Op-ed: Ruth Ann Dailey and Chris Potter -- allies at last!

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"Did you see Ruth Ann Dailey's column?" a friend e-mailed me yesterday. "You're not going to like it."

The piece was Dailey's latest effort to take on the Obama administration, and its requirement that employers offer insurance that covers contraception -- even if the employer morally opposes birth control. As my friend knew, I've taken the other side of that issue. What's more, Dailey's column asserts that those who see a "war on women" taking place -- the subject of a column I wrote last week -- are in fact "waging war on the Constitution and on reason itself."

Ordinarily, this is where I'd up the rhetorical ante in turn and say, "Oh yeah? Well you're waging war on the universe." But my friend was wrong. A close reading of Dailey's column suggests that she and I may be on the same page after all.

That would no doubt surprise Dailey, a prolife conservative. But I'm gonna argue here that, in trying to attack lefties like me, she ends up knocking the pins out from her own allies. Let's watch!

Much of Dailey's column presents a hypothetical case: What if instead of birth control, employers were required to buy firearms for their workers? What would you granola-crunching peaceniks think about government mandates then, huh?

Actually, as a gun fan whose wife would divorce him for buying a firearm ... I'd think it was pretty sweet. But it's still a bad analogy, for reasons we'll get into later. And it leads Dailey to draw distinctions -- about the spending of "private funds" versus other money -- that don't help her cause much. To wit:

"Some defenders of the contraception mandate have argued, ridiculously, that as citizens we are often forced to pay, through taxes, for policies or budget items we don't agree with ... But this conflict is not about the use of taxes -- it's about the use of private funds."

Dear me. Is it ridiculous to suggest an equivalence between what your tax dollars support, and what you are required to pay for out of your own pocket? I hope not ... because I've made that very comparison. And in my own defense, I'm not alone. Dailey's prolife allies, whose convictions she is at such pains to protect, do it too.

In fact, conservatives routinely argue that where abortion is concerned, tax dollars should NOT support anything that some Americans find objectionable. Consider the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal money for abortion, and Bush-era objections to the use of stem cells in research. Or consider these words from the head of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List: "There is one word that grassroots America articulated over and over when it comes to use of its tax dollars for objectionable purposes, and that word is a resounding 'no.'"

"Our tax dollars should never be used to provide abortions," agrees former GOP presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee, and numerous other Republican officials.

Perhaps Dailey's next column will denounce the Hyde Amendment -- and conservative objections to funding Planned Parenthood -- as ridiculous too. After all, she writes, while pacifists "may not agree" with supporting national defense, their complaints are constrained by the fact that the government "does not compel them to serve as soldiers or to use their own money to buy guns." Similarly, while Republicans may not agree with abortion, repealing the Hyde amendment wouldn't compel them to either have or perform one. So what's the problem?

In fact, if "this conflict" truly is solely about "the use of private funds," Dailey and I have lots in common. We might even be able to agree that healthcare should be financed the same way as national defense: by letting government fund it!

Taxpayer-funded abortions and birth control for all! And the best part would be that people opposed to birth control won't have to use "their own money"! Catholics and others may object, but taxpayer-funded abortion, according to Dailey's logic, should trouble them no more than purchasing Predator drones troubles Quakers!

Admittedly, this is not the solution Dailey's column endorses. She recommends that you and I buy insurance the same way we purchase firearms and other life essentials: as individual consumers. Our need for food is more immediate than our need for healthcare, she points out. But rather than buying groceries for you, your boss merely "giv[es] you a paycheck with which you can choose the foods you want." So "why not get health care the same way?"

Actually, there are several reasons why not. One is that as economists will tell you, healthcare is not like other consumer products. Purchasers rarely know what they'll one day need, when they will need it, or how much it will cost. (That's one reason firearms, a consumer product, are a bad analogy for health care.) What's more, the consumer doesn't bear the sole burden for those decisions: Those lacking sufficient insurance tend to pass on costs to everyone else using the healthcare system.

But in any case, Dailey's proposal points up how silly this whole debate truly is. Because insurance benefits and wages are both paid out of the employer's pocket.

The difference, I guess, is that since religious employers don't KNOW what employees do with their paycheck, the boss's hands are clean. But if moral fig leafs are what's sought, employers don't have to know how the insurance gets used either. A White House compromise offered to religious-affiliated employers requires insurers to negotiate contraception benefits with workers directly, keeping the boss out of the loop. (That's another reason Dailey's firearm analogy is imperfect: The pacifist boss would be ordered to purchase ONLY the item he or she objects to. A better analogy might be a law requiring a Quaker boss to issue gift certificates to a sporting goods store, which employees could spend as they wish.)

The argument at the heart of Dailey's column appears to be this: If the taxes you pay are spent contrary to your conscience, that's just life. If the wages you pay are spent contrary to your conscience, well, what are you gonna do? But if the insurance premiums you pay are used against your conscience, it's an OUTRAGE!

It all just seems so absurd. We could have a single-payer healthcare system that works in other countries. It would ask of religious conservatives nothing more than we already ask of religious progressives: to accept that some portion of your money will bankroll things you object to, but at least you won't be asked to bear the burden on your own.

Rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's was good enough for Jesus. Judging from her column yesterday, it may even work for Ruth Ann Dailey in some cases. What more do you need?

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