Hobbes and the HHS mandate

Leithart’s reflections in my last post reminded me of Patrick Deneen’s essay on Hobbes and the role of the modern state as the universal defender of its citizens’ liberties that I read recently. Perhaps the Athenian example shows the patterns that Deneen discusses are older than Hobbes, but the essay still works, I think, for the modern state.  Modern states are much larger than the ancient Athenian city-state and their aspirations to and achievements of power throughout larger territories have been very consequential for modern life.

Deneen argues that the philosophical underpinnings of progressive liberalism can be found in Hobbes, who argued for a state that superseded other institutions.

William T. Cavanaugh describes in his excellent study of the rise of the modern state, Migrations of the Holy, how Hobbes’s new arrangement promised liberation, not oppression:

For Hobbes, the individual was not oppressed but liberated by Leviathan. In his view, the State is not enacted to realize a common good or a common telos, but rather to liberate the individual to pursue his or her own ends without fear of interference from other individuals. In the peculiar new space created by the state, the individual members do not depend on one another; rather, they are connected only through the sovereign—as spokes to the hub of a wheel.

The rise of the state hinged on the promise of liberation of the individual from the constitutive constraints (as well as rights and liberties) of non-state organizations and institutions. The state acted as liberator of an oppressed humanity; its power, concentration, and extent increased as a necessary counterweight for the control of non-state institutions. Thus, Robert Nisbet wrote in his classic work The Quest for Community, “The real conflict in modern political history has not been, as is so often stated, between State and individual, but between State and social group.”

The only liberty that could be recognized was the liberty of individuals to “pursue his or her own ends.” The ancient rights, privileges, immunities and liberties of institutions—the Church, universities, guilds, localities—were redescribed as forms of oppression. The increased power, even intrusiveness, of the state, was justified not as a form of oppression, but rather in the name of liberation of the individual. The protections against distant, abstract, and impersonal forms of power, understood to be protections of local liberty, were dismissed as parochial limitations and antiquated restrictions. As Lord Acton accurately described in his History of Freedom,

The modern theory, which swept away every authority except that of the State, and has made the sovereign power irresistible by multiplying those who share it . . . condemns as a State within the State every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. . . . It recognizes liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of limited command.

As Hobbes’s illustration to the Leviathan so eloquently depicted, an increasingly “liberated” citizenry, resulting from the diminishment of constitutive memberships in social groups and associations, would be connected only through one bond, one relation, one connection—the state.

Foremost in Deneen’s mind in writing this is the Health and Human Services mandate that forces almost all employers to provide for contraception (including some abortifacients) in their insurance plans. He notes that its defenders “described the HHS mandate as the necessary requirement that will liberate women from the “coercion” of the Church that seeks to restrict their access to free contraception—including abortifacients—and sterilization. The expansion of state power is justified for its liberative effects, freeing women from the oppression of an antiquated institution (its irrelevance was reinforced by frequent citation of the questionable statistic that 98% of Catholic women use contraceptives).”

This is as good a place as any to express my wish that the Catholic and evangelical critics of this measure would not only make their case based on religious freedom but also on liberty more broadly. Their request for broader exemptions basically says that it’s OK to coerce other employers into providing insurance that they may or may not want to provide, but just not us. The religious liberty implications are of course enormous, but so is the idea of limited government.



  1. Does requesting exemptions for themselves necessarily imply that it is okay for others to be coerced? If they supported Obamacare but are now asking for exemptions, I’d say yes. But for those who didn’t support it in the first place, this might just be good legal strategy to try their easiest options first, even though it may look craven and selfish. If they can afford it, they could always help fund Hobby Lobby’s battle or others after getting their exemptions (or would they lose their tax-exempt status by doing that? religious liberty, indeed).

    Christian organizations would probably love it if all employers were free to choose not to pay for insurance covering contraceptives, but our constitution might no longer support such a challenge. It seems like all they can stand on now is 1A freedom of religion, which the legislature and executive have craftily asserted only applies to explicitly religious organizations. Alas, we are adrift aboard a living constitution.

