A few days ago, a rather disturbing video started making the rounds on Twitter. It features physician Leana Wen speaking to CNN’s Chris Cuomo, saying that our freedom — namely, reopening states — is a “carrot” that ought to be used to coerce people to take the coronavirus vaccine, perfectly illustrating the false idea that freedom is a gift from the government.
In the interview, Wen discusses how some people are hesitant or unwilling to get the vaccine, even if they aren’t “anti-vaxxers” (people who are opposed to all vaccination). She says, “We need to make it clear to [people who are reluctant] that the vaccine is the ticket back to pre-pandemic life.” She says that as more states reopen, “We have a very narrow window to tie reopening policy to vaccination status.”
“Because otherwise, if everything is reopened, then what's the carrot going to be?” Wen continues. “How are we going to incentivize people to actually get the vaccine? So that's why I think the CDC and the Biden administration needs to come out a lot bolder and say, ‘If you’re vaccinated, you can do all these things. Here are all these freedoms that you have’.”
A full transcript of her comments can be found here. Wen’s comments totally undermine the ideals we hold as Americans — illustrating a reversal of this country’s foundations.
Wen Says People Who Have Real Concerns about the Vaccine Ought to be Coerced
First of all, Wen is correct that many Americans are reluctant to get the vaccine. Some are concerned that the vaccine is so new and hasn’t been tested long-term. Some are concerned about its potential effects on fertility or pregnancy. Others worry about how vaccine manufacturers can’t be sued. And still others have skepticism because it’s a first-of-its-kind mRNA vaccine, which contains strands of genetic material as opposed to the typical vaccines we’re familiar with, which put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies.
Wen is saying that people need to be coerced into going against their conscience and injecting something they’re personally unsure about into their bodies by having the state tie their freedoms to their vaccination status. She says the government should be telling people that if they don’t get the vaccine, then they can’t have their freedom.
Our rights do not stem from our willingness to act in the way the government desires.
It’s disturbing, though perhaps unsurprising, that a doctor who is also a former government and policy official thinks that rights stem from our willingness to act in the way the government desires. This represents a very deep misunderstanding and reversal of American ideals and constitutional rights. Wen’s thinking is actually an inversion of the ideals that built and sustain this country.
America Is a Nation of Freedom and Thus, Self-Discipline
America was set up as a free republic. It was a radical idea to create a country in which citizens do not rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints upon us — particularly when it comes to our moral decision-making. This idea has built the free and wonderful country that we live in today, the one that so many people flock to from other parts of the world for a chance at a better life, free from government coercion.
In America, we simply do not, and never have, passed the dictates of moral decision-making to the government. The state exists to protect our rights that exist as a matter of natural and universal order, not to bestow those rights upon us. The state isn’t God, so rights don’t come from the state. This is an important distinction to make.
The state exists to protect our rights that exist as a matter of natural order, not to bestow them upon us.
Of course, America’s ideal of freedom from government imposition doesn’t mean we have free license to indulge any and all of our base instincts. Freedom doesn’t mean we should go off stealing or lying or doing drugs or hurting others. In a free society, we still have a moral duty to be virtuous, to impose restraints upon ourselves, to reign in the pursuit of our personal appetites, and to control our behavior in order to create a healthy community life.
We still have to be self-disciplined, restrained, and virtuous, and to make sound moral decisions. With freedom comes a big responsibility: Americans are called to follow a transcendent moral order that doesn’t come from the government. We must inwardly possess dictates that govern how we live our lives, not rely on outward dictates on our behavior that come from the state. Once we start outsourcing our decision-making to the government and relying on them to dictate our behavior, it can open the door to the government controlling all aspects of our lives.
We have a moral duty to be virtuous and to impose restraints upon ourselves for the common good.
If some Americans believe they have some moral duty to others to take the vaccine, that is their decision to make. But morality is also about how we treat ourselves, and some don’t believe that the potential risks to themselves associated with getting the virus outweigh the potential risks of getting the vaccine. In America, that ought to be our personal choice to make — not a choice coerced by the state.
Coronavirus Has Prepared Us To See Freedoms As Stemming from the Government
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen the American ideals of freedom completely turned upside down. The government is now telling us what to wear, whether we can run our businesses, or see our families, or travel, whether we can go out to eat, how close we can stand to people, whether we’re allowed to go to church, whether we can sing, or dance, or have weddings. They seem to be very close to telling us what to inject, too.
We’re seeing our entire society primed and prepped to accept the idea that our rights come from the government officials who decide what level of freedom we’re allowed in exchange for us taking the actions they want us to take. This is slavery, not freedom. The virus has shown us that many of our state officials, and even our fellow citizens, no longer uphold our right to freedom as a natural, built-in, universal law that’s not under government authority to bestow or to revoke.
Authorities are made up of fallible human beings, and as such, authorities can be wrong.
Authority is important in any society — we need people and institutions who are authoritative and specialized in their knowledge who feel a duty to guide and lead others. But authorities are made up of fallible human beings, and as such, authorities can be wrong. Our national ideal of freedom accounts for this fact. In America, you can be a person who ultimately disagrees with prevailing authorities, and you’re free to make your own decisions. Or, you can trust and listen to authorities, and still be free to make your own decisions. Either way, you’re meant to be free.
We’ll Always Disagree about What Is Moral
Citizens in a free society need to maintain moral discipline and virtue, and yes, we’re going to disagree on what true virtue is. Some believe it’s virtuous to “live and let live,” to never moralize or instruct others on how to live. Others think virtue means staying home and getting vaccinated. Still others say virtue is about developing good moral character in order to give the best of ourselves to others.
But we can’t rely on coercive government power to dictate virtue. This creates a government that’s too controlling, and we end up with tyranny, not liberty.
We can’t rely on coercive government power to dictate virtue; it will only lead to tyranny.
We need to have some effective internal restraint and to make our own moral decisions. Former Attorney General William Barr explained American ideals in a speech:
“No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity. But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.
On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.
So the Founders decided to take a gamble. They called it a great experiment. They would leave “the People” broad liberty, limit the coercive power of the government, and place their trust in self-discipline and the virtue of the American people. In the words of Madison, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves.”
“We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves.” — James Madison
This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.
But what was the source of this internal controlling power? In a free republic, those restraints could not be handed down from above by philosopher kings. Instead, social order must flow up from the people themselves – freely obeying the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values. And to control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will – they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.”
It would have been fine for Wen to recommend that Americans get vaccinated or to warn of what she believes are the dangers of not doing so before we reopen. But she steps way over the line and erodes American ideals when she says our decisions ought to be tied to government coercion and when she advocates for the theft of our freedoms to serve what she personally believes to be the right action.
America is meant to be a self-governed and self-disciplined people. While Wen may feel she’s doing the right and virtuous thing by urging the state to hold our freedom hostage as a “carrot” to coerce us to act in the way that she and other elites personally think is right, she tramples on the ideals of this country in the process, fundamentally misunderstanding the American ethos.
Unless American citizens and officials — including doctors — remember this, and quickly, we will only continue to see our freedoms in this country erode.
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