Build, Don’t Ban

How conservatives can end the Covid wars
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“We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state,” declared Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis in August, as he rejected calls to use vaccine and mask mandates as a way to combat a summer surge of Covid in his state. He pledged to do everything in his power to keep Floridians free to make their own decisions.

If one shares DeSantis’s apprehensions about restrictive Covid policies and their potential to erode Americans’ liberties permanently as the virus becomes endemic, the question is: then what? What strategy will political leaders on the right employ to ensure that our society does not follow the dystopian path?

What DeSantis seemed to suggest is that the only strategy needed is defiance. If we have the courage to stand up to the budding totalitarians of our public health bureaucracy, reject their fearmongering, and put the lid on Covid safetyism, we can all get on with our lives.

The unstated premise appears to be that it is not a matter of paramount public concern whether Covid kills another 50,000, or 100,000, or 200,000 of our fellow Americans in the next few years. Of course, defenders of a free society acknowledge, it would be better to lose fewer people to this virus, but preserving each person’s ability to choose his or her own medical destiny is more important. That wouldn’t be a crazy premise on which to base our actions — after all, the flu claimed ten to sixty thousand American lives every year in the 2010s, and our politicians never once treated this as anything but a minor concern.

But it is telling that politicians will not come out and make this argument in these terms. They sense, correctly, that a strong majority of Americans are not willing to treat a few hundred thousand Covid deaths as inevitable or worth enduring for the sake of our medical freedom. Nor must they rely on their intuition alone: An Axios-Ipsos poll in October showed that 69 percent of respondents supported a vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, and 63 percent supported a policy like the new federal vaccinate-or-test mandate for private workplaces. Just 17 percent said they were unlikely to get vaccinated.

Protecting the liberty of Americans who oppose mandates is important and justifiable, all things considered, but it is unlikely to be a winning political message, at least not on its own. When politicians make defiance their sole response to strict Covid policies, we should regard them as pandering to the passions of a vocal minority rather than actually taking the necessary steps to defend their liberty. It would hardly be the first time that big talk about freedom proved hollow.

So what should these opposition leaders be doing instead? They ought to be zealously pursuing a political accommodation with the people who want mandates to minimize the present threat of Covid, since that group includes most Americans.

Would mandate supporters even be interested in a deal? They would have a lot to gain from it. The Biden administration, and plenty of Democratic state and local government leaders around the country, see mandates as one of the most direct ways of fighting the virus, but they undoubtedly recognize their political costliness, especially as more of the unvaccinated (of all races) portray the mandate regime as “the new segregation.”

At the same time, Covid hawks on the left talk incessantly about “barriers to access” for low-income Americans, both for testing and vaccines. Such talk might sometimes be insincere, a way to justify ever higher expenditures, but some of the problems are real enough. Even where a lack of funds is not an issue, regulatory, institutional, or logistical obstacles can make it difficult for people to get the Covid-fighting resources they want.

Given the needs of the two camps, then, a framework for compromise might have been — and might yet be — to maximize real choice for everyone. Here are some proposals that would fit into such a framework:

  • Get rid of bureaucratic obstacles to vaccine access, offer at-home vaccination, and loosen the overly burdensome requirements for how many shots one needs of which vaccine and at what time;
  • Make safe medicines cheaply available to those who seek them as treatment or prophylaxis;
  • Make free or dirt-cheap, and massively available, rapid at-home tests and N95 masks;
  • State-paid quarantine housing for those who wish to use it;
  • Subsidies for all schools, nursing homes, and community centers to upgrade their ventilation systems;

And, in exchange, stop all the mandates.

Occasionally politicians have flirted with this logic. DeSantis himself has sometimes counterbalanced his intransigence on mandates with efforts to secure access to Covid treatments and prevent staffing shortages in nursing homes. But this has never been put before the public as a comprehensive package that could simultaneously make everyone safer and de-escalate the Covid wars.

Securing a nationwide compromise of this sort would help people transition to coping with endemic Covid as an accepted and manageable risk. That, in turn, would help maximize everyone’s real freedom.

Of course, this objective is a vain hope if one believes that the people pushing vaccine mandates are primarily interested in maximizing social control. J. D. Vance, U.S. Senate candidate from Ohio, warns that “vaccine mandates today threaten to become a monster, devolving into a Chinese-style social credit system.” If that’s the real aim of mandates, then the kind of deal proposed here is simply naïve.

But even if some people at the CDC are scheming for Gattaca-like control over the population, we still live in a democracy. The ultimate power of mandates rests not in public health bureaucrats but in elected officials, and is therefore based on what the broad middle of the American public believes is necessary. Make it easy for ordinary people to beat back Covid in a wide range of ways and they will be much more willing to tolerate their fellow citizens’ medical choices.

A free society is more than a collection of individuals, each going their own way to decide how to make use of their bodies. Conservatives used to think so, anyway. In confronting Covid, exercising our freedom entails joining together as a national community to find a way forward, one that takes seriously the concerns of both sides.

Phillip Wallach, “Build, Don’t Ban,” The New Atlantis, Number 67, Winter 2022, pp. 5–8.
Header image: Tomasz Zajda / Alamy

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