    There are also many indirections involved in the mandate which cloud the issue. If the employee directly stole money from the employer to buy contraceptives, that would obviously be wrong. But insert Leviathan’s lawful compulsion (which is now unbounded regarding tax equivalents) and insurance fuzziness (which socializes premium payments, thereby confusing the flow of money, and where the ultimate decision is up to the employee) and it can seem more morally complicated than simple theft and spend. After all, if it is constitutional for the State to compel taxes to fund Planned Parenthood even though that violates religious beliefs, why not this?

    I agree that this slippery slope we are on began long ago, but I don’t know what is gained by tracing it back to Hobbes, especially since his basic premise of “individual liberty” is a reasonable foundation.

    However, if the State isolates the individual as they describe, where is the liberty? Where is the “individual liberty” of an employer “to pursue his own ends”? Exactly which liberties does Leviathan protect if not of ownership and contract?

    Defining Leviathan’s role as the liberator of the individual is also fine, assuming we can agree on what the word “liberty” means. We do vest coercive (but not absolute) authority in the State in order to mediate justice (in a sense, to liberate the individual from unjust social interactions), but Leviathan’s carefully crafted constitutional constraints have been deliberately worn away, loosing its tyranny and mocking its purpose. Sadly, this is not simply the work of corrupt elites; rather, it seems that our widespread cultural understanding of both liberty and justice have been perverted.

    I also agree that the State has systematically overtaken other social institutions, but it certainly has not done so in defense of individual liberty. Indeed, social institutions are inherently composed of the individual liberties of association, ownership, contract, etc. which are necessarily breached by the State’s social usurpations. Moreover, examples have been bandied about recently such as a wealth tax which only involve the individual and the State; no social interaction is necessary.

    the HHS mandate […] will liberate women from the “coercion” of the Church that seeks to restrict their access to free contraception — including abortifacients — and sterilization.

    Emphasis on “free”! How many other things which are not free are people “restricted” from getting for free? TNSTAAFL. Who pays to make it “free”? Am I similarly restricted from accessing your wallet? I am, but the Leviathan on my behalf is apparently another matter.

    The right of ownership establishes the (negative) liberty to keep our stuff, but at the same time, it necessarily also eliminates a thief’s (positive) liberty to steal from you. Yet to call thievery a “liberty” is both an affront to basic morality and common terminology, which is what we see in this case.

    I’m not sure if this comment suffices for making the case based upon religious freedom or freedom more broadly which you requested. If not, please let me know what kind of premises and form you were hoping for, and I’ll try again. I think it’s an important case to be made.

  2. I think it is helpful to trace the roots of state as a replacement mediating institution back to Hobbs, but I think Kevin has a point that they aren’t just asking for the right to contracept and abort, but for the right to force employers with conscientious objections to pay for it.

    I can see how people can consider healthcare to be a fundamental human right. If contraceptives and abortion are considered basic healthcare, then I can also see how one can seek to force all employers to provide it for free. Much of the confusion comes into place, I think, when one considers the medicating of healthy bodily function into nonexistence for reasons other than fighting disease to be considered healthcare. Killing other people shouldn’t be considered healthcare. Contraception as contraception is trickier, but it is safe to say that most women don’t contracept because of a medical contraindication on pregnancy but for lifestyle choices. Given that contraceptives are extremely cheap ($10 for a months supply of the pill), is it really in societies best interest to force employers with conscientious objections to pay for it? It takes an extremely important reason for the state to violate religious liberty. $10 a month reasons that are only rarely medically necessary (and have other ethical options) don’t cut it.

  3. Kevin, your point was clear. I agree with you that they should make the best legal case in court. I am addressing the public rhetoric of “we need religious exceptions” rather than “this is an assault on everyone’s liberty.” Perhaps the same logic applies to public rhetoric, though. What do you think?

    You might have missed Deneen’s point about Hobbes. He’s saying that individual liberty justifies the state’s intrusion into institutions that supposedly chain the individual, but he doesn’t support that logic. I think that he would agree with you, as do I, that “social institutions are inherently composed of the individual liberties of association, ownership, contract, etc.”

    The trouble with the Hobbesian approach, as opposed to the Burkean/Tocquevillian approach that sees free associations as bedrocks of liberty (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/june/20.64.html), is that it abstracts individuals from these things, seeing them as the true threat to liberty because they place limits on them.

    So the troubling thing about Hobbes is not individual liberty but the way that he gets there: the state is the only liberator and must destroy its competition.

