Vaccine Passports and the Categorical Impermissibility of Inconveniencing Republicans

On the GOP's principled incoherence about freedom of association


Conservatives have been freaking out about the mere possibility of vaccine passports, government-issued documents certifying the bearer’s Covid jabs.

The idea isn’t that the government will require proof of vaccination for anything. The idea is that the ability to credibly prove vaccination status will speed the restoration of normal social and economic life. This works by allowing businesses, schools, sports leagues, etc. to discriminate against those who haven’t been vaccinated. Now, because a lot of wealthier white folks have been butting in line and members of some less privileged groups are less likely to have gotten their shots, there are real, legitimate worries about discrimination on the basis of vaccine status. It could conceivably exacerbate invidious inequalities based on race, class, and so forth.

But these obviously aren’t the concerns that have conservatives exercised. Indeed, one of the bright lines dividing American liberals and conservatives concerns the limits of freedom of association. Conservatives, and especially those with a libertarian streak, are far more likely to be absolutists about the right to exclude anyone from your property, business, or private club or association for any reason. Rand Paul, who infamously opposes the part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits private businesses from discrimination on race, is a good example. Remember when Rachel Maddow asked him about the integration of lunch counters and he said, “Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?” 

If the Civil Rights Act is problematic because it infringes on freedom of association, the permissibility of discriminating against customers who might carry a fatal infection is a total no-brainer. Right? Ha!

Jesse Kelly, an eleventh-rate Limbaugh wannabe who bills himself as “the greatest mind of the 21st century,” has beautifully encapsulated the Orwellian doublethink inherent in the ersatz “libertarianism” of the authoritarian right.

The second bit is a truly incredible expression of the right-populist’s authoritarian Id. I’m certainly not the greatest mind of the 21st century, but let’s just reformulate Kelly’s thought in the language of political theory:

Freedom, understood as an absence of state coercion, is the political ideal. But we libertarians will never achieve our ideal society unless we use the state to codify our values into law and force our political rivals to do what we prefer. Of course, this is the opposite of freedom, as we libertarians understand it, and the state would have no legitimate authority to do it. But our political rivals are communists, who have no compunction against state coercion. If we refuse to preemptively deploy raw, unprovoked violence in an effort to control others, they’ll do the same or worse to us. We’ll never achieve freedom if we let this happen.

Again, according to libertarianism, freedom of association is sacrosanct. If a household, business, or any other private association wants to require proof of immunization to enter, do business or take part in its activities, it is their absolute right to do so. Kelly’s notion seems to be that if the right people strategically restrict freedom of association, eventually they’ll be able to ease up and restore it. But how does that work? At what point do you stop using the state to bigfoot all over “communists” (i.e., non-Republicans)?

Maybe the idea is that if you abuse state power long enough, you can rig the economic and political system so decisively in your favor that your ill-gained private power becomes so awesome, and your rivals become so immiserated, that you needn’t worry that they’ll ever control the state, even if there are vastly more of them. As a description of current conservative strategy, this certainly checks out. But it’s a description of authoritarian kleptocracy, not libertarianism. That’s the thing: MAGA-fied “libertarians” like Kelly can’t seem to tell the difference. “Freedom is not something you acquire by practicing it.” It is, apparently, something you acquire by domination. But then how do you maintain it? Well, by domination. You can’t ever let up or they’ll take control, especially if there are more of them. That’s the problem with democracy, isn’t it? Most people (let’s call them “communists”) don’t want “freedom.” So you’ve got to take control and impose it, good and hard.

Ron DeSantis, the Governor of Florida, agrees with Kelly that vaccine passports should be banned. “It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society,” DeSantis said.

But why is this “completely unacceptable”? Kids can’t go to school or camp without submitting vaccination records. I had to prove my vaccination status to go to college and grad school. This is all “normal society.” It’s pretty maddening that the direct experience of a monumentally fatal infectious disease has somehow left Americans less clear about the rationale for standard vaccination requirements. But here we are with the governor of Florida casually giving voice to the position of an entitled anti-vax extremist who ardently believes that it is the height of tyranny to discriminate in any way against unvaccinated individuals, even if they pose a risk to the health of the entire community.

However, I don’t expect that DeSantis will try to ban vaccination requirements for Florida public schools, because there is no actual principle at work here. Conservatives are consistent only in their opportunistic incoherence. “No principle but advantage” is the GOP’s implicit motto. The only surprising Republican behavior in these uncertain times is a less than enthusiastic embrace of nihilistic hypocrisy.

As David Frum observes in his latest for the Atlantic, it seems unlikely that DeSantis will actually stomp on the associative and property rights of businesses, because that’s not ultimately in his political interests. But grandstanding sure as hell is. Frum writes:

With COVID-19, too, it’s doubtful how hard DeSantis truly intends to fight business interests. The Miami Heat NBA franchise announced that beginning April 1, special sections of American Airlines Arena will be open only to fully vaccinated attendees. Social-distancing rules will be relaxed in these sections. DeSantis is not stopping that. And if DeSantis will not force the Heat to drop its rules, how much less likely is he to battle mighty Disney if it decides that a vaccination policy will speed the recovery of its business?

But the point is not to win the fight, or even really to fight the fight. The point is to announce the fight, and to keep raging about it, even if you do not in fact fight it very hard. … [H]e must reckon with a party in which anti-vaccination has joined pro-gun as an indispensable cultural marker—and as a potential veto bloc for anyone aspiring to a future Republican presidential nomination.

To appease those cultural blocs, Republican politicians must be willing to sacrifice everything, including what used to be the party’s foundational principles. 

Perfectly said.

It’s really dead simple. Republicans favor freedom of association and strong property rights when it allows them to discriminate against people they don’t like. They oppose freedom of association and strong property rights when it allows others to discriminate against them. There’s nothing more to it. It’s blatantly self-serving tribalism. That’s the GOP’s one foundational principle. That’s it.

This tells you all you really need to know:

Nearly half of white evangelicals say they won’t get vaccinated. Discrimination on vaccine status would burden them the most, by a long shot. (And smart, good atheists the least, by a long shot!) That’s what’s “completely unacceptable” to DeSantis: inconveniencing Republicans.

I don’t know why Pew didn’t make a nice chart for the partisan comparison, but here’s what they say:

Around eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (83%) said in February they would definitely or probably get a vaccine or that they already had received at least one dose. A much smaller majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (56%) said the same. That 27 percentage point gap between Democrats and Republicans was wider than the gap measured at various points in 2020.

Requiring proof of vaccination is so attractive to businesses precisely because tens of millions of Republicans feel entitled to behave as if there were no pandemic. According to Gallup, those who don’t intend to get vaccinated are less than half as likely than those who are fully vaccinated to avoid public places, avoid small gatherings, avoid large crowds, and avoid traveling.

I’m sorry to report that if you go to a restaurant, concert, basketball game, or take a plane unvaccinated people who haven’t been doing much to avoid catching or transmitting Covid are likely to be ridiculously overrepresented. This also suggests that unvaccinated Republicans who don’t give a shit are disproportionately responsible for ongoing spread.

But nope. Can’t be up to Outback Steakhouse whether unvaccinated folks should be free to waltz in with masks under their chins and cough all over the blooming onions.

“Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?”

It’s a question for the ages.

Hysterical Republican grandstanding about vaccine passports has made the GOP’s principled answer to Rand Paul’s riddle abundantly clear: whatever’s best for Republicans.

- WW


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