Writing for The American Conservative on the recent arguments before the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby case, Prof. Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame assures us that he hopes the Christian firm wins its case; but the searing critique he levels against the company’s business model must leave many readers in some doubt as to his sincerity.
“Hobby Lobby is a significant player,” he asseverates, “in a global economy that has separated markets from morality.” It operates “in a decisively secular economic world.” In addition to being “almost wholly disembedded from any particular community,” Hobby Lobby’s business model, “like that of all major box stores,” is dedicated to, among other shady things: economies of scale, standardization, aggressive price-cutting, and reliance on cheap overseas producers. Deneen concludes this portion of the polemic with a doozy of exaggeration: the setting for his local Hobby Lobby is “about as profane imaginable a place on earth.”
Considering very recent news only, one might object that British hospitals have rather dramatically demonstrated to the imagination how much more profane a place may be. Hobby Lobby may be surrounded by ugly concrete and aging, decrepit strip malls, but one doubts it is heating stores with the incinerated flesh of slaughtered innocents.
To anchor his critique, Deneen supplies an engaging summary of the Hungarian scholar Karl Polanyi’s economic thought:
[Polanyi] described how economic arrangements were “disembedded” from particular cultural and religious contexts in which economic arrangements were understood to serve those moral ends — and hence, that limited not only actions, but even the understanding that economic actions could be considered to be undertaken to advance individual interests and priorities. As Polanyi describes, economic exchange so ordered placed a priority on the main ends of social and religious life — the sustenance of community order and flourishing of families within that order. The understanding of an economy based upon the accumulated calculations of self-maximizing individuals was largely non-existent, and a “market” was understood to be a part of the whole, an actual physical place within that social order, not an autonomous, even theoretical space for the exchange of abstracted utility maximers.
There is certainly something to this line of criticism. Commercial enterprises can unquestionably level and homogenize. Cut-rate utilitarianism, abetted by cynical businesses, often serves to fill the void in the naked public square. Innumerable communities across the country, once vibrant and distinctive, have been hollowed out by this utilitarianism.
But Deneen could hardly have picked a worse contemporary example to hang his theory on. As Ben Domenech remarks in his superb newsletter The Transom:
Pause for a minute to consider what Hobby Lobby is: it is a craft supply store, designed to supply resources for people who aspire to creativity – primarily housewives, churches, and children – and enable them to express themselves. The creations these Americans make with the products they purchase at Hobby Lobby are most often crafted not for themselves, but for other people: gifts with a personal touch, the collage of moments experienced with friends, the frame etched with verses, the necklace strung with little reminders of that day or that night drive or that sunrise watched together. Deneen doesn’t even understand what he’s criticizing; he may chide Hobby Lobby as a place for impulse buying, but it is the opposite of unmotivated impulse – you go to Hobby Lobby not to browse, but because you want to make something.
The attentive reader of Deneen’s essay could be forgiven for thinking that the Professor supposes Hobby Lobby and Walmart operate on the same business model.
The plain pitiful fact is that, right up until 2010, Hobby Lobby carried on as it had for many decades, selling crafts, distributing products, managing supply chains, employing many thousands of people, and subsidizing for them some sixteen different methods of contraception. Along comes Obamacare, functioning more like a vast grant of executive discretion (hardly a week goes by without a new delay or revision of dubious legality) than a law; and presently the bureaucrats inflicting this executive discretion determined that sixteen birth control methods are not enough. Businesses must also offer subsidies for several more aggressive methods of birth control: devices and pharmaceutical treatments potent enough to alter a woman’s reproductive chemistry such that a newly-formed human embryo would perish in the womb.
Supporters of Hobby Lobby are quite right in pointing out that the treatments in question can hardly be categorized as exclusively contraceptives when their biochemical action continues after conception. They are abortifacients in addition to contraceptives.
Let it also be noticed that Hobby Lobby has not, and will not, interfere in any way with an employee who undertakes to procure these abortifacients on her own.
Prof. Deneen implicitly accuses the Obama administration of “understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring.” The accusation is just. But Deneen goes badly astray when he includes Hobby Lobby in that accusation:
It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy.
“General practice” does a lot of work there. For next comes the charge of hypocrisy: “the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.” So even to the extent that Hobby Lobby (and its companion in seeking redress, Conestoga Wood) undertake to resist the advancing radical autonomy, they are surrendering to it.
But of course the “general practice” until very recently still preserved liberty of conscience, and no one thought twice about it. General practice permitted a compromise that secured free institutions against, on mandated abortifacients at least, constant harassment by enterprising bureaucrats animated by radical autonomy and hostile to their offspring. The contraceptive mandate advanced by means of tyrannical rulership, rule by caprice of the rulers, not by general practice understood as some kind of stand-in for democracy.
The attenuation of cause and consequence necessary to implicate Hobby Lobby, via the economic analysis of “disembeddedness,” in the contraceptive mentality that has now gained force of mandate, strikes me as extraordinary. Hobby Lobby is discriminating and frugal in its use of suppliers; and just a hop, skip and jump later Hobby Lobby has acquiesced in a monstrous utilitarian system?
In truth, Hobby Lobby was incorporated to sell crafts, not wage war on modernity; and Conestoga Wood to manufacture and sell wood furnishings, not rebel against finance capitalism. Christian businessmen are under no standing obligation to stake their business in defiance of globalization. Already these particular businessmen have gone some distance in opposition to the radical autonomy of the world; that is precisely why they find themselves obliged to make a defense of their businesses before the Supreme Court.
There is a delicate matter of loyalty which may want for some consideration. The very day when the US Supreme Court, holding forth like a Star Chamber, weighed the question of whether law or Constitution permits this Mandate of the Last Four of Twenty to crush liberty of conscience, we are treated to conjectures and fulminations linking Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood to every last excess or ordeal of globalization and finance capitalism. These two tiny Christian firms in a sea of corporate behemoths must endure friendly fire on the day of their testing; when the very test itself asks whether their liberty to stand apart from behemothism shall be suffered by the rulers of this world.
Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood ask permission to do business in America without being mandated to pay blood money for murdered human beings in their earliest stages of development. But it appears these commercial enterprises must first solve the errors of modernity and globalization before some critics will offer that warm and shining solidarity of comrades in their cause.