Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan (Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

GOP's secret anti-freedom agenda: Why their "liberty" talk is nonsense

Obamacare will liberate some Americans in the job market. So why aren't liberty-loving conservatives rejoicing?


Elias Isquith
February 8, 2014 4:30PM (UTC)

After one of the political press’ worst weeks in recent memory, it’s tempting to say that the release of the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) latest findings on Obamacare has, ironically, led to people understanding the health care overhaul even less than they did before. Considering the fact that, as of late 2012, somewhere around 40 percent of Americans still think Obamacare has “death panels,” this is no small feat. (I can almost picture Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that great believer in the basic wisdom and virtue of The People, watching us in horror while rocking back and forth and quietly repeating to himself, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”)

Yet despite the initial burst of misinformation that followed the release of the report, and despite the inevitable tornado of negative advertising that’ll erroneously cite the CBO when claiming Obamacare “kills” millions of jobs, I think the CBO’s latest will ultimately be worth it. Not for what it revealed about Obamacare, but for what it showed us about the ideological divide that defines American politics.

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Here’s what I mean: Once the media acknowledged that the report said Obamacare would reduce labor’s supply, and not its demand — by providing workers with healthcare coverage whether or not they hold a full-time job — the debate shifted onto terrain more resembling objective reality, and we got a better sense of where the right and the left really stood. Specifically, we were able to see what the right really means when it talks about “freedom” and “liberty,” phrases that, as conservatives use them, mean less than meets the eye.

But first, to clarify, this is what the CBO’s report actually said:

The estimated reduction stems almost entirely from a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply, rather than from a net drop in businesses’ demand for labor, so it will appear almost entirely as a reduction in labor force participation and in hours worked relative to what would have occurred otherwise rather than as an increase in unemployment (that is, more workers seeking but not finding jobs) or underemployment (such as part-time workers who would prefer to work more hours per week).

And this is what that actually means: People who would like to retire but aren’t old enough to qualify for Medicare, or people who would like to work part-time but can’t afford to lose their employer-provided health insurance, will now be able to quit or cut back on their jobs without having to live with prohibitively expensive, or simply nonexistent, health insurance. And at least to this leftie’s ears, that sounds like a good thing.

Many people on the right, however, had a very different response.

First there were those who still clung bitterly to the early misrepresentation that Obamacare destroys jobs. These are the most rigid partisans, people who live in their own carefully curated epistemic world, and there’s no getting through to them, no matter how many fact-checks you link to or email their way. Besides, they’re more focused on the big fish, like Benghazi, the greatest cover-up in history, to spend too much time talking health policy.

Then there were those on the right who acknowledged the CBO’s actual findings, but found them troubling all the same. These folks argued that the CBO had shown Obamacare created perverse incentives, allowing people to spend less of their time engaged in wage labor, and that the government should be pushing people to work a paying job instead. This is a much more philosophical position, rather than an empirical claim about how the law might affect the economy, and it’s deeply revealing of the right’s fundamental ideological beliefs.

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There were many examples of this (my colleague Brian Beutler has cataloged a few), but none were as clearly and stridently put as Charles C.W. Cooke’s in the National Review. Cooke’s jeremiad against “Obamacare’s attack on the work ethic” is pretty straightforward: Anything that the government does to make it easier for people to separate themselves from wage labor is bad, because work is, quite simply, an absolute good. Here’s how he puts it, in a paragraph describing work with a nearly religious fervor:

Work is a virtue that should be reflexively encouraged. It is the means by which standards of living are grown, human potential is reached, individual lives are focused, positive and negative instincts are channeled, resources are utilized most efficiently, and, above all, by which dignity remains intact. It is the best antidote to personal and national ossification and sclerosis, and the primary means by which our present material comfort was achieved. It is the driving force behind improvement, both real and imagined, in the nation’s mainstream culture. Whatever the ideal role of government in contriving work or wages for those who are without them, we should all presumably be able to agree that if we are going to have an intrusive state, it should be doing precisely the opposite of encouraging people to limit their involvement in work. 

Now, there are a bunch of things wrong with how Cooke perceives the relationship between the state and the economy. As Salon contributor and Demos blogger Matt Bruenig has shown, his belief in “an intrusive state” — which implies that the laissez-faire system is somehow natural rather than the product of government-enforced rules and institutions — is especially misguided. But what interests me most is how Cooke describes wage labor as if it were the road to personal and national salvation. Working as a sales associate at Wal-Mart, it appears, leads to lives being “focused,” instincts being “channeled,” resources being “utilized most efficiently,” and “above all … dignity [remaining] intact.”

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Strangest of all, though, is how Cooke not only claims wage labor to be an inherent good, but attempts the impossible by melding this paternalistic argument (wage labor is good for people, whether they like it or not) to a defense of freedom as he understands it. Being able to leave a job you hate in order to spend more time pursuing your passions, or to cut back your hours at a job you hate in order to spend more time raising your children, is not freedom, according to Cooke. “[I]t is one thing for a person to choose not to work and to accept the natural consequences of that decision,” he writes, “but quite another indeed for a person to choose not to work because others are being forced to subsidize his well-being.” Translation: Only people who don’t have to work to survive — a.k.a. the wealthy — are capable of experiencing true freedom. At the very least, they’re the only ones who deserve it.

As Cooke shows, the orthodox libertarian worldview assumes real freedom only exists for the powerful, and that any effort to liberate middle class or poor people from the burdens of spiritually, emotionally or even economically unrewarding labor is not only unjust but, because of the taxes it requires others to pay, a transgression against liberty itself. It’s a curiously limited, exclusive understanding of what it is to be free. It’s also proof that, in politics, those on the right and the left can understand the same word to have radically different meanings.

In an email to me, Salon contributor, professor and political theorist Corey Robin put it rather simply: “The main dividing line between right and left is not that one side supports freedom, while the other supports equality; it's that one side, the left, seeks to expand freedom to a greater number of people, while another, the right, seeks to restrict it.” If the response to the CBO report did nothing else, it showed us how correct that framing really is.

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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