Talking Points

The meaning of Republicans' anti-mandate mandates

We've come a long way since Mitt Romney said, "Corporations are people, my friend." These days, ambitious Republicans often treat corporations a lot like governments in need of restraint from violating individual rights.

Consider the executive order banning vaccine mandates Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued Monday: "No entity in Texas can compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual, including an employee or a consumer, who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19."

Among the entities affected are private-sector businesses, but that phrasing sounds more like a limit on state power than the championing of market freedom and free association we used to hear from Republicans. Not so long ago, conservatives defended businesses with socially conservative ownership — from large companies like Hobby Lobby to smaller ones like Masterpiece Cake Shop — who wanted to act according to their values in the workplace. Now, conservatives seem eager to quash the choices of private businesses whose values they don't share. Out with liberty, in with forcible protection of their vision of the "common good."

Granted, both attitudes — "corporations are people" and "corporations are appendages of big government" — elide a lot of important distinctions. Competitive marketplaces can limit the power of private actors in a way that isn't really an option for the modern state, and the lines between big government and big business can become fuzzy in an age of crony capitalism. Abbott would undoubtedly point to federal vaccine mandates as a reason he thought it was necessary to act.

But the new Republican approach to regulation is starkly different from GOP orthodoxy as recently as when the Supreme Court handed down its Citizens United decision in 2010. Many conservatives are now arguing the GOP's defense of freedom and free markets must entail something beyond letting corporations do whatever they want, especially if their desires run counter to those of the party's voters. Progressive Democrats, they say, are more focused on tangible benefits for their constituencies than a commitment to abstract principles, and Republicans should be, too.

But progressives do have a coherent theory about how their vision for regulating businesses serves the public interest, like it or not. It's not clear that the new conservatives of the "common good" variety do too.