clash of values one way or another, and even when one side “wins,” the political fighting doesn’t stop—the stakes are much lower, in practical terms, than ideologues can afford to admit. Popular governments aren’t meant to attain a steady equilibrium; opinions are always in motion, and thus so is politics. In pointing out the overreach that characterizes the simplifiers on both sides, the objective isn’t to arrive at a uniformly agreeable middle policy—some ideal formula for what’s personal and what’s political—but to maintain a certain space, however compromised, for life and feeling at a distance from politics. No house is completely private and invisible to the outside world, but that doesn’t mean we should let ideologues tell us that our walls might as well be transparent. Religion and sex ought to remain more personal than political, imperfect though the separation may be, and policies that more thoroughly mix these things are simply bad.