Debate: Vaccine Passports Cross A Line

Ed. Note: Another debate has broken out at SJ! Chris Seaton has called the question:

Resolved: in the interests of public health, safety, and reviving a struggling economy, the United States should require vaccine credentials for all citizens 18 years of age or older.

Chris will be taking the affirmative, while I will take the negative. My post follows, and Chris’ post beating me to an old, smelly, radish pulp is here.

As of this writing, I’m one shot in, with the second coming soon. It took a lot of effort to schedule that first shot, but I wanted to be vaccinated. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the concerns other people raise about unknown consequences. They are reasonable doubts. I just don’t share them and have made my choice. I prefer to survive.

And that being the case, would it not be in my enlightened self-interest to favor a vaccine passport so that we can all go back our jobs, schools, lives without fear? The easy answer might best be found in the maxim, inter arma enim silent lēgēs. Is this not war, if with a nasty virus if not an full-size combatant? Are we not prepared to sacrifice some small degree of freedom for our survival?

Well, perhaps, if one doesn’t mind strained existential analogies. More than half a million “excess” deaths have already occurred, and that’s a tragedy bordering on Stalin’s statistic. It’s not something to take lightly. But then, neither are the rights and concerns implicated by the imposition of “papers,” whether created for the safest of purposes or not, to engage in ordinary American life.

As we’re already well down Vaccination Lane, there are some practical issues that would make the imposition of a vaccine passport difficult. Some of us will find proving our vaccinations fairly easy. Others, not so much, their cards tossed or lost, but of little concern until it became a mandate to buy more toilet paper. There will be issues, fights, cries of who is most burdened and who will suffer the most, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they both turn out to be the same cohorts.

The technical problems can, of course, be overcome with some degree of cooperation, acquiescence and understanding. But then, if we’re still capable of such glorious traits, they should be put to a higher use than the creation of a government issued and required document that we’re to show in order to be accepted as a full member of society.

And that’s where the more fundamental problem arises. It’s not that a vaccine passport, which facilitates our ability to feel safe in the face of a pandemic, is such an inherently unreasonable solution to a problem that has taken the lives of so many of us and our loved ones. Beyond the logistical issues, it’s entirely understandable that many people will put safety ahead of other concerns. That, however, is the line at issue here.

Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

It’s fair to quibble over whether a vaccine passport means more than “a little temporary safety,” or whether the right to fully engage in American society without one is to give up “essential liberty.” Franklin could be a bit hyperbolic. Yet, this was, and for the moment remains, a nation where any individual can theoretically set off to cross it without being required to show any passport, vaccine or otherwise. I say “theoretically,” as this isn’t entirely true, particularly when one is found walking through a neighborhood with the wrong skin color.

We are required to possess an assortment of identifier already, from drivers’ licenses to social security numbers. We must register to vote and register for the draft. Some of us, at least. And our children must show their public schools proof of vaccinations before they are allowed in, except where a religious exemption is accepted. But the one line that has not yet been crossed is that we must possess a government-issued vaccination passport, a piece of paper, more likely plastic with mysterious anti-forgery protections, that will entitle us to enter, and entitle others to exclude us, from the ordinary participation in society.

The slippery slope is, of course, a logical fallacy. Just because it might be required that we cross this line, just this once, just for a while, does not necessarily mean that we have finally succumbed to an abdication to that final freedom, the liberty to not be required to show our government proof of worthiness before engaging with our brothers, sisters, friends and strangers. But we have, sadly, found ourselves sliding down that slope with regularity, as the conceptual ledge that could have prevented us from slip sliding away was forgotten while the rubric became the rule. And this comes at a moment in our history, a climate if you will, where an inexplicable trust in government is at its apex. Why fear for your liberty when the good guys are in control?

If you run a business and don’t want anyone to come in who hasn’t been vaccinated, you are certainly free to discriminate on that basis. Can you trust your fellow citizen to honor your wishes? Probably not. Among the many virtues that have been replaced is honor. Does that leave us to justify further devaluation of the freedom of our fellow Americans, because we can’t trust them and, to be honest, think a great many don’t share our values? That’s one way to react to this downward spiral of division and mistrust.

