Mandates” has become such a toxic subject that it is hard to talk about it. So, I decided to think about it first. Can you follow me?

There are, in a general sense, two kinds of mandates: the first we most often refer to as laws — or regulations — promulgated by a local, state or national government. Laws against murder and theft, laws protecting freedom of religion and speech; and marriage, abortion, alcohol, tobacco and traffic laws are all governed by government mandates.

The second kind of mandates are cultural: horse meat, and for that matter, calf brains or Rocky Mountain oysters, are not generally approved of in our culture, and hard to find on a restaurant menu. Churches establish their own requirements — mandates — for leadership, which might be years at a seminary or anointment by an existing leader. There are still, in many places and families, strong cultural prohibitions against crossing color and religious lines in marriage. Laws that were gained with broad but narrow public support abolished legal mandates, and as the American stew has mixed, public acceptance is changing cultural norms.

Laws lead and followed culture in regard to women’s rights; the 19th Amendment and Title IX transformed American society by giving women the right to vote and to have every advantage provided by federal funding for men available to women. Although there was significant societal opposition to both measures in their times, they are now the cultural as well as legal norms. Witness the number of women doctors and lawyers in Wallowa County today.

We make laws to allow society to operate smoothly, and to protect us as individuals from bad actors and to promote societal health. We want the water we drink and air we breathe to not kill us or make us sick. We want — a huge majority of us want — free education for all.

There is always a line between individual human actions and freedom to act and the larger society’s interest — sometimes what is seen as the “state’s interest.” In authoritarian states, the leader’s or leading group’s interest overwhelms individual interests. But even authoritarian states have mushy lines between individual and larger community interests and freedoms of thought and action. Being an entrepreneur in China is easier now than it was under Mao, and much easier than it is today in North Korea.

In “free” societies like ours — and New Zealand’s, Norway’s, Germany’s and Singapore’s — the lines fall in different places, are often vague, but always exist. Most European countries think public and private interests are best served by drinking laws and standards much looser than ours. But drunk driving is another matter, and might immediately mean jail-time or loss of driving privileges forever. MADD — Mothers Against Drunk Driving — upended American cultural norms, and although we are not yet Norway, or Saudi Arabia, where public flogging is the law — stricter standards are now enshrined in law and in public attitudes.

In most countries — although not always in the most authoritarian ones — 12-year-olds are not allowed to marry. It took some time to get where we are in these United States, but my guess is that a return to 14 or 16 as the age of consent would not be well-received.

In every case, the state or its leaders speak in the name of a broader public interest of protecting other citizens and the general public; we don’t want drunk drivers on the road risking the lives of others. And even though my “tradition” might say that I can marry my daughter off prepuberty, the state steps in to provide protection for my daughter. And an overwhelming number of my neighbors agree with the state.

Smallpox, brought to America by Europeans and traveling tribe to tribe, killed millions of the original Americans. Crude vaccinations, using pustule matter from diseased people, was known for centuries, and was used by General Washington at Valley Forge. In 1796, Edward Jenner became the father of vaccination when he developed a smallpox vaccine from the milder cowpox disease. I had my last smallpox booster at 22, in 1965. Smallpox is now gone from the world; vaccinations are no longer given.

Measles, mumps and rubella vaccination mandates have been widely accepted — until recently. Ironically, as the anti-vax movement has grown around very shaky claims that vaccinations led to autism in children, measles has reappeared in Oregon.

The coronavirus will get universal vaccine treatment like smallpox and polio did when the current outbreak becomes more deadly than it currently is and people clammer for it—as they did for a polio vaccine. Or with successful government mandates and control of the diseases.

Meanwhile, the governor of Mississippi might explain why a coronavirus vaccine mandate is tyranny and his state’s strict mandates about childhood diseases are not.

Mandates are a tricky business.


Rich Wandschneider is the director

of the Josephy Library of Western History and Culture.

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