July 20, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Vaccinations, like government, are not the opposite of freedom. They are a means toward achieving it
The covid pandemic is changing Americans' minds. Finally.
I’m still stuck on the idea that if we’re nicer to Americans refusing to get vaccinated, they’d be more likely to get vaccinated. That seems akin to hostage-takers being more likely to release hostages if we meet their demands. Anyone who thought about this morally for five minutes would realize anyone willing to take hostages in the first place is untrustworthy, much less committed to releasing hostages after their demands are met. Meeting their demands actually incentivizes them to take even more hostages.
Americans refusing to get vaccinated are similarly engaged in power politics, not an fair, honorable and equitable exchange. What’s good for them is not their own health and well-being. What’s good for them is not enlightened self-interest. What is good for them is maintaining a political advantage, real or imagined, that “us” has over “them.”
Lincoln: “The legitimate object of government is ‘to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.’”
So the more we ask anti-vaxxers nicely to please get vaccinated pretty please with sugar on top, the more incentive they have to say no. The more they say no, the more we have to keep asking. Yes, we’re asking them to do what’s best for them and their loved ones, but they don’t see that. What happens after hostages are released? No more advantage! I’d say most people think politics is about problem-solving. Anti-vaxxers think politics is war by other means. To get vaccinated is to concede defeat. And that’s unthinkable.
That the real defeat would be their own deaths by the covid does not undermine my point here. It underscores it. A founding principle of the anti-vaxx movement, started long before the covid came, is individual freedom. In this story, they are the heroes. Laws, regulations and people who think politics is about problem-solving—they are the villains. Once people get it in their heads that giving in to laws, regulations and problem-solving is the death of their liberty, it’s not hard to imagine them accepting as good the real thing. In this sense, they’re less hostage-takers than suicide bombers.
It should be said this idea of freedom is upside down, backwards and prolapsed. It should also be said that’s the case for many Americans, not just anti-vaxxers. Freedom is usually seen as freedom of choice, freedom to do what you want, freedom to not do what you don’t want. That’s the myopic legacy of conservative politics in the United States, stemming back to the rise of industrialism and to the slave masters before that. My hope is the pandemic is revealing to us what individual liberty can be. It can be what we do together as a political community for the sake of individuals but also for the sake of the common good. It’s about the equitable use of the government for achieving such ends, especially solving collective problems, like a pandemic that has killed nearly 625,000. That means making people, by force if needed, do what they should.
Coercion is often seen as freedom’s antipode, but again, that’s the legacy of the history of conservative politics. States and localities make people do stuff all the time with very few residents carping about their lost individual liberty. (This includes getting vaccinated!) That anti-vaxxers deny this shared reality in addition to refusing to get vaccinated, adds insult (to our collective intelligence) to injury (to the republic). Editorial Board subscriber Jim Prevatt expressed this double-whammy when he said: “Tell me again why is it that people get to decide whether or not to be vaccinated against COVID-19. I don’t get a choice about whether to murder somebody. I don’t get a choice to drive without a driver’s license or to exceed the speed limit or run a red light or go to Switzerland without a passport. Why do people get a choice not to take the vaccine when they might very well expose somebody else who will die from it?”
Mr. Prevatt echoed sentiments expressed by Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president said that “the legitimate object of government is ‘to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves.’ Making and maintaining roads, bridges, and the like; providing for the helpless young and afflicted; common schools; and disposing of deceased men’s property, are instances.” I’m pretty sure he’d include vaccinations against the covid.
Mr. Prevatt joins Editorial Board member Claire Bond Potter in updating Lincoln’s view to meet the equity demands of a multi-racial republic. In a piece about the collapsed Florida condo, and speaking of the role of building regulations, Claire said “individuals do not make the best decisions for themselves. They make self-interested ones. Government is there to make the hard political decisions that individuals cannot, or will not, make on their own. Politics is how we, as a people, make good on a social commitment to care for each other.”1 Claire didn’t say this but I’m confident she’d agree this applies to people refusing vaccinations. If you can’t be trusted to “make good on a social commitment to care for each other,” you’ll have to be forced to.
So far, vaccination mandates are not uniform. They are a patchwork of local and state laws, and requirements by individual institutions, such as colleges and public schools. There is no national mandate, not even for the military. In their absence, however, the tide is shifting away from the idea that we should be nicer to people in order to get them to do the right thing. No, they should do the right thing for its own sake. The tide is also shifting away from the legacy of conservative politics. Government is not the opposite of individual liberty. Government can be the way of realizing it fully.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
In an earlier comment I suggest to rightness of coercion to reinforce the collective good. We engage in necessary coercion as a part of the social contract all the time, from the paying of taxes to the application of eminent domain. There are extensions of and limitations on these, of course, determined by legislation, agency regulation, and court decisions. But the fact that these forms of necessary coercion exist and acceptance of the rationale for them as means of advancing the public good are just givens that we all recognize.
The key challenge now is not acknowledgment of its necessity. It is a question of political will and implementation by various means. In brief, the focus should not be on improving the messaging. We’ve hit the wall on that. At this point, we must raise the level of discomfort for the resistant. Many of the un- and partially vaccinated are not hardened ideological anti-vaxxers but fence-sitters. Just consider how many one-shot recipients there are who should have received a 2nd shot but just haven’t bothered. This is where the coercion by available means comes in. PSAs? Sure. But providers of life and health insurance; employers exerting employer muscle; litigants pursuing anti-vaxxers who threaten public health; city or state governments requiring vaccination for the disbursement of selected benefits; on and on. We are now looking at the possible return of a public health crisis and the only proper response is a “for your own good” set of policies that will get fence sitters off the fence and wear down the remaining resistance of anti-vaxxers.
Carrots and sticks are needed, and they need to take the form of dollars in and out of pockets, not more talk.
This is great. Kudos.
Two notions of freedom are, and historically have been, in conflict since the US republic’s founding: freedom as lack of constraint, and freedom as self-government. The Canadian political theorist C.B. MacPherson aptly described the former as “Possessive Individualism”, and it has been a central premise of US conservative ideology all along — sometimes liberal ideology as well. It atomizes social goods out of existence. What COVID has shown is that the unconstrained pursuit of doing what one wants is the very opposite of self-government, of being a self-determining agent, since one never acts in a vacuum. You can’t be autonomous all by yourself since you live in a society with other humans, whose actions affect you and whose well-being you also affect. The charter of liberal republican democracies is designed to ensure that common goods, irreducibly social goods like health, safety, economic security, etc., are secured so that individuals, as well as the polity, can flourish. Hopefully, COVID will get Americans across the ideological spectrum to acknowledge this.
I have my doubts, however. I suspect the US polity has been fractured beyond repair, mainly because traditional media has been supplanted by social media, which is not contained by rationality and truthfulness. Hope I am wrong, but I see little to suggest otherwise.
Stoehr: “Once people get it in their heads that giving in to laws, regulations and problem-solving is the death of their liberty, it’s not hard to imagine them accepting as good the real thing. In this sense, they’re less hostage-takers than suicide bombers.”
The willfully unvaccinated are slow-motion suicide bombers.