There Is No Private Sector Version of the Vaccine Passport

AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

Today, I got into it with the Dispatch’s Jonah Goldberg over a comment he made to Texas Governor Greg Abbott after Abbott had signed a law that prohibits Texas businesses from requiring vaccine passports in order to use their services, whatever those services may be.

Golberg asked Abbott if he would be banning the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” rule while he was at it.

Goldberg’s point is that private businesses should be left to decide whether or not they should require vaccine passports and not be told by a governing body what they can and can’t do within the confines of their own business. To be sure, it’s a sentiment I agree with. As a free-market conservative libertarian, the hair on the back of my neck stands up when the government begins dictating what private citizens can and can’t do with their business.

But here I couldn’t help but draw a line. The vaccine passport never sat well with me, and for a few reasons that I think many people haven’t considered.

Let’s start with the simple fact that we haven’t discussed who issues these “passports.” Do they come from a doctor? Does that doctor have to have a license to issue these official passports or is his word good enough? Is there an organization that hands these passports out? Is it a private organization? Does it have to have a license that says its passport is official?

No matter how you swing it, at some point, a governing body is going to have to get involved and decide whether or not you’re okay to go do something like getting groceries, medicine, or an overpriced latte. Somewhere on this line, the government is involved in telling me how I can go about my daily life.

And Goldberg knows as well as I do that a government entity, once created, hardly ever disappears and only grows in power. Let’s not kid ourselves into believing for even one moment that businesses wouldn’t be pressured or incentivized to utilize vaccine passports for their business. Governments pressure businesses all the time to make them behave in the way they want them to. When Obamacare still had its teeth in the beginning, businesses were pressured to provide healthcare for their employees via fines if they didn’t.

We can go further back than that. During the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, the National Industrial Recovery Act was created in order to allow businesses to set fair practices, prices, working hours, etc. Businesses that took part in this act displayed the blue eagle on their store windows to symbolize their compliance, and compliance wasn’t mandatory. It was voluntary for all intents and purposes.

However, not complying landed you in some serious trouble. Businesses that didn’t bear the blue eagle were boycotted and sometimes vandalized, burned down, and destroyed. Their owners were physically attacked. Noncompliant businesses were often taken to court in order to force them into going along with the NIRA. That’s not to mention the out-of-control bureaucracy that continued to hand down new regulations and codes that were enforced by law.

It’s a story worth remembering for its lesson on how voluntary bureaucracy is never truly voluntary, and it’s a story I know because Goldberg told it to me.

Let’s say this bureaucracy that handles the passport gets authoritarian allies in the halls of congress and the white house. Let’s say the majority proposes vaccine passports be required by businesses to avoid a fine just like Obamacare. Compliance would be “optional,” with a big emphasis on the scare quotes.

Given, this is all a “what if” scenario, but it’s a scenario with a high likelihood behind it. Given the patterns of governments throughout time and even examples we have in our own country’s history, the vaccine passport wouldn’t just become a random thing you might run into sometimes at a store. Pressure for it to become a standard would be high, and many stores, especially major corporations, would cave in order to avoid further issues with their bottom line.

But the problems go even deeper. What if, in our Brave New World, we did have this “voluntary” passport requirement? What happens to those who can’t get the vaccine for one reason or another? Perhaps it’s a religious requirement. Perhaps they can’t get it for health reasons. There is a myriad of reasons one can’t or won’t get a vaccine.

Do these people become societal “others?” Do they suddenly mean less since they fail to meet the standards for living a “normal” life?

There are a lot of questions we aren’t asking ourselves about these passports. What’s more, we can’t see the end of this particular tunnel so we can’t say where the vaccine passport train stops, who’s running it, or how much power it’s going to have as its momentum builds.

One thing that we can be pretty certain about is that it being voluntary won’t be a thing that lasts if ever it is. Abbott can be criticized for stepping in on the private sector to enforce a requirement, especially since a vaccine passport requirement hasn’t been issued by anyone, but I can’t help but feel like he was killing a dragon while it was still in its egg.

And while I understand Goldberg’s point, and even agree with it on a greater level, I feel there’s more nuance to this particular issue that we should be stopping and thinking about. We incubate this egg at our own peril, so we need to be very, very certain about it before we hatch it.