As frustrating as it is to those of us who believe in the right to freely roam, international travel is treated as a privilege subject to regulations, document checks, and the whims of government officials. Those restrictions tightened during the pandemic, meaning that the White House's plan to allow entry to travelers who have been vaccinated and tested for COVID-19 constitute an easing of rules for visitors from other countries. But that's not enough for some people who want to impose similar requirements on domestic travel, making movement within the country as conditional as that across borders.
"We're very proud of the fact that we've been able to develop a protocol that will permit travel by individuals and families and business people from the E.U. and the UK, as well as from Brazil and India and other countries, to the United States with proof of vaccination," the White House announced this week.
The key word here is "permit" which is something that applies, in our world, to international travelers. Permission to cross a national border can be granted or withheld. But that's not a consideration that's supposed to apply inside the United States—unless you're a politician who sees opportunity.
"This is a smart decision," Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) tweeted in response to the White House move. "I'm also glad to see the Administration is considering extending this requirement to domestic travel, which is what my bill, the Safe Travel Act, would do. I strongly encourage them to make that happen -- it would be a major step towards safer travel."
Beyer's bill would "require certain passengers, employees, contractors, and subcontractors of Amtrak and air carriers to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative test for COVID-19 for certain transportation or employment."
The Biden administration is debating the issue as its chief medical advisor, Anthony Fauci, endorses the idea. Whether or not the White House mandates proof of vaccination for domestic travelers may depend on the fate of the president's order that private-sector businesses with more than 100 employees require vaccination. While the move draws majority support in polling, it could be kneecapped by a determined minority. Or, the effort could prevail, clearing the way for further top-down commands. That's unfortunate, because the freedom to move is a right, not a privilege.
"Freedom of movement within and between states is constitutionally protected. The right of Americans to travel interstate in the U.S. has never been substantially judicially questioned or limited," Meryl Justin Chertoff, executive director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law, wrote last year as public health concerns rapidly eroded people's freedom to travel. "In a public health emergency, as in wartime, executive authorities to interfere with those rights is at a zenith. It is not a blank check, though. The president's emergency powers allow him to limit entry from outside the country to stop the spread of disease; it also provides some control over interstate activity."
How much emergency power the president has to regulate domestic travel may well be tested if a vaccine mandate becomes a reality.
Raising concerns about vaccine mandates isn't the same thing as objecting to vaccination. Control freaks like to conflate the two, as if every good idea should be forced on the unwilling by threats of fines and imprisonment. But it's perfectly reasonable to endorse vaccination and the near-complete protection it provides against severe illness while accepting that people have the right to decide for themselves; that's how free societies work. Converting rights (such as making a living and traveling from place to place) into privileges in order to compel compliance is not how free societies work. But officials always find it easy to make excuses for fettering the public, and for throwing roadblocks in the way of travel to make it conditional on bureaucratic approval.
"As a general rule, until 1941, U.S. citizens were not required to have a passport for travel abroad," according to the National Archives. The now-ubiquitous documents weren't introduced to make life more convenient for us.
"Passports … were invented not to let us roam freely, but to keep us in place—and in check," pointed out Atossa Araxia Abrahamian in a 2018 piece for The New York Review of Books. "They represent the borders and boundaries countries draw around themselves, and the lines they draw around people, too."
Also intended to keep us in place and in check are REAL ID requirements, which essentially implement internal passports for federally regulated activities, including domestic air travel.
"Beginning May 3, 2023 every state and territory resident will need to present a REAL ID compliant license/ID, or another acceptable form of identification, for accessing federal facilities, entering nuclear power plants, and boarding commercial aircraft," the Department of Homeland Security warns in its current guidance. Granted, the slipping deadline for the policy is a running joke, but the standardized ID requirement has taken on an air of semi-competent inevitability.
The COVID-19 pandemic has eased the way for government officials who have never been comfortable with a mobile population to further tighten conditions on going from place to place. A vaccine mandate for domestic travel, with the documentation it implies, would join passports and REAL ID as conditions placed on mobility that are likely to become permanent features. Overall, the pandemic has been a bonanza for those who would turn activities that once concerned only the parties to transactions (such as entering gyms and restaurants, as well as travel) into revocable privileges. We're well on our way to a permission society in which we're required to beg the indulgence of officialdom and have our identities recorded in order to do almost anything.
Supporters of vaccine mandates no doubt think they're making the world a safer place by conditioning our movements on yet one more government requirement on top of those that went before. But our freedom certainly isn't safe when we're required to ask permission and show documents to go about our lives.