The debate over President Biden’s vaccine mandates has focused, understandably, on the tradeoff between individual rights to make medical choices and the potential harm the unvaccinated pose to others.
That tradeoff is unavoidable.
It is simply wrong for Biden to say, “It’s not about freedom.” It is.
It is equally wrong for some Republican governors to say it is all about freedom.
It’s also about the external effects of each person’s choice. To pretend that tradeoff doesn’t exist is demagoguery. But then, so is most American politics these days.
What’s missing or underappreciated in this debate?
The most important thing is that the Biden administration’s “mandate approach” is standard-issue progressivism. The pushback is equally standard. The mandates exemplify a dispute that has been at the heart of American politics for over a century, ever since Woodrow Wilson formulated it as a professor and then president. That agenda emphasizes deference to
- Experts, not elected politicians,
- Rational bureaucratic procedures,
- Centralized power in the nation’s capital, not in the federal states, and
- A modern, “living constitution,” which replaces the “old” Constitution of 1787 and severs the restraints it imposed on government power.
Implemented over several decades, this progressive agenda has gradually become a fait accompli, without ever formally amending the Constitution. The bureaucracies began their massive growth after World War II and especially after Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives of the mid-1960s (continued, with equal vigor, by Richard Nixon).
The judicial shackles were broken earlier, when Franklin Roosevelt threatened to pack the Supreme Court in 1937. Although FDR never followed through, his threat did the trick. The justices yielded to his pressure and began rubber-stamping New Deal programs that, until then, they had rejected as unconstitutional. Gradually, the older judges retired and Roosevelt picked friendly replacements. These judicial issues have reemerged now that progressives no longer dominate the Supreme Court. They are again threatening to pack the court and demanding that today’s justices stick with precedents set by their progressive predecessors (“stare decisis”).
The pushback against vaccine mandates is partly a debate about these progressive issues concerning the president’s authority and constitutional strictures.