President Biden’s federal vaccine mandate is a symptom of American political decay

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Tacitus once observed that “remedies are more tardy in their operation than diseases.” This unfortunate fact means that we unlikely to know the full impact of the Biden administration’s sweeping vaccine mandate any time soon, and certainly not until the inevitable legal challenges work their way through the courts.

At the same time, one thing appears certain: Regardless of its consequences on public health, the mandate is likely to accelerate what the political scientist Francis Fukuyama has referred to as America’s political decay.

Christopher M. England
Christopher M. England

The policy itself is not necessarily the problem. President Joe Biden’s announcement, which relies on presidential authority over America’s sprawling regulatory state to require businesses with 100 employees or more to vaccinate their workforce or face expensive testing requirements, will achieve many commendable goals. Pushing vaccination rates up will slow the spread of the virus, keep hospital beds open, and help protect young children. Lives will be saved. Polls also suggest that vaccine mandates are increasingly popular with broad swaths of the electorate.

Yet, trouble is not far to seek. For one thing, millions of Americans are furious. The Economist now reports that fully 25% of the population say they are unwilling or uncertain about whether to receive the jab, a rate of vaccine skepticism higher than any country in the world save Russia.

The more important reality is that, popular or not, this version of the vaccine mandate is unlikely to push vaccination rates high enough to have the dramatic effect that many desire. America will then be left with the enormous political aftermath of a divisive policy, enacted by executive decree. This is a dangerous precedent.

There are at least two reasons for pessimism. First, many Americans will not be covered by the vaccine mandate. More than half of the 60 million Americans who work for small businesses are employed by firms with fewer than 99 employees. These people, to say nothing of myriad gig workers and the entire informal sector (another 17% of the total workforce), are not subject to the new rules. Some of these employees may get vaccinated voluntarily, but, at this moment, they represent a large potential reservoir of unvaccinated workers. Inexplicably, many of the unemployed as well as migrants crossing the southern border will also continue to go unvaccinated.

Such limitations matter because, according to credible estimates, 80% - 90% of the eligible population would need to be vaccinated to truly contain the Delta variant. Significantly, this is also the vaccination rate that has led to recent success containing the spread of the disease in Finland and Denmark.

The second reason for pessimism is that virtually every country with a vaccination rate above 70% possess important institutional attributes that the United States does not. They are either small, authoritarian states (Singapore, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates); or they have highly centralized national healthcare services (Malta, Belgium); or they display exorbitantly high levels of trust in government (Denmark, Finland).

For better or for worse, the United States possesses none of these qualities. Because of these structural differences, however, it will be far more difficult than many politicians appear to believe for America to replicate the high vaccination rates of Qatar or Denmark.

Thus, the real tragedy is that, while the public health benefits of the mandate are contingent on many factors outside the administration’s control, the political consequences are almost guaranteed to exacerbate America’s long term institutional decay by eroding trust, centralizing power, and subverting normal legislative order on issues of grave importance.

Political scientists like Francis Fukuyama and historians such as Edward J. Watts have long noted that rule by decree is a symptom of a republic that lacks the spirit of trust required to govern through legitimate legislation. As declining trust engenders polarization, legislatures become increasingly sclerotic and unable to function. When crises mount, rule by decree seems like a reasonable short-term solution.

Alas, each subsequent decree further tarnishes legislative power, corrodes social trust, and — most importantly — encourages opponents to win power and pass decrees of their own. It is a vicious cycle that contributed to the decline of the Roman Republic and the Weimar Republic in the 20th century. This same trend now plagues a United States facing a cascade of potential crises, ranging from economic inequality and civic unrest to increasing competition with China to climate change. Unless some way can be found to break this cycle, the further erosion of America’s traditional institutions is set to become the most lasting legacy of the vaccine mandate.

Christopher M. England teaches political science at the College of Western Idaho. Contact him at chrisengland@cwi.edu

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