FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Paying for your freedom
In the early stages of the Hobby Lobby religious liberty lawsuit against ObamaCare, the justices installed by Barack Obama, Sotomayor and Kagan, had a little conversation about how the owners of the company could easily get their right of conscience back, if they would just pay a nice fat surcharge for it. “Hobby Lobby would choose not to provide health insurance at all,” Justice Kagan explained. “And in that case Hobby Lobby would pay $2000 per employee, which is less than Hobby Lobby probably pays to provide insurance to its employees. So there is a choice here. It’s not even a penalty by… in the language of the statute, it’s a payment or a tax. There’s a choice.”
Two thousand dollars a head adds up to a lot of cheddar when you’re discussing a company with 15,000 full-time employees, but the amount of the tax/payment/fine/penalty/whatever matters less than the idea expressed here. Resistance may not be futile, as it was with the Borg, but it’s pretty damned expensive. Considering that one of the other liberal causes of the hour involves comparing the expense of picking up a free voter ID card at the local board of elections to a segregationist poll tax, it’s pretty rich to hear arguments that a mere $2000 per employee is a small price to regain the liberty American employers enjoyed for free in 2009.
Last Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder was holding forth before the House Appropriations Committee on his ideas for “common sense” gun reforms. “Vice President Biden and I had a meeting with a group of technology people and talked about guns can be made more safe by making them either through fingerprint identification, the gun talks to a bracelet that you might wear, how guns can be used only by the person who is lawfully in possession of the weapon,” Holder related.
Great – next thing you know, he’ll be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about a covert Administration plot to smuggle electronic bracelets to Mexican drug lords. Besides the uncomfortable symbolism of Uncle Sam slapping electronic shackles on law-abiding gun owners, and the inevitable worries about what other gizmos those smart gun bracelets might contain, this sort of thing would make firearms considerably more expensive. The Second Amendment is on its way to becoming a right that average people cannot afford to exercise.
When the Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal from a photographer who did not wish to work for a gay wedding this week, some critics marveled at the notion that a photographer with conscientious objections to gay marriage could actually be frog-marched to the ceremony itself and required to attend for the duration, which is even more problematic than the cases of bakers forced to cater such events. One suggested workaround was that the photographer could subcontract the work to an assistant who has no objections to same-sex marriage. Not only does this leave the photographer’s studio associated with the ceremony (with its logo most likely displayed on the resulting products) but it’s another example of how special fees and taxes must be paid to exercise rights we used to take for granted.
Freedom always has an economic component. Everything is more difficult to do when it becomes more expensive. Put a $10,000 federal surcharge on all gun permits, and the right to keep and bear arms becomes almost entirely theoretical. Big Government imposes extra burdens on activities it disfavors all the time, as well as subsidizing activities it finds desirable, but people don’t always appreciate that these policies are infringements upon freedom – especially when we’re talking about “free money” for doing something government wants us to do. Of course, there ain’t no such thing as free money, but even if there were, subsidies are still exercises of compulsion against the people who don’t agree with them. If Uncle Sam gives you a nice crisp deficit dollar as a reward for choosing a particular brand of ice cream, he’s applying a penalty against everyone who chooses a different brand, without absolutely eliminating their freedom to do so.
When everything gets more expensive, or private wealth is drained away through taxation, all liberties grow more difficult to exercise. We can easily understand the idea that a rich person has more effective liberty than a poor one – more choices are available to him, in everything from vacation destinations to dining options. Wealth is perhaps best understood as a cornucopia of choices, while poverty is their absence. For another demonstration of the principle, who envies the man with a briefcase full of cash, stranded forever on a deserted island? Without choice, all other measures of wealth become less meaningful. What good is money when there’s no place to spend it?
This is true of society as well. A poor nation is less free. A nation with less freedom becomes poor. Government is the absence of freedom, so growing government is a reliable path to general poverty. (Not so much for the people with good political connections, of course – they get rich.) There is an old school of leftist thought that true “freedom” is only achieved when the government provides basic needs to everyone, but on the contrary, a life of mandated subsistence is painfully devoid of meaningful choice; its beneficiaries do not see themselves as filled with liberty. They might have lots of time on their hands… but, as with the guy stranded on a desert island with a fat bankroll, no place meaningful to spend it.
Freedom lost with rising cost is easily understood when we’re talking about something like big taxes on cigarettes – everyone understands one of their purposes is to dissuade smoking by making it more expensive. Why, then, does anyone doubt that raising the cost of exercising any freedom diminishes it? Why is anyone surprised when higher tax burdens crush economic output? A nation of high taxes, heavy regulatory costs, and expensive mandates is filled with quicksand. Of course its people move more slowly.