The Jackboot of Government

In the face of a surging pandemic, with infections rising daily across the country, you’d think that people would practice some common sense self-discipline. You’d also like to think that local governments would applaud and encourage anything that might turn back the tide. You would be wrong.

In the Granite State, Governor Chris Sununu has signed the “medical freedom” law ensuring that a COVID-19 vaccine can’t be required for entry to “access any public facility, any public benefit, or any public service.” This takes the state’s motto — “Live Free or Die” — to its logical extreme by making a mockery of those who just might want to live without the threat of contagion. “Live Free AND Die” might be more accurate.

In the Sunshine State, Governor Ron DeSantis — determined to show he’s got the chops to replace the former guy in the Oval Office — is trying to block any restriction on the cruise ship industry. The CDC thinks unvaccinated passengers should be barred from boarding a floating Petri dish; DeSantis disagrees, and would like the legislature to prohibit such restrictions by private companies, too. Not since Anita Bryant has any one person been such an embarrassment to Florida.

The Republican chorus decrying regulation has become farcical. If the market is going to decide, let it decide: the cruise ship industry isn’t asking to be free from CDC regulation and is perfectly capable of asking passengers to show proof of vaccine before boarding. It doesn’t need the jackboot of government regulators (the favored image of GOP antagonists to even sensible regulation) on its neck. Restaurants, concert venues, sports franchises — all can take sensible precautions, and should.

Indeed, as noted here, former GOP strategist (and McCain campaign manager) Steve Schmidt believes that such private pressure is the best way forward. And while I disagree with his assessment, I’ll also note the extreme irony of today’s straightjacketed Republicans: They can’t abide the idea of any public regulation, even those that protect the health of their own constituents; and now they can’t abide private actors who might have the temerity to suggest that hey, you can’t come in here if you might spread a deadly disease.

Did I say straightjacketed? They should be. Turns out the jackboot of government regulation fits them just fine.

Vaccine Mandates

A friend directed me to a thoughtful piece by Steve Schmidt regarding vaccine mandates. In this Twitter thread, Schmidt suggests that the way to achieve better vaccine compliance isn’t by vaccine mandate, per se; he prefers “incentives” such as barring admission to shows and restaurants, airline travel, public events and public spaces.

The piece presents as thoughtful to be sure, but when you cut through to the core it’s the same bullshit he’s been peddling for 30 years: freedom from regulation and let the market decide, because that fixes everything. It doesn’t and he knows it. He’s now caught in his own trap, and he’s desperate to get out without admitting he’s been worshiping a false god (free = unregulated) all this time.

As I’ve written elsewhere (here, and here, as well as here and here) the human capacity for cognitive dissonance is unlimited. Schmidt wants people to get the vaccine, but doesn’t want government to force them. Rather they should be persuaded by coercive forces — of government agencies like the FAA, of private parties like restauranteurs and producers. It seems to me that this is “regulation” by another name. But regulation bad, incentive good. This would be comic gold if it weren’t so deadly.

Schmidt decrees that, “NOBODY should be FORCED by the GOVT to take the vaccine. EVER…. That means never, ever.” Instead he’d coerce people to make the “right” choice by denying them access to public buildings, public spaces, public benefits… etc. That’s at best a distinction without a difference, and it’s utter crap. It’s the religion of “personal responsibility” and “freedom of choice” wrapped in fancy-dress, the same old whine in new bottles.

Schmidt and his ilk are all for “personal responsibility” and I am almost willing to take them at their word if, for example, I can deny them emergency medical care because they made the PERSONAL CHOICE to remain uninsured. They did so freely, after all, and (in Schmidt’s view) it was their choice to make: let them accept the consequences, and not come running to their fellow-citizens, the taxpayers of the United States, to be the insurer of last resort against their (objectively stupid) choices. Choices like going without health insurance, or building a house on a flood plain (and purchasing government flood insurance when private insurers turn them down, with reason), or rebuilding in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy took your home and everything in it out to sea.

Sure, Schmidt and Bill Kristol and a lot of others have been vocal for years about the former guy; and they’ve admitted they played a part in creating him and continue to express regret. It might be more helpful if they explained the role played by Newt Gingrich and his politics of personal destruction and demonization of The Other (i.e., anyone who stands in their path to power, mostly Democrats). Instead their road to Damascus conversions have only gone so far; they haven’t reconsidered their core beliefs, the things that made them Republicans in the first place and that (in my view) led us, inevitably, to the unhappy place we are now. When Ronald Reagan declared rhetorical war on the federal government, these folks took it a little too seriously and a little too much to heart.

Contrary to St. Ronald’s assertion, government is not always the problem and is often the solution, a fact easily demonstrated when (for example) an uninsured individual receives medical care in the ER, or when FEMA brings much-needed relief — food, water, medicine, temporary housing, and more — to flood and fire victims. Many of the beneficiaries — indeed, most of the beneficiaries — of such government largesse are people who resemble the people who stormed the Capitol far more than they do Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or George Floyd. The politics of resentment and fear play an outsize role, distorting public policy and thwarting goals everyone can agree on, like pandemic recovery.

I should (and do) welcome Schmidt to the majority that acknowledges, unequivocally, that what happened January 6 was an insurrection and EVERYONE responsible should be brought to justice. But his argument about vaccine requirement fails to convince me. Government REQUIRES a measles vaccine, a mumps vaccine, a rubella vaccine, a polio vaccine; not many years ago a smallpox vaccine, too, was required. Why is this any different?

Government requires us to purchase auto insurance. It requires us to wear seatbelts; it requires cyclists to wear helmets. I could go on and on. These are not controversial obligations. They protect us from others and — to a lesser extent — from ourselves. Isn’t that the purpose of government? To institute the rules of a civil society?

Mr. Schmidt, I applaud your efforts; really, I do. But governments are instituted among men, as Jefferson had it, to secure our unalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s not a stretch to suggest that life itself is easier without the threat of deadly disease, and that happiness is easier to pursue when we’re not worried about whether our neighbor has done the bare minimum to ensure his own health AND MINE. 

I’ve been fond of saying that there are very few things a national government must provide, but there is something much more fundamental than army, currency, or post office. Governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and they exist to create, promulgate, and enforce the simple rules by which we all must live if we are to be a cohesive nation. Seatbelt laws were once controversial, but are no longer — and were instituted with the consent of the governed: that is, by simple majority. “Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” is a noble ideal but it doesn’t give due respect and even homage to the more mundane aspects of self-governance. Like making sure we don’t kill each other through thoughtless, selfish, and stubborn refusal to consider our neighbors. Most of us think vaccine and mask mandates are a good idea. Get over it.