Prudence Could Dictate Vaccine Mandates | Opinion

The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Benjamin Wittes during a Newsweek podcast debate on COVID-19 vaccine mandates. You can listen to the podcast here:

I will not knowingly engage with unvaccinated people in person. I'm happy to do it remotely. I'm not interested in being punitive or stigmatizing, but I'm also not interested in becoming a vector for transmission. And so if somebody tells me that they are not vaccinated, I'm really not interested in being in their presence. I will, of course, make exceptions to that for people who have legitimate medical reasons to not be vaccinated, or for children for whom the vaccine is not approved on an emergency basis. My own personal vaccine mandate is that I don't choose to socialize in-person with people who are themselves choosing to be vectors for the virus' transmission.

I think that there may be good prudential reasons to avoid formal vaccine mandates. That is, you you may risk radicalizing people further by doing it. So I'm not necessarily opposed to the strategy that the Biden administration has taken, which is to encourage employers and other entities that are not the government to have mandates but not to actually do it themselves.

That said, I certainly don't oppose a national vaccine mandate. And to me, the question is purely an instrumental one, which is to say that it matters to me only what will get the most people vaccinated. And if a vaccine mandate were to do that, I have absolutely no problem with it.

Pharmacist LaChandra McGowan prepares a dose of
Pharmacist LaChandra McGowan prepares a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic operated by DePaul Community Health Center on August 12, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Mario Tama/Getty Images

If you respect my right, as an autonomous human being who gets to make my own associational choices, to discriminate against people who do not get the vaccine—and let's be candid about what I'm doing, it's discrimination—then it's not invidious discrimination for legal purposes. But I have adopted a personal policy of discrimination against the unvaccinated. My employer, the Brookings Institution, has also adopted that policy. If you're not vaccinated, you're not going to be able to go into the Brookings Institution building.

Why do you accept my right and encourage it, but the way the Brookings Institution is doing it is inappropriate, and for government to encourage the Brookings Institution to do that is irresponsible or inappropriate? And my question is, why? We're both autonomous legal entities that are entitled to discriminate on this basis. Why isn't the right answer for the Brookings Institution and for United Airlines and for a lot of other employers to say, like Ben Wittes, we're adopting our own personal mandates—and for Joe Biden to say, "That's great?"

Benjamin Wittes is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The views in this article are the writer's own.