Hooray for Vaccine Passports! – Kevin Drum

Michael Brendan Dougherty takes aim at the idea of issuing "vaccine passports":

Let’s be absolutely clear. Even if you put aside all the privacy and constitutional concerns, vaccine passports do not allow us to reopen the economy faster....Second, we have no way of knowing right now whether such a system really facilitates people “reentering” normal life....Third, even if you could institute such a surveillance system, it would also bar people who — for whatever reason — can’t access the vaccine, not just the anti-vaxxers who deserve punishing.

....One other note. This is absolutely the wrong battle to choose with anti-vaxxers. Trying to institute a kind of medical rider to the Bill of Rights is very likely to fail in courts if tested seriously.

I think the point is being missed here. I agree that vaccine passports won't help us open the economy faster. I also doubt that they will make it easier to "re-enter normal life," whatever that means. And yes, it might cause some problems for people who legitimately can't get vaccinated, though that seems like an easily solved problem.

And yet, I still like the idea. Here's the thing: it's basically a free-market solution to the problem of vaccine free riders. Nobody is forcing anyone to get vaccinated. You're simply being given the option of being able to prove your status in case some private entity asks about it. And private entities are surely entitled to do as they please, right?

That's the conservative approach, anyway. The upshot, of course, is that going unvaccinated will become a huge pain in the ass if stores and restaurants and employers start closing their doors to anyone who doesn't have a vaccine passport, and this will spur even the doubters to get vaccinated. This is roughly the way smallpox was eliminated, though sometimes the methods were considerably rougher than this.

It's also worth noting that this is not some kind of "medical rider" to the Bill of Rights. Over a century ago, a very conservative Supreme Court—the same one that handed down the Lochner decision a year later—ruled that public health was at the core of the state's responsibilities: "Of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members." In other words, vaccines could be mandated by the state. A few years later they confirmed that ruling and added that states could also mandate vaccinations for children before they were allowed to attend public schools. As part of both rulings, they noted that mandatory vaccination did not violate the 14th Amendment.

A vaccine passport is considerably less intrusive than this and surely within the authority of the federal government to issue. After that, it's all up to the private sector as long as state legislatures stay out of the way and allow private entities to do as they wish. Which they should. Right?

An alternative, of course, is to simply mandate vaccinations, something that states clearly have the authority to do. Given Supreme Court precedent on this subject, I'd be all for it. COVID-19 is no joke and it's not just the seasonal flu. It's deadly, it's likely to become endemic, and acquiring herd immunity is going to be hard. It's a real-life emergency, not something that should become a tiresome political football tossed around by people who treat it as a libertarian debating point.¹

But I'm willing to compromise on a vaccine passport instead. This assumes, naturally, that the passport is something that's feasible in the real world. If it's not, then maybe we'll have to go down the mandate path.

¹Though if it is, I guess I'd say that allowing people to remain potential spreaders of a deadly virus is not much different from allowing people to punch you. I'm opposed to both.