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Zero Sum

with 9 comments

So, I’ve been thinking about Mike’s rather cryptic comment yesterday–all abstractions and no particularities.

And I have come back, again, to my conviction that what we’re witnessing in today’s society is not an argument over policy, but a breakdown on moral consensus leading to at least two factions attempting to establish THEIR OWN moral sense as the sense for the whole society.

And the fight to be the reigning moral consensus is always a zero sum game.  If one side wins, the other must lose.

As I’ve said before, the last time we had this problem, we solved it with a civil war.

But let’s take a look, for a moment, about a single question in the present war of moral visions:  whether or not employers can be required to pay for health insurance that includes contraceptive coverage for their employees.

If we were looking at this as a policy question, and not a question of getting the government to validate one moral system over the other, we’d get one of two outcomes:

1) Give up on the idea of government mandated health insurance of any kind, in virtue of the fact that any kind of coverage will automatically end up violating the free exercise rights of at least some people.  Free exercise is a right.  Health insurance coverage is not.  Rights come first.


2) Institute a system where religious and other organizations who dissent from the idea that birth control is just peachy-keen do not in fact have to cover it. 

This second one works because:

it does not put the government on EITHER side of the debate.  Some employers will cover some won’t, and anybody whose employer does not cover will be able to walk into almost any pharmacy and buy the stuff for about $9 to $50 a month.

In spite of all the caterwauling, such a system would not prevent women from having “access” to birth control.  Birth control would not be outlawed.  It would still be on the shelves.  Visits to the gynecologist would still be covered, and HIPPA laws being what they are, those visits could not be monitored for content in any case.

Meaning–if you worked for an employer whose plan did not cover birth control, you could go to your gynecologist (covered) and get a prescription.  You’d just have to pay for it out of your own pocket.

But this argument is not an argument about policy, and it’s not an argument about women’s health.

It’s an argument about morality.

Obama’s “compromise”–the health insurance companies would have to pay for it instead of you!–is a sham on two levels.

The first should be obvious.  If the health insurance companies are going to pay for it, it’s going to be only on paper.  They WILL pass that expense on to employers using their plans. 

Employers with moral objections to birth control will still be paying for it.

But the “compromise” is a sham in another way, and a more important way–it leaves open a government mandate for birth control coverage, and in doing so it puts the weight of the government behind the moral contention that birth control is morally acceptable.

And that’s why everybody is gunning for the Supreme Court.

The issue is not whether women get “access” to birth control.

The issue is whether the government takes a stand on one side of the moral issue or another–if “birth control is morally acceptable” becomes a LEGALLY OFFICIAL policy of the United States.

And that, in the end, is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

By the way–a violation of the Establishment Clause in the other direction would not be either of the two suggestions above, but a law forbidding the use of government money for birth control.

The laws now in place forbidding the use of government money to pay for abortions is a violation of the Establishment Clause in a conservative direction. 

So are laws in some states mandating that all emergency rooms (Catholic or otherwise) must provide rape victims with “emergency contraception,” sex education in public schools that take any stand at all on homosexuality, birth control, abortion and sex outside of marriage, and dozens of other things.

It is extremely difficult to govern a country in which there is no settled moral consensus. 

What is almost certainly not going to happen is anybody considering anything as other than a zero sum game.

Because this IS a zero sum game.

Sometime down the road, we will EITHER be a country that accepts birth control as legitimate or one that does not, that EITHER accepts homosexuality as legitimate or one that does not, that EITHER accepts sexuality outside marriage or does not–and all down the road.

The only way to avoid such an outcome is to strip the government of this country of virtually all its “programs” (including taxpayer subsidized public education) or to adhere to so strict a federalism it would make 1920 look like the era of Big Government.

And we’re not going to do either. 

What’s worse–the issues are by no means only sexual.  It’s just that sexual issues are obviously moral on their face, and a lot can be done with things like TANF and food stamps and the progressive income tax to make them look like something else. 

Everybody on every side of every issue is looking to have his or her moral code declared the Official one for the nation. 

And neither side will sit still for allowing the other guy’s moral code to be installed as Official in place of theirs. 

This IS a zero sum game.

And until one side or the other actually wins it, things are only going to get uglier.

Written by janeh

June 17th, 2012 at 10:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'Zero Sum'

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  1. I could quibble. Could we just take it that I have some quibbles and not say later that my silence betokened consent? It is perhaps worth mentioning that I don’t think we’ve got two monoliths. I think we’ve got the Movementists and everyone else.

    The basic point is true enough. At least in the sense of the Movement vs every other way of looking at the world, it’s a zero-sum game. And if the Movementists win, there won’t be anyone else officially or even in public for quite some time. (Think Bolsheviks or PRI. None of us will live through the era.)

    Kids? Want a secure job in a booming profession which can never be exported? Qualify for block warden, informant, or re-education officer.


