If there is any fundamental belief that has always united conservatives, it’s the central importance of property rights. James Madison wrote: “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort … (T)hat alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.” Said economist Milton Friedman, “Nothing is so important for freedom as recognizing in the law each individual’s natural right to property.”
That idea still has some appeal on the right. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has gone so far as to criticize the Fair Housing Act, which barred racial discrimination in the sale and rental of homes, for infringing on the liberty of owners. “Decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered,” he wrote in 2002. “As a consequence, some associations will discriminate.” He was fine with that.
But Republicans have gotten fickle about the rights of property owners. This shift is apparent in their rejection of “vaccine passports,” which would allow businesses to deny service to people who have not been inoculated against COVID-19.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis argued, “It’s completely unacceptable for either the government or the private sector to impose upon you the requirement that you show proof of vaccine to just simply be able to participate in normal society.” Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said, “Vaccine credentials would be a complete government overstep” and would risk “substantially limiting normal day-to-day essential activities.”
The Biden administration has said it has no interest in making such verification mandatory for any purpose. “We’re not going to have any federally mandated, universal vaccine credential, and there will not be a federal database,” said White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients. All it is doing is looking for ways to facilitate private-sector initiatives while protecting privacy and preventing fraud.
Some of the objections grow out of the fever-swamp paranoia we have come to expect from people who think COVID-19 was unleashed by Bill Gates to bring about a world government. But some of it comes from people who think anything that conflicts with their selfish preferences is a violation of their rights.
Americans have never had a problem with businesses enforcing a dress code for employees or restaurants requiring patrons to wear shoes and shirts. Conservatives champion the right of bakers to refuse to provide cakes for same-sex weddings. They think pharmacies should not have to provide emergency contraceptives.
They don’t mind when corporations drug-test job applicants. They registered no outrage when a Michigan ammunition shop said it would refuse to sell to Biden voters.
All these policies rest on the accepted notion that private companies are allowed to set their own terms for doing business and customers who object are free to go elsewhere.
(The exceptions are rare, such as forbidding discrimination against historically oppressed groups.)
But the pandemic prompted many Republicans to suddenly abandon their respect for the property rights of private companies. Over the past year, innumerable videos have surfaced of Trump loyalists who refused to wear masks screaming at retail employees while claiming their rights were being violated.
Now, in the same vein, conservatives who refuse to get vaccinated insist that businesses are not allowed to keep them out. Gun-toting Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., tweeted, “Vaccine Passports are unconstitutional. Period.”
She’s welcome to take that up with the Supreme Court, which has repeatedly described “the right to exclude others” as “one of the most essential sticks in the bundle of rights that are commonly characterized as property.” A business choosing to make proof of vaccination a condition for employees or customers would be constitutionally protected.
Just last month, the court heard a lawsuit filed by the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation aimed at striking down a California regulation granting union organizers limited access to farms to speak with workers. The foundation says, “You wouldn’t be forced to let a solicitor in your home — why on earth should you be forced to let a private-sector union enter your property?”
Good point. So why, if you own a business, should you be forced to admit someone who declines to verify that he or she has been immunized against a highly contagious and potentially lethal virus?
Conservatives used to place supreme value on all the rights that go with property ownership. But today, one of the most important ones finds itself being turned away at the door.