If you’re going to adopt a position that’s out of step with the public, you had better be able to articulate it clearly. It should be principled and, therefore, not beholden to shifts in public opinion. The right’s general distaste for popular but violative public-sector COVID-vaccine mandates on private individuals and enterprises used to be just such a principled position. You might disagree with that view, but at least you could understand it and accept that it was offered in good faith. Regrettably, that’s changing.
On Monday evening, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott heralded the right’s evolving views on vaccine mandates when he issued an executive order “prohibiting vaccine mandates by ANY entity” in his state. The order states that no institution, public or private, “can compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual, including an employee or a consumer.” This represents an about-face away from the governor’s previous position—one predicated on a conservative principle of non-interference in the affairs of private entities and individuals insofar as the law allows.
Earlier this year, Texas’s state legislature banned businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from its customers, and Abbott himself banned public entities that “receive public funds” from imposing mandates. Texas’s limits on vaccination mandates weren’t unique. The state is one of eight GOP-led states banning employers from requiring proof of vaccination, but Texas’s elected officials did their best to strike a balance that favored liberty. As one Abbott spokesperson told the Texas Tribune, there would be no impositions on private firms from Austin. “Private businesses don’t need government running their business,” Abbott’s representative insisted.
Those timeless conservative principles haven’t changed in the intervening weeks, but the politics around vaccine mandates have. Last month, Joe Biden declared that all businesses with more than 100 employees must ensure that their employees are vaccinated or tested for COVID regularly. Otherwise, they risk running afoul of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Because the physics of national politics now demand that one party’s initiative be met with equal and opposing force by their adversaries, Biden’s decree has led GOP-governed state legislators into a scramble to neutralize his executive order even if it comes at the expense of personal freedom.
There are plenty of legitimate concerns around the unanticipated consequences arising from vaccine mandates. Conservatives are obliged to be mindful of them if only because no one else will. Using OSHA’s authority to create vaccination status as a condition of private employment in any medium-to-large business likely exceeds the regulator’s authority. The carveouts for religious objectors and people with medical exemptions are not being uniformly observed and have already led federal judges to preliminarily bar the enforcement of certain local vaccine mandates. And, of course, the threat posed by such a regime is that it will be disparately enforced. That disparate enforcement will be reserved primarily for the professional classes, leaving some behind in a world typified by substandard services and abusive employers.
To the extent that these concerns privilege the liberty of private enterprises and individuals over the priorities of the state, they are a coherent response to the overweening but (crucially) well-intended Democratic response to a real and exigent emergency. They are coherent and defensible. These principles guided the Republican lawmakers who sought to preserve their states residents against infringements on their liberty by panicked politicians and energetic bureaucrats.
What Greg Abbott has done, by contrast, is as much of an infringement on individual liberty as any OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard. In a game of maximalist cultural conflict, the nuanced approach Abbott had previously taken just doesn’t cut it. In shifting away from edicts that limit government’s capacity to interfere in private affairs to edicts that limit the freedom of private individuals and enterprises, however, Abbott is tacitly conceding crucial ground to the left. No longer are we witnessing a battle of competing principles. We’re privy only to a contest of rival cultural affinities, each willing to wield the power of the state to impose their visions of social organization on you.
Principled conservatives don’t have a horse in that race.