Puzzling over the spectacle of 100,000 American men gathered to take a public oath that they would never again touch a drop of alcohol, Alexis de Tocqueville wondered in 1848 why "these abstemious citizens could not content themselves with drinking water by their own fireside?"
The answer the French philosopher gave in Democracy in America, his brilliantly observed account of American habits and character, was that these men "wanted to support sobriety by their patronage." Had it been his own countrymen, he noted wryly, they "would have made individual representations to the government, asking it to supervise all the public houses throughout the realm."
But if the state of the culture wars in this country is any indication, Americans are a lot closer to the French now: Instead of advancing their positions through example and moral suasion as those "abstemious citizens" Tocqueville observed then, both modern-day conservatives and liberals in America are eagerly unleashing big government on each other—a la the French.
The Washington Post reported recently that more than two dozen states, under pressure from powerful religious groups, are considering new laws that would give health workers the "right" to refuse care that conflicts with their conscience.
First conceived in the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, these so-called conscience clause laws got a new lease on life—so to speak—earlier this year when Americans United for Life filed a complaint in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Target for firing a pharmacist who refused to dispense a morning-after pill. "Target discriminated against the employee because of her religious beliefs and her desire to exercise her conscience," the group claims. (Subsequently, the group sued Walgreens for similar reasons)
No subtle casuistry is needed to figure out the absurdity in this line of reasoning: The woman was not fired for her religious beliefs; she was fired for refusing to do her job.
If people like her find their professional duties too morally onerous, they are always free to opt for another career. Or they can try to work out their differences with their employer by offering something of value—extra hours, lower pay—in exchange for a reprieve from duties they find objectionable.
Instead, conservatives are seeking to employ the coercive power of the government to achieve their ends. In the process, not only will they short-circuit the give-and-take of the marketplace and undermine mutual cooperation and voluntary association, so essential to the functioning of a free society; but by making employers bear the cost of protecting an individual's conscience, they will weaken the moral fabric of the individual they are trying to aid. Indeed, in contrast to Tocqueville's citizens who gave up drinking to promote sobriety, conservative moralists fighting for conscience clause laws evidently feel they should have to give up nothing at all—time, pay, job—for the sake of their cause. Who can take them seriously under such circumstances?
But religious conservatives are not the only ones trying to promote their agenda on the cheap. Pro-choice liberals are doing the same.
They are countering conscience clause laws with ones that would force medical professionals—pharmacists, nurses and doctors—to dispense care even if it violates their beliefs. Illinois, for instance, has already implemented a law that forces pharmacies to fill morning-after prescriptions. Even more draconian versions proposed elsewhere might penalize doctors who refuse to perform procedures they find morally offensive on the theory that their personal views should not be allowed to interfere with providing necessary care.
Like conscience clause laws, these liberal antidotes substitute coercion for cooperation to settle legitimate moral differences. In doing so, they thwart market solutions that could well accommodate their needs without compromising anyone else's beliefs: For instance, every time a pharmacy turns away a patient for moral reasons, it creates an opportunity for a competitor with a less squeamish conscience.
This is not to deny that some people somewhere might suffer some inconvenience to obtain needed services. For instance, women in remote areas might have to drive several hours for a morning-after pill. But this inconvenience is minor and short-lived compared to the permanent damage that laws requiring people to go against their beliefs would do to bedrock freedoms that liberals themselves count on to advance other—far bigger—causes. Indeed, if doctors can be required to dispense treatment against their moral views, why can't conscientious objectors be forced to fight wars that they find morally repugnant?
One of the things that struck Tocqueville about Americans during his travels was that they eschew authority to combat the "ills and trials of life." Even children in their games, he observed, "submit to rules settled by themselves and punish offenses which they have defined themselves." Nor does this spirit of independence end with childhood. "The same attitude turns up again in all affairs of social life," he noted.
But that was then. Now neither conservatives nor liberals seem to understand that winning the culture war is not worth losing control over their moral destiny to the government. Like little children, who eagerly run to the insinuating teacher to resolve their petty quarrels, so too these cultural warriors run to the ever-meddlesome government.
How do you say crybabies in French?
Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.