In May 2021, Texas Gov. Greg AbbottGreg AbbottHillicon Valley —TSA to strengthen rail sector cybersecurity When politics trump workers' health, we know who gets burned Judge blocks Texas social media censorship law MORE (R) issued an executive order prohibiting cities, counties, school districts and public health authorities from requiring people to wear face masks. During the summer, as Delta variant COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths began to soar in Texas, Abbott doubled down. He prohibited public agencies or private entities receiving public funds — including grants and loans — from requiring people to show documentation of vaccination before receiving services. “Texans have learned and mastered over the past year the safe practices to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID,” his spokesperson declared, “and do not need the government to tell them how to do so.” Every Texan, she added, “has a right to choose for themselves and their children whether they will wear masks, open their businesses, or get vaccinations.”
Gov. Abbott seems committed to the proposition that individual freedom should trump government interference. But, it turns out, Abbott is not at all opposed to government mandates that are on his policy agenda. And the positions he takes have a lot to do with the way the political winds are blowing.
In July 2020, Abbott issued an executive order requiring Texans to wear face masks in most public settings. The decision was unpopular with conservatives in the state, and the governor was censured by Republican committees in eight counties. In March 2021, Abbott lifted the executive order but allowed businesses “to implement additional safety protocols” if they wished. When he issued his blanket prohibitions against government Coronavirus mandates this summer, two hard-right Republicans had already indicated they would run against him in the 2022 gubernatorial primaries.
The governor has not hesitated to approve many government mandates. Texas requires vaccination for all school children for polio; measles, mumps and rubella; Hepatitis A; Hepatitis B; Varicella; and Meningococcal disease (MCV4). Exemptions are approved only for a medical condition (documented by a physician) or religious reasons. The law does not allow an exemption because of inconvenience or personal preference. The state also requires vaccination for individuals using child-care facilities. I have found no evidence that Gov. Abbott objects to these mandates or their implementation.
In May 2021 Abbott (who boasted about ensuring that “families have the freedom to choose their own destiny”) signed a law banning abortion the moment a fetal heartbeat is detected (which can occur as early as six weeks, and sometimes before a woman knows she is pregnant). The bill makes no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. A vaguely worded provision likely to result in harassment of doctors, abortion clinic employees, and abortion activists allows any citizen to initiate a civil suit against someone he or she believes may have helped a pregnant woman violate the law.
In July, Abbott announced he would soon reveal plans to ban hormone therapy, puberty suppressant treatments, and transition-related surgeries for transgender people. He also advocates laws prohibiting transgender kids from playing on school sports teams that do not correspond with their gender identity at birth.
Abbott, of course, is not the only prominent Republican to cherry pick his opposition to government restrictions on people’s behavior. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisDeSantis proposes civilian Florida State Guard military force he would control Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills MORE, the Costello to Abbott’s Abbott, who often invokes the false choice — “We can either have a free society or we can have a biomedical security state” — will not permit localities and schools to require masks. Ostensibly a laissez-faire, free market conservative, DeSantis has also forbidden cruise lines (which were petri dishes for transmission of the Coronavirus in 2020) operating out of Florida from requiring passengers to show proof of vaccination. Asked about a Carnival Cruise Line vaccination mandate for ships sailing out of Galveston, Texas, Gov. Abbott had a me-too moment: “I’m signing a law today that prohibits any business operating in Texas from requiring vaccine passports or any vaccine information.”
Abbott’s public pronouncements about the role of government are not only inconsistent, they are disingenuous and dangerous. He and every other officeholder ought to abide by the old adage, “Your right to swing your fist ends at the other person’s nose.”
No American has a right to put the health and safety of other Americans at risk by, for example, driving while intoxicated, ignoring speed limits, or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic that has claimed the lives of well over 600,000 Americans.
Elected officials, including Govs. Abbott and DeSantis, have a responsibility to protect citizens from irresponsible and reckless behavior, even if doing so puts the noses of libertarian absolutists out of joint.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."