    17 Jun 12 at 12:11 pm

  2. I’m not familiar with US health insurance and don’t understand why contraceptives are included. My car insurance doesn’t cover oil changes, my home and contents insurance doesn’t cover dishwasher detergent. Both are routine maintenance. Insurance is for emergencies not routine maintenance.

    I’d call contraceptives routine maintenance. What’s the point of putting them into insurance? It just raises the premiums.


    17 Jun 12 at 6:12 pm

  3. And there, jd, you have the big problem with US health coverage. It used to be that insurance was for catastrophic items only. Then when large companies were looking for ways to retain employees (or for things to negotiate with unions over) in the 60s and 70s, more and more routine items, including doctor visits, dental, eyeglasses, etc., were piled onto “coverage.” Now insurance and coverage are more or less synonymous as far as most US citizens are concerned.

    Most folks are convinced that having health insurance should mean they pay for nothing. NOTHING. Try to convince them that car insurance that paid for gas and oil would cost everything they own.

    During those halcyon days when insurance coverage came from employers and employees did in fact pay nothing, “medical costs” no longer existed as a budget line item for the middle class. Having to re-insert it now is painful and for most, inconceivable. They’ll pay $100 a month for their cellphone, but won’t put aside that much for medical costs.


    17 Jun 12 at 6:40 pm

  4. Lymaree, Thanks for the explanation. I’ll stay out of the discussion from now on. The US and Australian systems are too different.

    see http://www.humanservices.gov.au/customer/services/medicare/medicare

    and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharmaceutical_Benefits_Scheme

    for details.


    17 Jun 12 at 8:17 pm

  5. “During those halcyon days when insurance coverage came from employers and employees did in fact pay nothing, “medical costs” no longer existed as a budget line item for the middle class.”

    And there is the nub of the problem. It’s impossible to convince those of a certain caste of mind that there’s no such thing as a free lunch or free medical benefits.

    Those happy little middle class souls who believed that they “did in fact pay nothing” were simply falling for a confidence trick being perpetrated by their employers with the cheerfully willing connivance of their union representatives. It often (probably always) still happens whenever unions and employers negotiate non-cash “benefits” for their workers.

    The employers benefit from the con trick by being able to exchange the potential cost of fixed and “real” cash wage increases against somewhat nebulous “benefits” which an individual employee may never need nor utilise. The union bosses benefit by being able to pretend to their less sophisticated membership that “have we got this great deal for you – vote for me!”. Cynic that I am (I got that way by watching Australian union leaders in action), it would surprise me if both the bosses and union leaders were not recipients of significant kickbacks from the insurance industry. I’m sure that the politicians who work so hard to preserve the existing system, and those working hard to get on the build a competing bandwagon by developing alternatives, reap millions from the vested interests and other stake holders.

    This neat con effectively reduces (or at the very least defers) the employers’ real wage costs. In the meantime, the workers get less of their wages in cash and might struggle to make ends meet because they are not getting to chose how (or to prioritise how) they will spend their own hard-earned wages.

    Ain’t paternalism wonderful?


    18 Jun 12 at 12:41 am

  6. The one country that I can think of that comes close to no government interference in privat life — no taxes, therefore no programs that could possibly trample on anyones “rights” by spending their money on prgram they don’t agree with, where there’s no business regulation, where government is as small as possible and therefore, according to conservatives here and elsewhere on the web, is the epitome of persona freedom where Ayn Rand must be worshipped as a god is, of course, Somalia.

    Some seem terrified that any type of program which require that any aid be given to anyone at some one elses (however minor) expense is simply the first step on an inevitable and ever accelerating slide to communism.

    I know of only one country that actually still tries to run itself on a communist model, and that is Cube.

    If the only choices *I* had were between communist Cube and libertarian Somalia — Cuba wins, hands down.

    Further, in which countries is there actually more entrepreneurial activity and more actual social mobility — “socialistic” Sweden/Norway and even Canada — or the United States?

    In which countries is someone in the family getting seriously ill, particualry the breadwinner, NOT a ticket straight to bankruptcy (if there’s any money left to file for bankruptcy)?

    In which countries is the educational system not broken and continuing to break down further?

    In which countries is the infrastructure necessary to the functioning of an adavanced economy NOT breaking down faster than it is being built?

    If the state of affairs in the U.S. really has become a zero sum game, then study Somalia carefully. That’s where were headed.


    18 Jun 12 at 11:03 am

  7. Not Cuba, Michael. Cuba permits small business and to some degree the private ownership of land. For a true model communist state, you want the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.


    18 Jun 12 at 3:05 pm

  8. I’m just completely annoyed that Viagra is covered, (talk about being paid to have sex), and contraception is a moral issue. Both or neither.


    18 Jun 12 at 5:11 pm

  9. Oh, and Michael? You might also have a conservative grow-up explain the difference between a limited government with specified powers and a Hobbesian anarchy. It’s going to have to be a conservative because the current American left doesn’t think there is a difference.

    Redhead? Keep the issues straight. Tie the maximum age for Viagara coverage to the maximum age for fertility treatments.


    18 Jun 12 at 6:00 pm

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