    • Scott wrote: “Perhaps the same logic applies to public rhetoric, though. What do you think?”

      No, I agree with you — they should make the larger argument against coercion loudly in public, at a minimum for individual religious liberty and ideally for liberty more broadly.

      I haven’t read much of their public rhetoric, but based on their professed morals, they should oppose any and all involuntary funding of abortifacients. So my guess is that if it seems like they are focused on exemptions, it is because their specific exemptions are being explicitly lost and only that narrow topic is being reported. But it’s just a guess.

      Looking back, I’m afraid I may have misunderstood a great deal here, causing my first response to by misplaced and flail a bit. I’m sorry about that.

      Were you asking for religious critics of the mandate who support exemptions to make their case that exemptions should only exist for religious organizations?

      Scott wrote: “So the troubling thing about Hobbes is not individual liberty but the way that he gets there: the state is the only liberator and must destroy its competition.”

      The bulk of my confusion might come from Hobbes apparently meaning something significantly different by “individual liberty” and “rights” than I do and I occassionally misinterpreted the sense in which Deneen was using the terms.

      For example, when I read your sentence above, I can see that there is a sense in which the state actually is the only liberator — it uses force to secure our negative liberties, such as from theft and murder. And in that narrow sphere, the state must destroy any other similarly coercive competition inside. e.g. murder cannot be permitted within a sub-group of the state, even if the sub-group’s rules say that honor killing is okiedokie.

      The problem here is that state coercion is applied to “positive liberties” wherein I am forced to provide for your healthcare, contraception, etc. by virtue of my existence. Of course, we may feel morally obliged to do so in some cases, but that does not mean we should compel others to do so.

      • You wrote: “Were you asking for religious critics of the mandate who support exemptions to make their case that exemptions should only exist for religious organizations?”

        What I really meant is that they should say that the mandate is an assault on everyone’s liberty, not that there should be religious exceptions to the mandate.

  4. Doug, I think that you captured the logic of the mandate supporters well: when there’s a conception that a fundamental human right is not being provided for, people will push to have it provided for. Part of the careful argument is that abortion certainly can’t be considered healthcare and contraception is hardly brain surgery in its expense or necessity. There’s also the general cultural current, if I’m reading it rightly, that everything I want should be free or inexpensive to me (news, music, healthcare).

    When discussing this with a friend, he argued that people who work for Catholic institutions but are not Catholic need to have contraception provided because an unplanned pregnancy could drastically alter their lives for the worse. In his view, the government is protecting the liberty of the individual to chart her own course over against the liberty of a religious institution. He basically takes the Hobbesian view and said in a different context that he’s an atomist. Interestingly, some people have argued that extreme individualism that rejects social institutions ultimately leads to bigger government. Here’s an article that predicts that in a less familial society, we will need more government programs: http://www.mauldineconomics.com/images/uploads/pdf/OTB121221_2.pdf.

    I countered my friend’s argument by saying that that it’s not really freedom if someone else has to subsidize it. He did bring up an interesting point, though. If we as a society establish a minimum standard of care with a minimum wage, for example, why not do it with healthcare?

  5. “He did bring up an interesting point, though. If we as a society establish a minimum standard of care with a minimum wage, for example, why not do it with healthcare?” Nobody has religious convictions about keeping people poor by paying them very little. People do have religious convictions about taking life and about separating the procreative and unitive aspects of sex. As recently as a century ago, there were no Christian denominations that considered such actions licit. For society to not only evolve its collective theology so rapidly, but then to seek to impose it upon the last holdouts to 19 centuries of collective and universal Christian belief is both dismissive and vain.

  6. Kevin, BTW: thanks for the link to the Mauldin article. It contained some facts that I was unaware of regarding the rise of singletons and how sharply they broke for Obama.

  7. […] It is Mill’s opposition to social tyranny that I am most interested in seeing him unpack. My first reaction to his complaint is something like, “Welcome to human culture, Mr. Mill. It’s what we do, for good or for ill.” I’m fascinated to see what he will propose as a remedy, because it’s hard to imagine any effective remedy that doesn’t mean destroying culture. Unless it can be accomplished by persuasion, it seems like it supports Patrick Deneen’s argument that modern liberalism’s protection of individuals means that social i…. […]

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