Jonathan Katzenellenbogen writes, “vaccine hesitancy by sizeable portions of the population may curb or delay our reaching herd immunity. … [this will] force us for a long time into tightened lockdowns with every new wave, to prevent Covid cases overflowing the hospitals.”
The author goes on to argue that a possibly effective way to prevent this scenario from occurring is by the implementation of vaccine passports.
While I share the author’s desire to return to some kind of normality, I fear that pragmatic arguments such as his will always be used to undermine and erode (both deeply and for longer) our individual rights and civil liberties. The intentions may be noble, but often the noblest of intentions can be perverted by those tyrants and authoritarians amongst us.
Should individual rights be conditional? In the context of society, the only context in which individual rights are conceptually useful because you don’t need or really have to think about rights if you were alone on an island, the only time your individual rights are ‘conditional’ is when you violate another person’s rights through force or fraud. We can think of it in this way: ‘Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.’
While there is a chance that a person might be infected with Covid-19, should everyone be pre-emptively treated – and denied access to certain spaces – as though they are carrying Covid? I would argue that this opens the door wide open for massive state abuse. A lot of human behaviour could carry the potential to negatively affect others – where is the line to be drawn as to how all manner of behaviour should be preemptively controlled? And do we really want to grant the state that kind of discretionary power?
Katzenellenbogen goes on to reference John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and the ‘harm principle.’ As far as arguments in favour of liberty go, I find utilitarianism in general to be severely lacking. It is often open to all manner of pragmatic concerns, and ‘the public good’ is too open-ended and vague to be really useful and meaningful (in my view) when it comes to arguing for individual liberty.
The individual is the standard for liberty – not ‘society’ or ‘the public good.’ There are no collective rights, only individual rights. It should not be the purview of Cabinet, or the National Coronavirus Command Council, or the Minister of Health, to determine what ‘the public good’ is – and to then have the power to somehow attain that good, or indeed an average level of ‘public health.’
We should also always be ready to fight against any new policy interventions that could be used to undermine citizens’ hard-fought battle for rights and liberties, most especially in the South African context, and with our history of government abuse against citizens. Many South Africans may not be able to afford the transport and time to obtain a vaccine passport in the first place – it would not be right for the state to impose yet more barriers and limit people’s ability to move around and to engage in voluntary interactions with their families, communities, and businesses.
With our government’s abysmal track record in administration – with the concomitant bloated costs and corruption – the possibility exists that only those with the necessary political connections or level of income will be able to get the passport when they need it. Everyone else will have to wait longer, and their lives will effectively be held in limbo.
In politics and government action, the trend is for governments to hold on to new powers they are afforded – once they have these, they very rarely, if ever, let them go. And governments will always look for new gaps to expand those powers even more – to the ultimate cost of liberty.
Katzenellenbogen writes, “As vaccinations are free and easily available, there is little problem in obtaining access to a vaccine passport.” While vaccines are more readily available now in South Africa than a few months ago, vaccination is still relatively low, and many people’s concerns have not been adequately heard and addressed – they are indeed summarily dismissed. Vaccine passports will absolutely disproportionally affect South Africans, and indeed Africans more broadly because African governments were behind the curve in terms of vaccine procurement and rollout.
A related point in all this, is how much Covid-19 has exposed the problems associated with the State’s taking on the responsibility of being the guardians of all citizens’ healthcare. In such a scenario, central planners and bureaucratic box-tickers try to account for the millions of individual choices that people make on a daily basis, and they view all healthcare resources as needing to be centrally managed. This results in inefficiencies, wastage, irrational regulations (beach and cooked chicken bans), and generally abuse of citizens’ civil liberties.
I can understand the temptation to advocate for ‘less’ totalitarian tools and policy recommendations to effectively take the wind out of the sails of more totalitarian tools, such as the ongoing, deep lockdowns we see in Australia now. But as a matter of principle, we should not entertain totalitarianism in the first instance. Instead of being a way out of current government overreach and abuse, ceding the moral ground to totalitarianism will only encourage and incentivise more of it in the future.
The economy needs much new momentum to get going again, after years of destructive government ideology and policies. As Katzenellenbogen points out, “President Cyril Ramaphosa has asked the Cabinet to look into measures to get the country’s economy going, including the use of vaccine passports.”
Instead of supporting invasive and possibly abusive measures such as vaccine passports, our energy and expertise should be directed toward attaining the kind of broad structural reform that is in favour of individual and economic freedom. From a practical point of view, abandoning expropriation without compensation, National Health Insurance, BBBEE regulations, and allowing competition in electricity generation, provision, and distribution would unlock positive, transformative economic activity, growth, and job creation to an exponentially greater extent than the adoption of vaccine passports would.
I do not want to presume to speak for Katzenellenbogen. I know that, from a personal point of view, I am saddened and angered by what has happened over the last year and a half. Millions of people have died from Covid-19. And governments around the world – even those of countries that are supposed to be bastions of liberty – have used the pandemic to further their own tendencies toward control and authoritarianism. Lives and livelihoods, mostly those of low- and middle-income people, have been destroyed as a result of government actions. I struggle to accept that these same governments will administer vaccine passports in a way that isn’t abused and probably destructive.
I wish we could return to a pre-2020 world tomorrow. But I don’t know that opening the door to the use of yet more government force, through vaccine passports, is the best way to get back to that world. One thing I hope that people learn through all this is just how fragile liberty is, how much we have taken it for granted, and how much we let governments get away with.
Government-imposed vaccine passports should be opposed for both moral and practical reasons. Morally, because these violate individual rights. And practically, because they will disproportionately affect those citizens from countries with lower vaccine rollouts and uptake (based on current trends, this will mean that African citizens are once again discriminated against). Adopting such a system will open up more avenues for corruption.
Chris Hattingh is Deputy Director at the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation, the IRR or the Daily Friend.