The COVID-19 pandemic has been a bonanza for government officials, allowing them to extend authority that they then exercise with relatively little oversight or restraint in ways that would have been inconceivable in the past. It has accelerated the transformation of previously free societies into permission-based states, where things once done as a matter of right are now considered privileges to be dispensed or withheld by those in power. Case in point: the Biden administration reportedly discussed making travel within the United States conditional on vaccination status but is holding back out of fear that the public has yet to be sufficiently softened-up for such an intrusive restriction.
"While more severe measures — such as mandating vaccines for interstate travel or changing how the federal government reimburses treatment for those who are unvaccinated and become ill with COVID-19 — have been discussed, the administration worried that they would be too polarizing for the moment," the Associated Press reported last week after discussions with administration insiders. "That's not to say they won't be implemented in the future, as public opinion continues to shift toward requiring vaccinations as a means to restore normalcy."
The AP emphasizes that "White House officials say Biden wanted to initially operate with restraint to ensure that Americans were ready for the strong-arming from the federal government." The piece is unusually blunt in the glimpse it offers of an administration that embraces coercive measures to achieve its goals but is trying to co-opt businesses and localities as its proxies until Americans are more ready to do as they're told.
This isn't the first time that conditions have been imposed on travel and other activities in the name of public health during the pandemic. The administration had already announced that it plans to require foreigners traveling to the United States to be vaccinated, a restriction likely to excite little opposition in an age when border controls are popular and other countries have similar rules. Before that, states and localities imposed testing and quarantine rules on visitors and even travel bans, though most were haphazardly enforced. Hawaii, surrounded as it is by a natural moat, has most successfully imposed a masked-and-gowned version of the iron curtain. But that's just evidence of how far we've already gone down the path of turning travel from the right it once was into a privilege.
"As a general rule, until 1941, U.S. citizens were not required to have a passport for travel abroad," reports the National Archives.
"Airline travel in the early 1960s was still fairly carefree: If you had a ticket, you could board a plane," the Los Angeles Times noted in 2014.
Invoking security concerns, officialdom imposed documentation requirements and subjected people and their luggage to the extensive screenings with which we're now all too familiar. Starting in 2009, Americans had to show passports to be readmitted to the United States on their return from journeys beyond the border. So, the federal government making interstate travel a privilege granted only to those in its good graces would be just one more step down a path traveled before—but a big one.
Note that this isn't about the wisdom of getting vaccinated; let's stipulate that vaccination for COVID-19 is effective and generally a good idea. But traveling within the country has historically been treated as a right to be freely exercised without the need to seek permission from the government, no matter how wisely (improbable though that is) officials exercise their discretion.
"Freedom of movement within and between states is constitutionally protected," Georgetown Law's Meryl Justin Chertoff noted last year after states and localities began imposing travel restrictions. "The right of Americans to travel interstate in the U.S. has never been substantially judicially questioned or limited."
But Chertoff acknowledged that governments tend to enjoy more leeway in exercising authority when they invoke the words "public health," and civil liberties advocates often let them get away with it.
It's not just the freedom of travel at risk of becoming a conditional privilege.
"Through vaccination requirements, employers have the power to help end the pandemic," Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said last Thursday as part of the effort to get employers, businesses, and local governments to impose rules that Americans aren't yet prepared to accept from Washington, D.C. Localities including New York City and San Francisco have obliged by making many indoors activities, such as dining in restaurants, attending performances, and exercising in gyms, conditional on vaccination.
Again, the issue isn't the effectiveness of vaccination or of other public health measures. The concern is the conversion of everyday activities like travel, work, and shopping into privileges to be permitted only to those who please the powers that be.
To be certain, the permission society isn't new. Roughly 30 percent of workers in the United States now need a license—permission from the government—to do their jobs. That permission can be revoked for reasons having nothing to do with work responsibilities, meaning that it becomes just another tool for controlling people by denying them the ability to make a living unless they submit.
"States must adopt laws that allow them to suspend driver's, professional, occupational, and recreational licenses of individuals who owe overdue support," according to the Department of Health and Human Services, citing the requirements of a law intended to ensure payment of child support. And who could object to making parents meet their obligations to their kids? But that's how rights become privileges, one ostensibly well-intentioned incursion at a time.
If the Biden administration does eventually require proof of vaccination as a condition for traveling within the United States, it will be moving just a little bit further down the path to making this country one based not on individual rights exercised at will, but on permission dispensed from above. With every step, we lose a little more of our freedom to do as we please and find ourselves stuck with the crumbs of whatever we're allowed.