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.