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Abbott's Texas Covid strategy isn't just post-conservative — it's post-coherent

So much for limited government, property rights or conservative principles.

About a week after testing positive for Covid-19 himself, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning the use of vaccine mandates in the public sector and for businesses that contract with the state.

The Republican's guidance was sweeping — overriding both local control and private sector rights. Under his order, any “public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds through any means, including grants, contracts, loans, or other disbursements of taxpayer money” cannot require customers to show proof of vaccinations. “No consumer may be denied entry to a facility financed in whole or in part by public funds for failure to provide documentation regarding the consumer’s vaccination status.”

Abbott’s order was also a revealing indication of how the GOP now defines “freedom.”

So much for limited government, property rights or conservative principles. Abbott’s order was also a revealing indication of how the GOP now defines “freedom.”

“So, let me get this straight,” one New York Times observer wrote in a letter to the editor, prior to Abbott's most recent order. “Gov. Greg Abbott’s version of freedom plays out like this. Take advantage of all of the available protections for yourself, including those you have access to because you are in a position of power and privilege — daily testing, vaccines plus a booster, treatment with monoclonal antibodies, access to premier health care — while doing nothing to protect your constituents from the disease.

“This isn’t freedom; it’s institutionalized selfishness and irresponsibility.”

Abbott insisted he was putting “personal responsibility” ahead of “government mandates.” But, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael R. Strain noted for Bloomberg, Abbott has it backward. His order, Strain wrote, “is heavy-handed government stopping private entities from exercising their own understanding of what is responsible and what their customers and employees want.”

But the heavy hand has become the new GOP orthodoxy. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is proposing federal legislation that would ban both mask and vaccine mandates — and prohibit vaccine passports — even in the private sector. “My legislation also provides civil rights protections for employees from their employers,” Cruz, a Republican, announced, “to stop discrimination based on vaccination status.”

To be sure, not all Republicans are going along with this statism. Despite her Trumpian credentials, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem says she is opposed to government prohibitions on vaccine requirements by private businesses. "I don't have the authority as governor to tell them what to do," she said. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is also publicly opposed to using state power to impose restrictions on schools and businesses in this way.

But neither is Abbott the outlier. Republican officials across the country are pushing draconian state-level regulations that undermine public health measures.

Republican officials across the country are pushing draconian state-level regulations that undermine public health measures.

Florida’s Republican governor (and 2024 hopeful), Ron DeSantis, has gone even further than Abbott, prohibiting all businesses — including private companies like cruise lines — from requiring proof of vaccination or even asking customers whether they have been vaccinated. Similar bills have been passed or are pending in other states, including in Alabama and Arkansas, which have seen dramatic spikes in coronavirus cases. Some of the bills attempt to bar private health care providers from requiring employees to be vaccinated.

DeSantis and other Republicans have also gone after local mask rules. Even though Republicans have long prided themselves on their support for local control, DeSantis threatened to punish local school districts that defied his order banning mask mandates.

Good luck finding a coherent strain of conservative principles behind these GOP moves.

Until about five minutes ago, conservatives opposed centralized, top-down regulations and fiercely defended the right of businesses to make their own decisions. They also understood “personal responsibility” was not a license to recklessly endanger others.

Until the latest war on vaccine passports, Republicans had also prided themselves on their belief in the principle of subsidiarity, which former House Speaker Paul Ryan defined as the belief that “government closest to the people governs best.” Big government, he argued, crowded out civic society, which was why conservative supported “having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities.”

All of that now feels so last decade.

In its place, conservatives have embraced less an idea than a slogan. Opponents of the vaccine and mask mandates insist they are fighting to protect “Freedom!” But their opposition to basic public health measures would have seemed bizarre to earlier generations of conservatives.

The founders themselves understood that freedom required self-control and a sense of civic responsibility. They regarded unrestrained individualism as a danger to the virtues required by a free republic, and they did not confuse narcissism and selfishness with liberty.

To previous generations of conservatives, this was more or less self-evident; they embraced the balanced idea of “ordered liberty.” They understood that rights were balanced by responsibilities, especially when it came to public health and human life.

But in today’s GOP — with some exceptions — those notions have been scrapped, along with so many other ideas and principles like fiscal responsibility, the rule of law, support for liberal democracy and the foundational concept that character matters.

The result is a party held hostage to its own post-coherence politics, in which faux populism, tribalism and owning the libs has eclipsed genuine conservatism.

Unfortunately, we are likely to measure its impact in the loss of human lives.