American society’s schizophrenic attitudes about business could be the subject of a book. (Perhaps multiple volumes.) For example, in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election, we heard constantly about the need to create jobs and bring down unemployment. And yet, media coverage and Hollywood depictions of business only reinforce the popular fiction that business owners are little more than greedy exploitative bloodsuckers (whose enterprises apparently exist for the sole purpose of being gouged for taxes to be spent by profligate lawmakers with no sense of their own fiscal responsibility).
Regrettably, this is typical. But our culture’s conflict about business has reached a new level of inscrutability with the Obama administration’s mandate for all businesses to pay for contraception and sterilization, in violation of many business owners’ core beliefs.
Throughout our history there has been consistent and powerful public pressure for ethics in business, and this has only heightened over the past decade. Since the Enron and Worldcom bankruptcies, the “dot-bomb” debacles, the 2008 financial meltdown, the subprime mortgage crisis, and the collapse of the housing market, we have heard renewed calls for businesses run on firm ethical principles.
In fact, it has gone well beyond a call for ethics. Writers, educators and pundits are actually using the “m” word, and saying that business needs to be operated on moral foundations.
In December of last year, Business Insider ran a piece entitled, “The future of business is morality.” This is by no means an isolated instance. An online search using the terms “need moral business” produces dozens of articles, examples of which can be read here, here, and here.
Furthermore, the term “moral” is applied with great specificity in business operations. Where a company invests is said to be a “moral” issue. Outsourcing is a “moral” issue. Unemployment is a “moral” issue. Environmental sustainability, is a “moral” issue. Animal testing is a “moral” issue.
The term “morality” is thrown about as if its definition were clear, and a moral code universally agreed-upon. What is left unsaid is that “business” does not have “morals”; people do. And what has gone unasked is what the sources of those morals are.
The answer to that question for many company founders is their own upbringing and the religious traditions that were an essential part of that upbringing. In the throes of the national clamor about “moral” business, it is sadly ironic that founders of businesses like Hobby Lobby, O’Brien Industrial Holdings, Hercules Industries, Inc. and Autocam Corporation now find their morality under attack by the Obama administration, which tells them that they must leave their principles in the church on Sunday, and cannot operate their businesses according to their morals – morals which, it must be noted, also require that they treat their employees, customers, suppliers, and investors with respect and honesty.
Although the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare as a “tax”, the Court has yet to address the constitutionality of compelling business owners to subsidize behavior that violates their moral code. But even in the absence of a Supreme Court decision, we can consider the implications of the HHS rule.
Contraception is not a burning issue for many Americans. But it is foolish to think that the government’s assertions of power will stop at contraception. As President Obama’s speeches demonstrate, he views not only contraception, but abortion, to be a matter of “public health” and a personal “right.” This should make the future clear. Anyone who thinks that payment for abortions will not ultimately be part of any government-mandated insurance coverage is ignoring reality.
It is not only pregnancy which is implicated. Massachusetts just rejected a bill that would have permitted physician-assisted suicide. But Oregon and Washington already have it. Other states may follow. Does anyone seriously think that drugs administered to the terminally ill to end their lives will not be defined as “health care”? Or that this end of life “care” will not also be mandated by the government?
If starting a business now means that the government can compel me to pay for someone else’s contraception and sterilization, then it can – and likely will – compel me to pay for someone else’s abortion, and for someone else’s physician-assisted suicide.
Contrary to the protests of those who say that the HHS mandate is “morality free,” what we are seeing with Obamacare and the corresponding HHS regulations is not the absence of a moral code, but a substitute moral code – one that is created and imposed by force by the government. We have been told for decades now that “you cannot legislate morality.” Apparently you can, and by administrative fiat, no less.
Nor is the wish not to pay for others’ sterilization or abortifacient contraception tantamount to refusing care for cancer, as the inimitable Sandra Fluke has recently argued. Ms. Fluke and her fellow objectors try to equate Judeo-Christian beliefs with all others, insisting that we cannot allow every religious tradition to operate as its adherents see fit. This fresh idiocy ignores logic and common sense, as well as America’s own history and the principles of our founding documents. As a country, we have never operated on the premise that all religious practices or cultural traditions are equal. The United States was founded upon principles of governance emanating from English law, as well as legal traditions inherited from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and upon fundamental beliefs about the dignity of human beings that draw from Judeo-Christian religious principles. To the extent that anyone’s different religious beliefs or cultural choices – and the behaviors associated therewith -- are not inconsistent with America’s founding principles, our government expresses no opinion about them, and one is free to practice them. But “religious freedom” cannot be invoked to justify the practice of child brides, suttee, or honor killings – to name just a few of the practices advocated by some practitioners of certain religious traditions.
As distressing as the absurdity and unconstitutionality of the HHS mandate, is its profoundly divisive effect on American society. Those who espouse “tolerance” and “diversity” should heed well what has made them possible, and what these new regulations portend.
“Tolerance” – a principle deeply embedded in American culture from the country’s inception – is the practice of peaceably co-existing with those diverse others whose views, values, or lifestyle choices may be different from our own. It does not mean being forced to approve those choices, adopt them, subsidize them, or teach them to our children. Those who argue that “tolerance” translates to a government mandate for financial support are misinterpreting the word and manipulating their political power.
When the fruits of our labors are forcibly extracted by the government to subsidize others’ decisions which violate our moral codes, we are being forced to participate in those decisions against our will. For many of us, this means violating what we view as our duties before God. If this is what is required in order to survive or prosper in society, then we are laying the groundwork for resentment and conflict -- with neighbors, co-workers, employees, and friends whose choices, no longer confined to their own lives, are now being used as bludgeons in ours.
Citizens who aspire to a tolerant society and moral business must rein in a government that undermines both.
Laura Hollis is an Associate Professional Specialist and Concurrent Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches entrepreneurship and business law. She is the author of the forthcoming publication, “Start Up, Screw Up, Scale Up: What Government Can Learn From the Best Entrepreneurs,” © 2014. Her opinions are her own, and do not reflect the position of the university. Follow her on Twitter: @LauraHollis61.