This was a piece that I wrote back in July of 2015, but which never made it past the “editing” stage. In light of the election, and some of President-Elect Trump’s populist appeals during the campaign season, I am curious as to whether or not the situation that I am describing will change:
There was a time, not long ago, in which liberals could be counted on to defend the rights of workers, just as conservatives would the rights of business owners.
Those days are over.
In the politics of the new economics, the rights of both workers and owners are subordinated to the rights (and whims) of consumers. To the extent that this shift represents a coherent economic ideology, it could be expressed as “I need this, so you need to give it to me,” or “I want this, and can afford it, so you must sell it to me.” Or more succinctly: the customer is always right.
For conservatives, this shift has been largely a rhetorical one. The same policies are being promoted, but the “businesses should be free to produce more” rhetoric has been switched out for “consumers should be free to purchase more” language. National Review’s recent editorial denouncing Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, for example, argues that that the real challenge facing the world is “the familiar problem of the organization of capital, balancing production and consumption, and assigning relative weight to a very large and diverse array of possible public and private goods.”
While the problem may be familiar, the answer was less so. Instead of arguing for the rights of businesses to maximize production, the National Review editors argued for the rights of consumers to maximize consumption. Indeed, they went so far as to say that the “rich world should indeed feel itself morally obliged to help the world’s poor” to “develop their economies, along lines the pope rejects, to enable higher levels [of] consumption — of the sort the pope criticizes.” Fresh avenues are taken to arrive at familiar, even predictable, conclusions.
The embrace of consumerism has been more dramatic on the left, where it has frequently meant the outright abandonment and betrayal of workers when their rights prove inconvenient to consumers. Here, both the arguments and the conclusions have changed, often quite dramatically. Take, for example, the question of conscience clauses. Should a Christian working in a hospital be forced to participate in morally-objectionable procedures like abortion and emergency contraception? Apparently so, if consumers demand it. While Attorney General of Massachusetts, Martha Coakley famously referred to these (inaccurately) as “services that are required under the law and under Roe vs. Wade,” and concluded that “the law says that people are allowed to have that,” so “if you can have religious freedom,” you “probably shouldn’t work in an emergency room.”
Even the American Civil Liberties Union favors setting aside these civil liberties when they inconvenience consumers. Catherine Weiss, the ACLU’s “reproductive freedom project” director, went before Congress to argue against proposed conscience clause legislation. She argued that the Constitution neither required nor forbade such clauses, and proposed the standard that “a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist who cannot in good conscience participate in abortions or contraceptive services should be allowed to opt out, so long as the patient is ensured safe, timely, and financially feasible alternative access to treatment.” In this view, the consciences and rights of individual medical professionals are to be set aside, not only when it threatens the health of patients, but when it inconveniences their schedules or pocketbooks.
Nor is it as easy as “staying out of the emergency room” and doctor’s office and pharmacy. Florists like Barronelle Stutzman, chapel owners like Donald and Evelyn Knapp, bakers like Jack Phillips, and photographers like Elaine Huguenin are quickly discovering that their moral objections to gay marriage can land them in serious legal trouble. Each of these cases has involved, not a business refusing to serve homosexual customers, but businesses and individuals refusing to work same-sex weddings. Stutzman’s lawsuit, for example, centered around her refusal to assist in the preparations of the gay wedding of two of her long-time customers.
And the rationale in each case has been similar: the same-sex couple can afford the goods and services, so businesses and individuals have to provide them, even if they’re morally opposed. After Lana Rusev politely refused to serve as wedding planner for Melissa McCord’s lesbian wedding, McCord responded (to the media, naturally): “Don’t throw your belief in my face that you won’t do it because of what we are. My money is just as green as everybody else’s.”
That’s what this is about: consumers, in this case, same-sex fiancées, who think that their money should be able to overcome the moral objections of those around them. As Crystal Allen and Kenyata White, who unsuccessfully attempted to force Reverend Susan Latimer to minister their wedding, explained: “We’re not saying they have to love us. They don’t even have to condone what we do or who we are. They don’t even have to have fun. Just set up our wedding.”
Karl Marx dubbed this sort of objectification of labor and laborers “alienation” or “estranged labor.” In an 1844 essay on the subject, he explained: “The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.” It would be hard to find a starker example of this than an opponent of same sex marriage being forced, by law, to participate in the preparations for a gay wedding.
Perhaps the most telling example of the shift towards consumerism has been the HHS mandate. On paper, this seemed poised to be a classic fight between the rights of employers and employees. After all, the question revolved around whether or not employers had to include contraception coverage in employee plans. But that’s not how the pro-HHS case was argued in the public square. The poster child for the movement was Sandra Fluke, a 30 year-old Georgetown law student, who argued that the school’s health care insurance “communicates to female students that our school doesn’t understand our needs. These are not feelings that male fellow students experience, and they’re not burdens that male students must shoulder.”
It’s hard to imagine that students at a Catholic law school would think they could get free contraception through the school’s insurance, but Fluke claimed that they “expected that when 94 percent of students opposed the policy, the university would respect our choices regarding insurance,” since the school wouldn’t be directly subsidizing it. The idea that anyone might, for moral reasons, actually stand up to the demands of consumers was simply unfathomable to Fluke, which is how she ended up testifying against the school before Congress.
This is the political-economic question that we are ultimately facing: should consumers be allowed to force individuals and businesses to cooperate with morally-objectionable acts, simply because money talks? There was a time in the recent past that liberals in particular would have said no, when they stood strong against economic alienation. Perhaps they would rediscover these principles if the objected-to wedding were, say, Confederate-themed, rather than gay, or if medical professionals were being forced to assist in female genital mutilation rather than abortion. But until that day, it’s beginning to look like the law will enforce the customer’s right to be always right, even when he’s morally wrong.