George Will has the right idea but I think he’s using the wrong word:
Today, Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Sebelius may be the second-most serendipitously named court case in U.S. history, second to Loving v. Virginia (wherein Richard Loving, who was white, and his wife Mildred, who was black, in 1967 overturned Virginia’s law against interracial marriages). The Little Sisters are challenging the Obamacare mandate that makes them complicit in providing, through their health insurance, contraception, something that offends their faith.
This mandate illustrates Gesture Liberalism: It is unimportant to the structure of Obamacare. It has nothing to do with real insurance, which protects against unexpected developments — car insurance does not pay for oil changes. The mandate covers a minor expense: Target sells a month of birth control pills for $9 . The mandate is, however, a gesture affirming liberalism’s belief that any institution of civil society can be properly broken to the saddle of the state.
I think the word he’s actually looking for, rather than “gesture”, is “signal”. Increasing the minimum wage won’t do a lot if anything about income inequality or to ameliorate the circumstances of the poor since the number of workers that would receive a pay increase is actually quite small and many of them aren’t poor. As a means towards either end an increase in the minimum wage is inadequately targeted. However, support for an increase in the minimum wage is a signal of your concern for the poor.
Similarly, under the best of circumstances the Chevy Volt of itself won’t do much about anthropogenic climate change. For one thing GM can’t seem to produce enough of them to do so and even if it did the end-to-end production cycle is environmentally suspect. However, support for the production of the Volt signals your concern about the environment.
Support for the PPACA signals your support for the poor and sick. Threatening the Assad regime with attack over its alleged use of chemical weapons signals your support for the innocents being killed or left homeless in Syria. Backing the ARRA signals your support for those left jobless by the recession.
Sending signals is ever so much easier than actual reform.