On Twitter, Jonah argues that “whether you think what Biden’s doing is a sincere/legal/noble effort to fight the pandemic or a tyrannical outrage or a cynical media strategy, IT WOULDN’T BE HAPPENING IF EVERYONE WAS VACCINATED. Get vaccinated, ffs.”
Jonah is not making an argument in favor of the legality of the order per se. And he’s right to encourage vaccination. But I must strongly dissent from the logic of this argument nevertheless. If we cherish the law, there can be no “whether” in play here. What Biden did was either legal or it was illegal, and that question is not affected in any way by what I, or others, happen to think about its policy merits, or by whether the people at whom it is being aimed are good or bad. To suggest otherwise is to give the government a permanent hall pass that can be exploited each every time that a sufficient number of people persist in making decisions that it considers unhelpful.
I suspect that this would be more obvious if we shifted the context. It is true, for example, that cops wouldn’t “need” to break into private homes without warrants if there weren’t so many criminals. But it’s also irrelevant. The law is the law, irrespective of the pressures that are put on it. There is almost always a plausible reason for the government to act, which is why we write down the rules and then demand that it stick to them.
Jonah’s argument is defensible if we assume that what Biden has done is legal: “Biden can do this,” we might say, “and the only reason he is doing it is that you have created the circumstances in which he feels he must.” But if what Biden has done is illegal, no similar argument can obtain. To say “Biden can’t do this, but he has to because of you” is to make excuses for tyranny. The word “whether” doesn’t belong here at all.