Score one for Alex Jones. Americans are about to be introduced to the concept of a “vaccine passport.”
Did I say “about to be”? Mea culpa on the misphrasing. Vaccine permission slips have long existed in America: inoculation proof scripts are a prerequisite to attend many public schools and colleges (with precious few conscientious exemptions). It’s not even federal policy—states enforce the mandate in a decentralized and patchwork manner. All 50 states and the District of Decency’s Columbarium require a handful of inoculums, including for pertussis and polio. More blueish states expand the list of necessary immunizations to include hepatitis B and pneumococcal infections. Massachusetts even makes kids get the annual flu poke.
The Biden Administration is reportedly working on a program to standardize proof-of-shot for the COVID-19 vaccines that will apply nationwide. This proposal is coupled with an acknowledgement that no federal COVID-vaxx mandate is forthcoming—a rare concession to federalism for a Democratic chief exec.
So, cue the tinfoil-hat freakout! By golly, the cranks were right! Vaccines passports are imminent. Penalties for not accepting a novel mRNA vaccine injected deep into your bicep are even more menacing: domestic travel restrictions, forced trentino, G-man check-ins, and all-inclusive stays at luxurious FEMA camps.
The last part is just an exaggeration… for now. But the Biden Administration is rumored to have reviewed a smartphone tracking app developed by the University of Illinois that would flag unvaccinated patrons of business, presumably to justify a denial of service. This kind of public-private program would differ little from a federalized vaccine passport in praxis. The People’s Republic of New York already has an easily searchable, if invasive, vaccine-verification portal—the lack of privacy of which should cause the HIPAA police’s heads to explode.
The entire concept of a vaccine passport has the right, from pundits to politicians, up in arms.
Many are preemptively declaring that any kind of vaxx-pass runs afoul of the Constitution. Freshman Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert tweeted that “vaccine passports are unconstitutional. Period.” Radio host Jesse Kelly declared, “It’s not enough to just be against vaccine passports. You must pressure your state legislature to ban their use.” There is a general aversion in conservative and libertarian circles to that idea that a respiratory virus could be the basis for dispossessing large swaths of the population of the right to engage with society.
But I’m afraid all the foreboding and Cassandraing over creeping tyranny may all be for naught. The vaccine passport is as good as here. And there’s nothing in orthodox libertarian theory that would have prevented it; in fact, classical liberalism demands the peace of mind that comes with a vaccine permission slip.
How do I mean? Robby Soave of Reason summed up the de facto inoculation watch: “No state-mandated vaccine passports. Not now, not ever. If private entities want employees or customers to get vaccinated, fine by me.”
That’s exactly what will transpire as more Americans get the vaccine. Like masking, a government mandate won’t be necessary. Enough private entities will implement immunization stipulations for would-be customers. In states like Texas where the mask mandate has been spiked, businesses still require face coverings.
The feds don’t need to send Cheka trackers nationwide to keep tabs on covid-positive citizens. Large corporations will step up for enforcement in Washington’s stead. Commercial travel services—airlines, rental car companies, charter bus concerns—will soon require vaccine proof for booking. Car dealerships may not sell you a vehicle unless you’re fully vaxxed up. Grocery stores could prohibit your entry if you refuse to flash your CDC-approved punch card. And they’d all be within their rights to do so.
Most crucially, many Americans will demand this type of cautionary measure. A Morning Consult poll back in December found nearly 60% of voters in favor of a federal vaxx ID. Almost 75% of Democrats supported the measure, along with nearly half of Republicans. Jefferson’s “tumult of liberty” is out; safetyism is in. Freedom from pathogens is the fifth freedom—for a price, of course.
The market for COVID-free services is about to be hopping. United Airlines will tout their virus-free fuselages that allow passengers to scud above the earth at 500 knots without a care. Enterprise Rent-A-Car will plaster “vaccinated customers only” decals around their offices, while clerks take your vaxx chit before your driver’s license. Major League Baseball won’t sell you a stadium seat without proof of inoculation or a negative coronavirus test. Daycares, swim clubs, Boy Scouts, and summer camps will advertise their “safe and healthy environments” by requiring every enrolled child is covid-immunized. As Matthew Crawford writes in his book on the rise of self-driving cars, “those who invoke safety enjoy a nearly nonrebuttable presumption of public-spiritedness.” Just as car customers have demanded increased comfort in exchange for autonomy, so will America for disease-free public spaces.
Sanitized security isn’t the only good with pent-up demand. After a year of lockdowns, anxiety, mask wearing, funerals, delayed weddings, Zoom parties, shuttered businesses, and a general hold put on life, Americans are more than ready for olly olly oxen free to be called for the country. And as long as vaccine validation is handled by private parties, it will be accepted under the liberal dispensation of choice and private property.
That doesn’t mean the right is intellectually disarmed in arguing against the “vaxx papers please” regime. It’s just that the baseline libertarian rebut of a priori self-possession is moot when private enterprise does the government’s bidding.
Other values must be appealed to: the sanctity of individual conscience, avoiding America’s slow descent into technocratic-medicalized dystopia, keeping your head amidst a trying but not insuperable time, not purposefully unpersoning someone for risking a virion with a 1% mortality rate.
Perhaps most convincing is the desire for a return to normality, a goal shared by nearly every American, save the few full-on communists who wish COVID-19 was liberal capitalism’s last, dying gasp. Establishing disease checkpoints everywhere from airplane gates to subway turnstiles to Walmart sliding doors is no ex-ante turnabout. The security industrial complex is sprawling enough; awarding it epidemiological oversight authority will cut off any path back to pre-COVID times.
These arguments aren’t grounded in libertarian property rights. But they speak to a vision of the good life that doesn’t involve being forever sequestered in your home for fear of an infectious exhalation. The big conglomerate forces are arrayed in favor of vaccine passports. But private ownership isn’t an immunity to criticism. Libertarians would do well to remember that in resisting the commercial appeal of inoculation documentation.