Once we allow our toxic combination of fear, mistrust and blind faith in government to save us from ourselves to trump our liberty, can we ever claim it back? Will the end of this pandemic, should that end ever truly come, mean the end of government-issued papers that permit us to engage in public functions after showing them to the gatekeepers? Will there be a next, a new, need for papers, since having crossed that line just this one time, it’s no longer a line not to be crossed?

There’s no unringing the bell here, and perhaps we’re doomed to eventually be forced to carry a national, government identification to prove whatever it is the dominant group in government at the moment wants us to prove. We’re not quite there yet, but the requirement of a vaccine passport may well be the last tiny step taken with the best of intentions that crosses a line that we will never uncross.

I’m thankful to have gotten the vaccine. I’m also thankful to have the freedom to have made my decision to get it rather than be denied my right as an American to participate in society if my choice was not what the government required of me. Get vaccinated, please, but let’s not give up our right to make that choice freely, or the right to be an fully-engaged American without a paper showing our government’s approval.

Rebuttal: Chris’ zen reopening of ‘Merica, hat tips to Karen included, is no small concern, but raises the problem of getting vaccinated rather than getting a card from the government proving your worthiness. Get vaccinated. I suspect we’ll still be told to wear masks anyway, which might be a burden on our freedom of choice, but at least not one that puts us at the government’s mercy. Karen isn’t going silent that easily.

Chris isn’t wrong that we were a bit too free with giving away our freedom after 9/11. I posit that we should learn from our mistakes and not just give up what’s left.

20 thoughts on “Debate: Vaccine Passports Cross A Line

  1. KP

    It might be handy to lay out just what the vaccine is meant to do before arguing about getting it or carrying papers. Does everyone agree it will wipe out Covid and life can be glorious again? Do people think it will be a new vaccine every year or six months? Only 50% effective? Is that OK? Is this a giant industry that will never go away as long as we’re willing to line up?

    Sure, if its a unicorn and fixes everything, then get it. Once you’re vaccinated you don’t have to worry if no-one else is, isn’t that why we’re getting it? or maybe getting it makes no damm difference at all and the problem was how the whole pandemic was handled, country by country.

    Like you say Boss, we have given our freedoms away this century, so do we start to worry now? We’re just making the mass medication that started last century a little more compulsory. Paying for the extra Govt powers we’ve given them might be a bigger problem, the cost of the pandemic has every Govt in the red.

    1. SHG Post author

      It might not. Didn’t we have a nice chat about your not commenting until all the knowledgeable people went to sleep?

  2. Rengit

    I’d break out that Barry Goldwater quote about the defense of liberty and vices, but I have a feeling that it would be used against me whenever they get around to instituting the Anti-Extremism Passport in a couple years, and I’ll have to have it scanned in order to go into Target and buy toilet paper.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    The idea of an “internal passport” to perform any common activity is the camel’s nose in the tent of a Communist Chinese “Social Credit” system. While I see value in proof of vaccination for the immediate problem I want it private and voluntary with no government mandate because few things are as permanent as a temporary arrangement and there are very few examples of a government relinquishing a power after seizing it.

    1. Rengit

      Even if the private sector is the one making the prohibitions on employment, shopping, entertainment, it doesn’t seem much better if the government, whether state, local, or federal (or a private medical organization following a government mandate), collects a bunch of sensitive information like your vaccination status, then farms it out to your employer, the local grocery store, or your favorite restaurant, to do what they want with. As you say, a camel’s nose for a social credit-style system as in China, where the private sector and the government are fused at the hip.

      We got a mild preview with this before in how banks were pressured to more closely surveil their clients in the wake of 9/11 and the PATRIOT Act, where the slightest bit of suspicion was sufficient to deny financial services, with no recourse since it was done by a private entity.

  4. Jardinero1

    There is a life and death argument not mentioned. The obvious argument for passports is that the vaccine may save some lives. Less obvious, is that we don’t know if “not taking” the vaccine will save more lives or less. Vaccine passports, effectively, create a mandate to get vaccinated. That would be fine, if the vaccine were known to be safe. But the truth is that we do not know if it is safe, short or long term.

