WASHINGTON — When it comes to COVID-19, too many prominent Republicans are acting like theirs is not the party of limited government and personal responsibility.
Some Republican elected officials are trying to thwart measures local governments and private businesses are taking to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For example, it is illegal in Gov. Greg Abbott’s Texas for businesses to require customers to provide proof of vaccination — a law that restaurants in Austin learned about the hard way when they nearly had their liquor licenses revoked.
Florida has a similar law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, though a judge recently gave a cruise operator permission to ignore it. Or consider a bill by two Republican senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, that is intended to stop private employers from requiring their workers to get vaccinated.
And then there are the handful of Republican-led states that are trying to prohibit local school districts from imposing mask mandates in schools. Last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed such a ban, requiring that parents be given the opportunity to opt out of any locally imposed mask mandate.
I am a conservative, in part because of the importance I place on limited government and the value of personal responsibility. The Republican Party has long been a solid if imperfect vehicle for these priorities — but in recent years the connection has weakened. That’s antithetical to the party’s traditional commitments.
Abbott argues that his posture towards public health measures is motivated by a commitment to “personal responsibility” ahead of “government mandates.” But efforts to use government power to prohibit private businesses from making decisions that they think are in their best interest is the opposite. It is heavy-handed government stopping private entities from exercising their own understanding of what is responsible and what their customers and employees want.
Businesses are the private property of their owners, whose liberties should be violated only to advance compelling social interests. It is appropriate that the law prohibits a cafe from turning away customers because of their race.
It is also appropriate for the same business to be free to turn away customers wearing shorts and T-shirts.
Sure, masks can be annoying. But the same could be said for neckties, and I am unaware of any efforts to impose government bans on office dress codes or school uniforms in the name of personal liberty.
Banning discrimination based on race is critical to advancing equality and justice, which trumps the businesses owner’s right to decide which groups of customers to serve. Banning inappropriate dress is a decision that is none of the government’s business.
What grave injustice is being remedied by using the power of the state to prohibit businesses from choosing to serve only the vaccinated or masked? None rise to the level required for the government to override decisions of business owners over what to do with their privately held property.
A similar logic applies to businesses that decide to require their employees to be vaccinated. Such mandates should make provision for employees with sincere religious opposition or with medical conditions that make being vaccinated inadvisable.
But generally speaking, no one has a right to work for any specific employer.
If the terms of an employment relationship are satisfactory to both parties, then great. If not, then they should part ways.
Take the classic conservative argument against the minimum wage:
A worker wouldn’t take a job paying, say, $5 per hour if it wasn’t in his or her best interest.
An employer wouldn’t offer the job if it wasn’t a smart business decision.
If both parties agree, why should the government step in and declare that the wage is too low? The logic is the same for employee vaccine mandates.
Public schools are a different story, since they are government entities and students are required by law to attend.
But here GOP governors should fall back on another celebrated conservative principle: local control.
In some school districts, mask mandates may not make sense. They distract from learning, and if local COVID rates are low and hospital capacity isn’t threatened, then the local community should be allowed to decide that the costs aren’t worth the benefits.
Other districts may have people with different sensibilities or higher case numbers, and may make a different decision. Governors should step back and let local authorities decide what is best for their communities.
Several Republican governors are taking this approach. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine last week declined to impose a mask mandate himself but encouraged schools to do so.
His fellow Republican and next-door neighbor, Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana, takes a similar position. “I think the schools that are putting mask mandates into place are making a wise decision when the facts warrant it,” Holcomb said last week.
The traditional conservative commitments to personal responsibility, limited government and local control are excellent guides for public policy.
Some Republicans have been too willing in recent years to toss them aside, especially when doing so allows them to be perceived as fighting “big business” on behalf of “the people.”
Republicans would advance better policies if they recovered these traditional commitments — both during this pandemic summer and beyond.
Michael R. Strain is director of economic policy studies and Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It).” © 2021 Bloomberg Opinion.