Federal employees and contractors will be required to demonstrate they have received a COVID-19 vaccine or submit regular negative tests, wear a mask and socially distance when on federal property.
This was announced by President Biden on Thursday afternoon.
The push for vaccine mandates has picked up steam in recent weeks.
The Veterans Administration announced a vaccine mandate the same day as California. Employees who work directly with patients have eight weeks to get fully vaccinated.
While there is growing support for vaccine mandates, many oppose federal government control over individual health care decisions.
New Hampshire Republican Governor Chris Sununu recently signed House Bill 220, which grants freedom from vaccination mandates. Ohio passed legislation preventing public schools or universities from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, while Arkansas legislation prevents such mandates by state and local governments.
In a surprising move, the American Postal Workers Union released a statement on July 28 in opposition to a possible White House COVID-19 vaccine mandate arguing, “It is not the role of the federal government to mandate vaccinations for the employees we represent.”
With growing support as well as opposition to government vaccination mandates, it is important to establish the state’s legal and moral right to enact such a requirement.
Government mandates in the U.S. go back to 1809 when the state of Massachusetts designed an inoculation program to combat smallpox. In 1855, Massachusetts established the first school vaccination requirements.
These types of rules did not face significant legal challenges until Jacobson v. Massachusetts in 1905. At the time, only 11 states had vaccination laws.
In Massachusetts, the statute allowed state and local officials to enforce the law if it was deemed necessary for public health. In such cases, adults could receive free vaccinations and the local government could fine noncompliant adults.
In 1902, an outbreak of smallpox occurred in Cambridge; local leaders issued a mandate. In defiance of the local order, pastor Henning Jacobson, who had emigrated from Sweden, refused inoculation for himself or his family.
His reasoning was from personal experience. He had witnessed the vaccination mandates in his home country of Sweden, where smallpox was successfully eradicated.
Unfortunately, Jacobson personally suffered ill effects from his childhood inoculation. Based on this, he was unwilling to take a chance with his own family, believing they possibly had a hereditary aversion to the vaccines.
Therefore, Jacobson argued that forcing him or his family to be vaccinated or face a fine and possible imprisonment was a violation of his personal liberty.
The subsequent 7-2 Supreme Court ruling argued that the mandates did not violate the 14th amendment.
Justice John Marshall Harlan argued, “In every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members, the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”
Jacobson v. Massachusetts has been used as the legal justification for mask and stay-at-home orders for most of 2020.
The central debate over vaccine mandates is between two ideas: the government’s obligation to promote the general welfare and common good of the public and the protection of individual freedom.
The 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that governing and politics are always a struggle between liberty and authority (public safety). When we have too much emphasis upon one side of the dichotomy, harm and suffering occur.
If the public is afforded absolute personal freedom without any limits or restraints, then society will deteriorate into anarchy or a return to the chaotic and unproductive Hobbesian state of nature.
If, on the other hand, too much emphasis is placed on government authority and control, then society will become a destructive totalitarian state.
Therefore, in his essay, On Liberty, Mill staunchly argued, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Therein lies the debate over vaccine mandates.
Today, over 612,000 American have died of the coronavirus and 34.8 million have been infected.
With almost 200 million cases worldwide, mostly due to the Delta variant, and no end in sight, we are clearly witnessing one of the greatest public health crises of the modern age.
Thus, the government is obligated to protect individual life, and vaccine mandates might be a vehicle for that cause.
Granted, it is just as easy to argue that a vaccine mandate violates personal freedom and bodily integrity, so one must weigh this right against the protection of the public through government-mandated health measures.
Oliver Wendell Holmes famously quipped, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
So, the question before the nation is ultimately about where “the other man’s nose begins” when it comes to protecting the nation from a virulent disease that is easily transmissible by unvaccinated, unmasked individuals.
Ordered and productive societies require the relinquishment of some degree of personal freedom in exchange for social benefits like education, transportation, health care, civil order and safety.
One cannot argue for absolute personal liberty and insist upon these social goods. You cannot get one without the other.
The discussion of vaccine mandates is a significant one.
It is not a radical progressive agenda. It is an issue that hits at the core of American democracy.
Working out the limits of personal freedom and the role of the state is the centerpiece of the American experiment, where personal freedom and public safety must always be kept in balance.