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Friedersdorf is a right-of-center libertarian and a blogger for The Atlantic, and one of a handful of conservative bloggers whom I read regularly.  In this post, he articulates his own position on birth control:  ’an enthusiastic embrace of easy access to birth control pills and intrauterine devices, coupled with a rejection of … free access to birth control for any woman’.  In other words, Friedersdorf (a) is not a social conservative, opposed to birth control as such, but (b) is a right libertarian, opposed to public subsidies for birth control.  

In the second titled section of this post,’The Case Against Subsidized Birth Control For All’, Friedersdorf gives what I think is best read as two separable arguments against public subsidies for birth control.  Here are some quotations – strung together from a few consecutive paragraphs – that give the first argument:  

We’re now in the last stages of a transition to a health care system where what’s covered by health insurance …. is a matter of what our polity, through its elected representatives, bureaucrats accountable to them, and judges who aren’t, decide that we ought to provide to all citizens.

There are going to be redistributive consequences, or the equivalent of subsidies, no matter what health care system we choose. Resources are just going to flow from healthy people to diseased people. And it is widely thought that resources are spent unequally, but justly, when one man lives a healthy life and dies at age 60 in his sleep while another, who pays the same insurance premiums or taxes, contracts multiple sclerosis at age 45, requires two decades of costly care, and dies at 65.

Including birth control (as distinct from contraceptives used for other purposes) in universally mandated health-care coverage has its own unique redistributive effect, one that seems more problematic in a pluralistic society than funneling resources from the healthy to the sick or malfunctioning. Mandating participation in an insurance risk pool that covers birth control redistributes resources based partly on lifestyle choices, values, and conceptions of what is fulfilling. For example, gays and lesbians have no use for birth control, but are being made to participate in risk pools that cover it, effectively leaving them with fewer resources as a result of their status as a cultural minority group, rather than a part of the majority that desires birth control.

The crucial claim in this argument is that subsidizing birth control is unfair to GLBTQ citizens or (in a version that shows up later) is unfair to citizens who are morally opposed to birth control.  What’s interesting is that this is an egalitarian liberal complaint, not a libertarian one – and recall that Friedersdorf is a right libertarian.  A libertarian complains that redistribution (typically, redistribution as such) is involuntary; an egalitarian liberal complains that redistribution (typically, the distribution involved in a particular public policy proposal) is unfair.  

Now, how does Friedersdorf understand fairness?  If we focus on the ‘effectively leaving them with fewer resources’ bit, it might seem fairness is identified with Pareto optimality:  a change to the status quo is unfair if and insofar as there is some individual with fewer resources after the change compared to the status quo.  If this is right, then the egalitarian liberal talk of fairness is actually just a cover for right libertarianism:  by this conception of fairness, taking more money from Mitt Romney to pay for homeless shelters is unfair.  (The right libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson explicitly appeals to Pareto optimality in the crucial chapters of his book The Libertarian Idea.)  In general, any policy that involves redistribution is unfair.  

But this might not be the best way to read Friedersdorf.  Let’s continue the quotation from the last paragraph:  ’effectively leaving them with fewer resources as a result of their status as a cultural minority group, rather than a part of the majority that desires birth control’.  This suggests at least two ways of modifying the conception of fairness from the last paragraph:  

  1. A change to the status quo is unfair if and insofar as there is some minority group opposed to the change with fewer resources after the change compared to the status quo.  
  2. A change to the status quo is unfair if and insofar as there is some historically oppressed group with fewer resources after the change compared to the status quo.  

Note that (1) leads us, more or less, back to right libertarianism again:  Mitt Romney and most of the other members of the 1% are a minority group opposed to increasing the highest marginal tax bracket to 50% to pay for homeless shelters, and they would end up with fewer resources after the change compared to the status quo.  So, according to (1), this change would be unfair.  Now, if a majority voted to raise taxes on themselves and only themselves, this would qualify as fair.  But I think most right libertarians would be fine with this, only quibbling about using the state rather than setting up a voluntary charitable organization. 

(2), I think, is an honest-to-goodness egalitarian liberal principle.  Mitt Romney is not a member of a historically oppressed group (at least with respect to his wealth; his religious beliefs are another matter), and so according to (2) it is not unfair to raise his taxes to pay for homeless shelters.  But GLBTQ folks are a historically oppressed group, and the proposed subsidy would compel them to sacrifice for the benefit of historically privileged straights.  

It’s a decent point.  But I have two responses to it.  First, I suggest that the strength of the argument depends on the relative size of the sacrifice:  how much GLBTQ folks would be compelled to sacrifice and how much straights would stand to gain.  I’m too lazy to look up estimates at the moment, but I expect the sacrifice would be rather small – on the order of a few dollars a month.  Second, the primary beneficiaries would be not all straight folks, but women, also a historically oppressed group.  So this argument, which seems to be about oppression vs. privilege, is more accurately about one kind of oppression vs. another.  

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