The Biden regime has mandated that all employees working for employers with over 100 workers must either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing. All employees at health care facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid must be fully vaccinated. This does raise some moral issues.
While some employers had already implemented their own vaccination and testing requirements, this changes the situation. It is one thing for an employer to impose requirements on their employees and another for the federal government to use its coercive power to compel employers to compel their employees to get vaccinated or tested. Since I have already written about the ethics of employers requiring vaccination, I will focus on the ethics of the state requiring employers to require vaccination or testing. I will leave the legality of the mandate to the lawyers.
Determining the ethics of the mandate is a matter of sorting out the legitimate limits of the coercive power of the state. That is, what the state has the moral right (or perhaps even obligation) to use its power to acc0mplish. The evaluation should be done in a consistent and principled manner, as opposed to (for example) deciding based on what one happens to mad about at a given moment.
Aside from the anarchists, most political theorists agree that a basic function of the state is to protect its citizens from harm. For those who value liberty, the actions taken in support of security need to be weighed against the cost of the imposition. While there are many ways to approach this, a basic utilitarian approach is generally a sensible starting point. In the case of Biden’s mandate, the idea would be to weigh its harms and costs against its benefits in protecting citizens. This approach is obviously nothing new. To illustrate, after 9/11 and after almost every terrorist incident since then, the United States has purported to act to increase security against terrorism. These always come with the cost of increased limits on liberty. For example, we have lost the liberty to bring liquids over a certain volume onto a plane. As other illustrations, state governments have passed laws restricting liberty by purporting that they protect people from the alleged dangers of critical race theory, to guard against the purported threat of transgender people, and to defend against supposed voter fraud. Biden’s mandate is thus in crowded company: he is using the coercive power of the state and justifying it by asserting there is a danger that warrants its use. But is Biden right?
People tend to take a stance based on how they feel about the matter (or what they think other people feel) rather than based on a theory of the state. This is usually because most people, even national politicians, have no such theory. I admit to not having a complete theory, but I do have the basics.
As usual, I am operating within a liberal Locke-Mill framework of political philosophy. I accept that people should be free, that the purpose of government is the good of the people, and that liberty should only be infringed upon based on the principle of harm. I also favor small government: the state’s use of coercive force should be kept at a minimum.
My first consideration in assessing this mandate is determining whether it falls under the legitimate use of the power of the state. The issue is whether requiring vaccination or testing by employers is a legitimate use of the coercive power of the state. In the context of mandates that impose on liberty, I generally follow J.S. Mill: liberty can only be justly restricted to prevent harm to another. COVID-19 is a dangerous and infectious disease. Variants have also appeared that are more infectious than the original and it is reasonable to expect that as the longer the virus is unchecked, the more likely it is that increasingly dangerous variants will arise. As such, the unvaccinated harm others by providing the virus with the opportunity to change—thus becoming a greater threat to everyone. They are literally helping the enemy of humanity become stronger. There is also the fact that the unvaccinated can spread the infection to others; these include people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. As such, the unvaccinated are aiding the enemy of humanity. There is also the impact on the health care system.
While the American health care system is good for people who have the resources to pay for the care and either live near or can travel to medical facilities, it has long been a problem for people who lack resources and access, such as people in rural areas. This problem is being compounded by the unvaccinated. As this is being written, 5 states have less than 10% of their ICU beds left, due largely to hospitalizing unvaccinated people. As such, even if an unvaccinated person does not infect someone else, if they get very sick, they still use up limited health care resources—thus doing harm to others who need access to that care. Sometimes people even die.
One could attempt to counter these claims by asserting that the vaccine is dangerous—but the best available evidence shows that this is untrue. Trump was vaccinated early, thus showing he believed it is safe and effective. Even Governor DeSantis was vaccinated, showing that he thinks it is safe and effective. Most Republican politicians are also vaccinated; they also believe that it is safe and effective. As such, the mandate is justified by the principle of harm. But even if the mandate would prevent harms, this does not entirely settle the issue of whether it is a just use of the power of the state.
A second consideration is the issue of whether the significance and nature of the alleged harm warrants expending public resources to enforce the mandate. Harms vary in significance and even significant harms might not be the right sort of harms that justify the use of the coercive power of the state. As argued above, the harm presented by the unvaccinated is significant—the unvaccinated are infecting other people, serving as “weapon laboratories” for the virus, and wasting limited medical resources with their easily avoidable illnesses. But are these the right sort of harms to warrant using the coercive power of the state?
On the face of it, these harms do seem to be the right sort. After all, these harms are illness, death and wasting of medical resources. The most basic function of a state is to protect the lives of its citizens from dangers and this mandate is aimed at this goal. As such, it is warranted. Since it is Republicans who oppose the mandate, it is interesting to see what sort of things they consider as legitimate uses of the coercive power of the state. One example is that the Texas house has voted, in an impressive assault on free expression, to defund sports teams that do not play the national anthem at games. This does not seem to prevent any meaningful harm and, in fact, causes harm by using the coercive power of the state to force teams to express what the Texas lawmakers want them to express. If the Republicans thinks that this warrants the use of the coercive power of the state, then they should be incredibly enthusiastic about Biden’s mandate since it addresses a real harm.
Republicans have also been busy passing laws to prevent the teaching of critical race theory and imposing various “trans bans” aimed at imposing restrictions on trans people. When pressed for actual examples of harms these laws are intended to address, they have little but vague claims about people being concerned that something might happen. But if Republicans believe that the coercive power of the state should be deployed against citizens when there is even just some concern that something might happen, then they should be onboard with a mandate aimed at addressing a deadly pandemic. Obviously, I understand that the Republicans are not operating from the principle of harm. They are operating from rather different principles; those that make it “acceptable” to force sports teams to play the national anthem while also making impose a vaccine mandate to fight a deadly pandemic “tyrannical.”
My third consideration is the issue of whether the harm is adequately addressed by existing laws or other means. If the harm is already being addressed adequately, there is no need for the state to get involved with a new mandate. While most Americans acted in an ethical, self-interested, and rational way by getting vaccinated, the limits of voluntary compliance have been reached. Unfortunately, this has not been enough: new variants are sweeping through the unvaccinated as Republican leaders rage against efforts to keep Americans from getting sick and dying—to the cheers of their apparently suicidal base. Because of the failure on the part of some Americans and the active Republican obstruction of efforts to combat the pandemic, the federal government needs to act to protect American citizens from needless and avoidable illness and death. As such, the mandate is warranted.