Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced the farthest-reaching vaccine mandate yet: All companies that employ more than 100 people must require vaccination or weekly testing. This is a huge step, one the Biden administration has avoided taking thus far. Unsurprisingly, conservatives are in strong opposition. Additionally, even though Democrats have a much higher vaccination rate, 30% are still at least somewhat wary of the mandate. Whether it be fear for Biden’s political sustainability or discomfort about an admittedly far-reaching executive policy, unease among those moderates who voted for and support Biden is not without reason. At a time when every vote counts and political unity is essential to progress, it is important to address why moderates should not fear the mandate.
Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently penned a piece in The Atlantic recounting how selflessness, patriotism and unity lie at the very center of the United States’ historical ability to combat crises. Drawing on those past successes, politicians have tried branding mask-wearing and vaccination as “patriotic.” Months into the pandemic, as the old playbook proved ineffective, experts publicized the benefits of mask-wearing to the wearer, not just to those around them. Today, social media is inundated with stories of the preventable deaths of unvaccinated Americans. When a crisis failed to unite the nation, public health campaigns turned to self-interest. They didn’t stop there: Constant commercials, full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, an abundance of state-level incentives and an endorsement from former President Donald Trump were all creative campaigns, yet none of them were sufficiently effective. We still see thousands of deaths every day — and death is far more likely for the unvaccinated. The best reason to support a mandate is that every attempt to persuade the unvaccinated to willingly protect themselves from this deadly virus has failed.
The idea that the unvaccinated cannot be convinced stands not just as a justification, but also as a possible consequence of a government mandate. By attempting to require a significant fraction of the nation to do something they very clearly do not want to do, Biden is inviting strong criticism. Criticism that may manifest itself in Biden’s already declining polling numbers, or in future electoral disadvantages. It may — when combined with the backlash over the events in Afghanistan — hinder Biden’s ability to pass his domestic agenda. In the words of Michigan Daily Opinion columnist Jack Roshco, on Afghanistan, Biden’s willingness “to make the right decision in spite of public blowback is exactly why we should be grateful that he is our president.” Indeed, the mandate is bound to the present situation in Afghanistan by political sacrifice. Political backlash should be seen not as a price to be feared but as a symbol of hope. If this pattern continues, if Biden and his party are willing to make controversial decisions that are nonetheless supported by facts, they can have a massive impact before the next election cycle becomes consequential.
In 2022 and 2024, though, when electoral difficulties could manifest, shouldn’t moderates worry about what the Republicans will do with this newfound executive power? Robby Soave, writing for The New York Times, believes so, citing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s willingness to use “his current authority to prohibit private vaccine mandates.” DeSantis, however, was using such authority to bar mask mandates in schools weeks before the Biden mandate. On top of that, past presidents have shown little hesitancy in their desire to expand executive power. Yes, Biden’s mandate and the legal methods being used — specifically the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation — do represent an expansion. But, that does not mean DeSantis or any other future Republican president would not have found some other way to expand their authority absent of Biden’s mandate.
Claims of government overreach bring up another important debate, that of personal liberty. A full 66% of Republicans believe the mandate violates their rights, with a not-insignificant 20% of Democrats in agreement. In response, Biden declared that vaccination “is not about freedom or personal choice.” While that approach is unlikely to convince the anti-vaccination crowd, who view their perception of freedom as sacrosanct, it may be able to convince moderate to Democratic holdouts.
Biden is right. Freedom does not apply here. The Supreme Court said so over a hundred years ago, ruling in favor of the government’s right to enforce vaccination. Political philosophy agrees, through John Stuart Mill’s famous caveat of personal liberty — that one’s freedom is forfeited when it harms others. In short, no one has the right to get others sick. The mandate does not violate any Americans’ rights, because in this specific instance the right does not exist. The mandate isn’t the beginning of a government takeover, it’s not even ideologically inconsistent. It is a policy, one supported not only by scientific fact, but intellectual thought.
Quin Zapoli is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.