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Livelihood is an unusual word. It means, essentially, having the resources and ability to provide for one’s own needs. To lose your livelihood means that you cannot support yourself. This happens when someone loses the business they’ve run or can no longer pursue a vocation or profession. It is, of course, a great misfortune.
The ability to secure a livelihood goes to the core of the American dream. Whether or not the phrase was intended in this way, the ability to seek and exercise one’s livelihood certainly seems like the kind of thing we would consider part of the “pursuit of happiness” included in the Declaration of Independence.
Thus, we should be extremely hesitant to rob a person of their livelihood or to put onerous conditions on pursuing it.
That is one of the many things so troubling about a new law in Illinois that requires doctors to give women a list of abortion providers as a condition of exercising their right not to participate in that procedure. There are many problems with a law like this, but imagine a pro-life doctor who would be affected. Should he or she be forced to cooperate with a procedure they understand to be morally wrong just to pursue their livelihood?
The same question is raised by those whose businesses are threatened by crippling fines because they act on their convictions about the meaning of marriage or the sanctity of human life. Couldn’t we allow a person to act on their beliefs and still have their livelihood?
Perhaps the hope is that only a few people will actually lose jobs or professions, and the rest will be cowed into submerging their convictions in order to preserve their livelihood. That is not an attractive option for our nation.
Rod Dreher has drawn attention to an essay by Vaclav Havel that described the shopkeeper in a communist nation with a placard in the window with the slogan, “Workers of the World Unite!” He references a columnist who describes what Havel saw in this:
The shopkeeper is not motivated by an intention to communicate his enthusiasm for unity of the workers of the world. Nor was his superior seized by such desire. And the leaders of the authoritarian system in which the sign is displayed know that their power would not long survive unity of the workers of the world. In fact, it is unlikely that anyone who sees the sign gives attention to its substantive content.
The real meaning is not conveyed by the printed words. The greengrocer’s intention is to signal conformity and avoid trouble. Havel translates the slogan as: “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.”
The analogy to the increasing pressure for business owners and employees to endorse, symbolically or materially, trendy notions with which they do not agree is obvious. This is not the behavior of a truly free society.