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Don’t Fret About a Backlash to Biden Vaccine Mandate

Don’t Fret About a Backlash to Biden Vaccine Mandate

Sunday, 12 September, 2021 - 04:30

In the wake of President Joe Biden’s announcement on Thursday of new, more aggressive tactics against the Covid-19 pandemic, including expanded vaccine mandates, some of those who support vaccination are worried that it could all backfire. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar put it this way: “Unfortunate consequence of this speech — by forcing American vaccine holdouts to choose between vaccine and job — will be to harden opposition to vaccinations.”

That’s plausible. And there’s some polling that suggests opposition to the vaccine is so strong that some people might quit their jobs rather than comply. Or even worse? If enough employees strongly resist, then employers will resist, and the policy will be impossible to enforce. It’s also likely that widespread opposition, if it happens, would make the courts more likely to put a stop to it.

On the other hand, the whole point of turning to mandates now — something Biden had been notably reluctant to do — is that persuasion hasn’t been sufficiently effective so far.

Mandates are a form of persuasion. Making shots a requirement or near-requirement for employment raises the costs of not getting vaccinated. So do vaccination requirements in gyms, concerts and other public places. It’s true that the hardest resisters may choose to “pay" those costs by switching gyms, skipping concerts or sporting events, or even by quitting a job they would otherwise keep.

It’s a mistake, however, to believe that everyone who hasn’t been vaccinated is a hardcore opponent of vaccination. I’d guess that quite a few of those who haven’t been vaccinated haven’t really thought about it much. Sure, they might come up with an explanation if a pollster asks them for one, but for many people, not getting vaccinated is less a decision than it is just the path of least resistance. Folks are busy, or lazy, or just have other priorities. Vaccine mandates, seen in this way, work not so much because they force anyone to do anything, but because they make doing something — getting the shots — easier than not doing it.

I’d be skeptical of the polling on this topic. Humans are bad at predicting their own reactions to hypotheticals, and at attributing actions to the proper causes. It’s one thing for someone to say she’d quit her job if vaccinations were required; it’s another to actually do it. People are more likely to attribute their actions — in this case, avoiding the vaccine — to something that seems like a principle rather than to laziness.

It’s also plausible that partial workplace compliance will encourage others to go along. Even at this late date, there are still those who don’t know how to go about getting their shots; don’t know that it’s free; don’t know that side effects are usually minimal or nonexistent. (A guy in my pickup basketball game, which was revived this summer with a vaccination mandate, told his friends that he had no idea how to get his shots. He’s playing now. I still can’t guard him).

None of this is to predict that Biden’s initiative will be a smashing success, although some early indications are that mandates or mandate-like policies seem to work. The flip side of skepticism about people accurately predicting their own behavior to pollsters is that the same applies to public opinion, so we should also regard polls about mandates taken before the policy was announced with skepticism. It could play out differently.

That said, we know a couple of things. First, as Ariel Edwards-Levy of CNN reminds us, a landslide’s worth of Americans have already been vaccinated. They may not all be frustrated with the minority who have not had their shots, but a lot of them probably are. Second, we know that about 93% of those 65 and older have had at least one shot, and that the number is still rising. That success, among the demographic that’s also the biggest audience for Fox News, suggests that most vaccine reluctance is less deep-seated than it seems.

And the most important thing? As long as the policy is implemented and succeeds in getting people vaccinated, and of course assuming that more vaccinations means a lot less pandemic, then it doesn’t really matter whether the policy is popular or not. What matters, for Biden’s presidency as well as for the nation, is ending the pandemic and delivering a strong economy. If that happens, no one is going to care whether the vaccine mandate was popular.


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