The Supreme Court recently closed its term with a ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, concerning the government’s mandate for employer provided insurance to cover contraception. Voting 5-4 that closely held corporations could be exempt from the mandate if it violates the sincerely held religious beliefs of the owners, the decision has generated a lot of heat in mainstream political discourse.
Conservatives claim it as a victory for religious freedom, while progressives denounce it as a blow against the rights of women. However, the framing here is awkward. The intersection of a cultural schism and relations between labor and capital raises a question: How did the status quo, where employers have insurance to think about and workers are expected to be on the lookout for their bosses personal beliefs, come to be in the first place?
Commonly forgotten in American history, as they conflict with the popular myth about modern capitalism somehow being a “free market” whether one thinks that good or ill, are the past more explicit interventions of the U.S. government. Of particular note is the National War Labor Relations Board, which during World War 2 placed wage controls on industrial workers. In the crackpot reasoning of the government appointed experts at the time, this was to prevent inflation. With government spending in overdrive due to the total war economy, plowing endless resources into production of military goods for the state, employers started to use health insurance as a perk, which the NWLRB ruled didn’t violate the controls.
After war footing shifted from WW2 to the Cold War, the IRS ruled that health insurance premiums employers paid were exempt from taxation. Having violently marginalized more radical labor organizations, setting a Devil’s Bargain of sorts between existing unions, large-scale business, and the government, the expectation was set. You worked for a big company and depended on them for health coverage, the corporations got extensive backing in the form of subsidies from the government, and the government got everyone’s tax dollars to pour into empire. Yes, your health coverage is an accident of decades of corporate state collusion, a diversion of what could have been income to do what you wanted to with into a tool of control.
Think about what could have been if the government had never done any of this. With labor power at full, no government butting in to deny your agency or concentrate the market, and no policy for your boss to micromanage, workers could simply take the dissolved surplus capital and handle the matter themselves. Perhaps labor unions could adapt, form their own insurance pools, and liberate women in the workforce from ever again having to care what anyone else thinks about them getting birth control. Despite professed views in the cramped political mainstream, interest on their part in such is scarce, as the fire on such issues is what lines their pockets and keeps people going to the polls.
With thought, the “culture war” reveals itself as a prison fight — forced by the guards.
Brian Nicholson is a contributing author at the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org).