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Getting Something for Your Wages (or Tuition) is Theft

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One of the reasons Slate has improved greatly over the years is that it not longer publishes the inadvertently self-paradoic ramblings of Steven Landsburg.  (I particularly enjoyed his argument that you can’t tax the wealthy because other people will ultimately spend the money.  Oh.)   So when stalwart commenter gmack noted that Mr. Landsburg had weighed in on the Sandra Fluke story, I braced myself.   Landsburg does not, at least, quite call Fluke a “slut.”  But he does go all-asshole in defending Limbaugh’s particularly offensive analogy:

If the rest of us are to share in the costs of Ms. Fluke’s sex life, says Rush, we should also share in the benefits, via the magic of online video. For this, Rush is accused of denying Ms. Fluke her due respect.

But while Ms. Fluke herself deserves the same basic respect we owe to any human being, her position — which is what’s at issue here — deserves none whatseover. It deserves only to be ridiculed, mocked and jeered. To treat it with respect would be a travesty.

If you’re going to assert that someone’s position deserves no respect whatsoever, you’d better have a good argument to back it up. Alas, Landsburg’s counter to Fluke — or, more precisely, what he erroneously imagines Fluke’s argument to be — is not merely offensive but baldly stupid, and almost farcical in its comprehensive ignorance of the issues involved. Landsburg:

I expect there are respectable arguments for subsidizing contraception (though I am skeptical that there are arguments sufficiently respectable to win me over), but Ms. Fluke made no such argument. All she said, in effect, was that she and others want contraception and they don’t want to pay for it.

To his credit, Rush stepped in to provide the requisite mockery. To his far greater credit, he did so with a spot-on analogy: If I can reasonably be required to pay for someone else’s sex life (absent any argument about externalities or other market failures), then I can reasonably demand to share in the benefits. His dense and humorless critics notwithstanding, I am 99% sure that Rush doesn’t actually advocate mandatory on-line sex videos. What he advocates is logical consistency and an appreciation for ethical symmetry. So do I. Color me jealous for not having thought of this analogy myself.

There’s one place where I part company with Rush, though: He wants to brand Ms. Fluke a “slut” because, he says, she’s demanding to be paid for sex. There are two things wrong here. First, the word “slut” connotes (to me at least) precisely the sort of joyous enthusiasm that would render payment superfluous. A far better word might have been “prostitute” (or a five-letter synonym therefor), but that’s still wrong because Ms. Fluke is not in fact demanding to be paid for sex. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) She will, as I understand it, be having sex whether she gets paid or not. Her demand is to be paid. The right word for that is something much closer to “extortionist”. Or better yet, “extortionist with an overweening sense of entitlement”. Is there a single word for that?

But whether or not he chose the right word, what I just don’t get is why the pro-respect crowd is aiming all its fire at Rush. Which is more disrespectful — his harsh language or Sandra Fluke’s attempt to pick your pocket? That seems like a pretty clear call to me.

Let’s go through at least some of the more transparently idiotic aspects of Landsburg’s argument:

  • To start with the most glaring flaw, of course neither Landsburg nor Limbaugh will be “paying” for anything.   The insurer that provides the health plan for students at Georgetown Law would be paying for it.   Leaving aside books, room and board, and opportunity costs, Georgetown law costs about $47 grand a year, so this is not “picking anybody’s pocket” — Georgetown Law students receive health coverage as one condition of paying exorbitant tuition.   The new requirement to cover contraception, similarly, is not giving something for nothing to ordinary employees, who get health insurance in lieu of wages in large part because employers receive substantial tax benefits to pay workers with health insurance rather than cash. UPDATE: Hogan notes in comments that I’m actually being too generous too Landsburg here: Georgetown law students are actually required to purchase the school-provided insurance package if they don’t already have it. Georgetown law students are actually paying directly for what Landsburg claims he’s paying for.
  • Even if Landsburg and Limbaugh wouldn’t be paying for Sandra Fluke’s contraception — hence destroying their entire argument in one fell swoop — could we at least say that other Georgetown students who don’t use contraception are paying for it?   Not necessarily. After all, an unintended pregnancy would be far more expensive for an insurer than the modest cost involved in contraception.   It’s far from obvious that not covering contraception would allow Georgetown to get a cheaper health plan, and Landsburg cites no evidence for his assertion.
  • I note here that we don’t know anything about Sandra Fluke’s sex life and nothing in her testimony said anything about it.   Women may, for a variety of reasons, use the pill during periods of celibacy.   The only people bringing Sandra Fluke’s “sex life” into the discussion are reactionary thigh-rubbers.    Her actual testimony says absolutely nothing about whether she will have sex with or without Georgetown offering contraceptive coverage as part of its health plan.
  • In a gentlemanly concession, Landsburg argues that Fluke is not a “slut” — too joyless! — and only sort of a whore.    Rather, she is an “extortionist.”   Alas, Landsburg, in addition to being offensive, doesn’t seem to understand what an “extortionist” is.   What, exactly, is Fluke threatening to do to Georgetown Law if its health care package doesn’t cover insurance?  Fluke is not in a position to make any “demands.”
  • The larger problem is that, as is his trademark, Landsburg’s abstractions are completely divorced from the actual policy context.  Perhaps Landsburg would prefer a conservertarian dystopia in which people are simply denied health care if they can’t pay cash, and in the interim would settle for employers being able to get tax breaks for providing wages in the form of “insurance” that isn’t required to actually cover anything more than three aspirins a month.   But under our actually existing system, in which health insurance is primarily employer-based and employers get tax advantages for paying wages in the form of insurance, it’s obviously necessary to require that this insurance actually cover basic medical care.    Requiring that contraception be covered is no more “picking someone’s pocket” than requiring that, say, knee surgeries be covered.
  • Once we consider the actually existing policy universe, the grotesque sexism of the arguments being made by Landsburg and Limbaugh becomes readily apparent.    Have either of them freaked out because men are “picking the pockets” of mythical taxpayers because they use their insurance to get a prostrate exam?   If getting blood pressure meds partially covered by insurance allowed a man to resume sexual activity, would it ever occur to Landsburg or Limbaugh that a “logical consistency and an appreciation for ethical symmetry” requires that man to send them sex tapes?   Of course not.

Someone’s arguments here are certainly not entitled to the slightest respect, but it’s not Fluke’s.

UPDATE: More good commentary here.

UPDATE II: More here.

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