    The vaccine was issued on an emergency basis, after only the briefest of trials for efficacy. There has never been a determination as to safety. The pharmaceutical companies making the vaccine would not distribute the vaccine, without a statutory exemption from any and all liability arising from any injury associated the vaccine. Imagine that; risk management says, we know so little about side effects and long term effects, that we don’t dare distribute this, unless there is no way anyone can possibly sue us, ever!

    If a person is over 65, or has complicating co-morbidities, it might be worth spinning the wheel on the vaccine. Barring that, I am not so sure.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s not about the efficacy of the vaccine. Repeat that five times and call me in the morning.

    2. alanlaird

      Almost everything you said is incorrect. I won’t derail with a rebuttal, but dang is it wrong.

      1. SHG Post author

        This is one of the reasons I try to avoid collateral issues like this. I accept that people can disagree, whether right or wrong, but without focus, it makes it impossible to address overarching issues when we can’t get past the nuts and bolts. Thank you for your restraint.

  5. Jardinero1

    Never said it was about efficacy. I said that passports effectively create a mandate for taking the vaccine. The vaccine might kill or harm you. The passports create a mandate to do something that might kill or harm you.

    1. SHG Post author

      Was this a reply to something? If you choose not to get the vaccine, which is entirely your choice, that’s fine, but you can’t compel anyone to let you into their shop, home or country, and the vaccine passport is irrelevant to you. You wouldn’t get one either way. If you choose to be an infection pariah, and people choose to treat you as such, that’s the flip side of freedom.

      A vaccine passport is only relevant to people who are vaccinated and need to prove it. To those who prefer not to be vaccinated, but want the rest of the world to suffer their choice not to be vaccinated, you don’t get the demand that they give up their freedom to accommodate yours.

      1. Jardinero1

        Whether the vaccine passport creates a vaccination mandate hinges upon how it is used. If it allows some shopkeepers, at their discretion, to prevent you from entering, then no big deal. If it is used to prevent, wholesale, your participation in most of or all of your daily business then it becomes a mandate. In your version, above, where it is applied willy nilly, an existing vaccination card would be sufficient. There is no need for an additional “vaccine passport.”

  6. miketrials

    Someone better versed and perhaps smarter than all of us has weighed in. The below is from Leana Wen’s op-ed in today’s WAPO. Yeah, I know, Bezos is the Antichrist and my conservative friends would extend that view to that rag going back years now, but when you’re right, you’re right.

    “After a year of being isolated, many are enjoying the company of friends and family again — something they couldn’t do without the reassurance of mutual vaccination. In this way, vaccination enables activities that otherwise couldn’t occur safely. Instead of being an impediment to freedom, vaccination certificates allow Americans to return to pre-pandemic life sooner. I think it’s time for us to extend the newfound normalcy from social settings to business operations. While the CDC guidance currently discourages vaccinated people from gathering in public places, this should be overridden if businesses can verify vaccination status. Imagine that you own a gym that used to have high-intensity exercise classes but had to stop because it’s high-risk to have lots of people breathing heavily in crowded indoor spaces. You could reopen these classes if everyone attending is guaranteed to be vaccinated. Or imagine that you run a restaurant that has had to operate at 30 percent capacity to keep distancing between tables. You could establish certain nights where you serve at 100 percent capacity, if all patrons and servers are reliably known to be vaccinated.”

    Wow. This makes so much sense that there’s no chance of both sides agreeing.

      1. miketrials

        Sure did. Hence I posted as a response to your argument, not a support of Chris’. Why? Because, as we as lawyers should recognize, sometimes we get our panties in a wad over pure legalisms. My initial reaction was to take issue with your Franklin quote, but that’s a rabbit hole. Why focus on “essential liberty” and “temporary safety” when we can’t even agree here what that means? Just maybe we need to acknowledge the common sense of people who don’t want to risk death and the input from other kinds of experts who are better situated to help that end, and not waste a year and enable the attendant damage. Ooops, missed that train. When lawyers try to contort facts to fit their particular fallacy, we get qualified immunity and Buck v. Bell and “turning the corner.” No thanks. I prefer to recognize our limitations.

          1. Bob

            I was of the belief that the ability to express thoughts coherently was a necessary skill to be a lawyer. The comments at SJ have disabused me of that notion.

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