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Why Our Devotion to the Public Interest May Not Survive the COVID Wars

The battles over masks and vaccine mandates threaten the idea, going back to the founders, that surrendering a bit of personal freedom is necessary to secure everyone’s welfare.

South Carolina GOP Gov. Henry McMaster has attacked President Biden and other “radical Democrats” for thumbing "their noses at the Constitution” with vaccine-or-test requirements for federal contractors, health-care employees and other private-sector workers.
(Richard Ellis/TNS)
On Sunday, Fox News host Chris Wallace pressed Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts on why the Republican governor opposed a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, especially for kids in school. The COVID-19 vaccine, Ricketts replied, is different from the nine others the state requires schoolchildren to get. The problem, the governor explained, was that people “don’t know who to trust right now.”

Across the country, vaccine and mask mandates have fractured the nation’s fragile sense of community. In South Carolina, GOP Gov. Henry McMaster said that President Biden and other “radical Democrats” had “thumbed their noses at the Constitution” with vaccine-or-test requirements for federal contractors, health-care employees and other private-sector workers. Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, attacked Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses with 100 or more employees as a “power grab” by the federal government.

Perhaps even more than vaccines, masks have become the unlikely front in the fierce civil war between the states, between red states and Washington, and among Americans themselves. Amy, an Ohio mother of two, spoke for a lot of Americans when she called mask mandates “a violation of my freedom.” For others, “the true face of freedom wears a mask,” as New York University professor Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

For everyone, the basic question is this: Does our obligation to protect each other override the arguments by some that mask and vaccine mandates interfere with individual freedom? And as the states divide on the answer, we have to ask: Is federalism destroying the public interest? Is the assertion of the primacy of individual rights undermining the very idea that all of us have an obligation to each of us?

It’s an issue that Americans have struggled with from the very beginning of the republic. After all, the majestic preamble to the Constitution, written by New York’s Gouverneur Morris, begins with “We the People.” It goes right to the heart of the matter, with the goal to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The founders repeatedly embraced the idea of “we” — the Declaration of Independence, after all, contended that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

So the idea of sacrificing a measure of individual liberty on behalf of everyone’s welfare is one that has flourished since the beginning of the republic. Patrick Henry, of “give me liberty or give me death” fame, asked out loud about putting the people in charge and argued it should have been “We the States.”

Morris, Henry and the other founders — including those who didn’t get a singing part in the musical Hamilton — would have recognized the debate about personal freedom and the public interest. However, they would also have remembered the country’s very recent history, when Gen. George Washington had issued his own vaccine mandate, this one against smallpox. In the Revolutionary War, disease killed far more American soldiers than the British did — perhaps more than two-thirds of all those who died during the war. Without Washington’s vaccine mandate, the revolutionaries would likely have lost the war and we’d all be eating baked beans for breakfast and spotted dick for dessert.

Washington realized what most leaders have long recognized: that surrendering a bit of personal freedom was necessary to secure the broader interest of the public. It’s impossible to accomplish much of what we want in society without all of us chipping in, from paying for national defense to protecting one another against disease.

I can still remember, as a very young elementary school student decades ago, standing in line to get my polio vaccine. In the 1950s, the disease paralyzed 15,000 people a year and terrified parents, who didn’t want their kids playing outdoors for fear they’d be stricken. All that changed with the new vaccine. I got mine on a sugar cube — it was a “We the People” moment that excited everyone. Since the late 1970s, investigators haven’t been able to trace any case of polio to an origin in the United States.
People line up to receive the Sabin oral vaccine for polio Nov. 28, 1962, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
(Beacon Journal file photo/TNS)

With the war over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, however, the idea of “We the People” has been pushed aside, especially in states where governors have sought to shore up support in their conservative base with attacks on what they label as government’s overreach. It’s been an especially big battle as schools reopen because children under 12 are not yet approved for the vaccine, and public health experts say that mask-wearing by everyone — teachers, administrators and students — is the best way to prevent younger children from getting sick.

Yet In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis got loud applause among attendees at an American Legislative Exchange Council gathering when he proclaimed, “We say unequivocally no to lockdowns, no to school closures, no to restrictions and no to mandates.” He followed that up with a threat to hit any local government that imposed a mask mandate on its workforce with a $5,000-per-employee fine. Some parents assert “a fundamental right” to allow their kids to attend school maskless.

On the other side, however, school districts with more than half of Florida’s public school students have fought back. The superintendent of the Broward County schools, Vickie Cartwright, told school board members, “Our quarantine data is demonstrating that the use of the mask is helping to minimize the spread of COVID-19.” For Anthony Fauci, it’s an even bigger issue. "When you're dealing with an outbreak of an infectious disease, it isn't only about you," he said. "There's a societal responsibility that we all have.”

The personal freedom versus public interest struggles have inflamed politics from the recall election for California Gov. Gavin Newsom to school board meetings across the country. Anti-vax parents and elected officials are butting heads with pro-vaccination school administrators and public health experts, especially in red states where the refusal to wear a mask has become a symbol of personal freedom (and an irresistible play to the base).

These battles, however, have ruined the search for common ground on a range of other important issues. And they have made it far harder to make the case for a public interest above the exercise of individual rights.

There’s a huge irony in the anti-vaxxers’ embrace of the Constitution and individual rights. Had it not been for the founders’ brave struggle to establish individual rights — and Washington’s vaccine mandate — they might not have had rights to advance. It was the battle for the public interest as well, for “We the People,” that defined the new United States more than anything else, but that idea has become lost in the unfortunate skirmishes that have come to distinguish the country’s COVID-19 policymaking.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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