Hobbesy Lobby

by Fred Schwarz

One argument that’s been made against the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case is that they are not being forced to violate their religious principles, since they are not actually required to buy health insurance for their employees. As Patrick reported last week, Justice Elena Kagan openly disputed the idea that Obamacare imposes an employer mandate: Hobby Lobby can just pay a large fine instead.

By coincidence, the day after Justice Kagan made this assertion, I heard Professor Quentin Skinner (of Queen Mary, University of London) speak at the CUNY Graduate Center on the development of the concept of individual freedom in the Anglophone tradition. (Note: The previous sentence alone would qualify this as my most pretentious Corner post of the last two months, even if it were not my only Corner post of the last two months.) The first writer he discussed was Hobbes, and his description of Hobbes’s view of freedom was strikingly similar to the view of Justice Kagan.

According to Hobbes, Skinner explained, you are free if you are not physically restrained from doing something that you can do and want to do. Hobbes was very strict about what this included: essentially, only imprisonment or other bodily confinement (or else illness or disability). Other sorts of compulsion didn’t count. “In Hobbes’s view,” Skinner said, “if a man points a gun at you and says, ‘Your money or your life,’ he is offering you a choice.”

The audience laughed at this, and Skinner smiled, but he reiterated that this was in fact Hobbes’s view. In fact, several centuries after Hobbes, this exact philosophical question arose on the Jack Benny radio comedy show. Benny’s stinginess was a recurring gag, so when a mugger said to him, “Your money or your life,” there followed a long pause. Finally the robber repeated, “Look, bud, I said, ‘Your money or your life!’” and Benny’s reply was, “I’m thinking it over . . .”

In both these cases, the idea that a decision between surrendering your money and losing your life can be thought of as a legitimate free choice was considered laughable. Yet when the proprietors of Hobby Lobby have to choose between paying a $2,000-per-employee annual fine and betraying their pro-life principles (“your money or your soul”), Justice Kagan sees it as a simple business decision, like selecting an Internet service plan.

Philosophers since Hobbes, Professor Skinner explained, have rethought and refined his ideas extensively; you can watch an earlier presentation of his lecture here if you want the details. Today most of us have an understanding of freedom that is much more nuanced than Hobbes’s. But when liberals feel the need to feed Leviathan, it’s always 1651.