- - Monday, August 30, 2021

You can’t be a constitutional conservative only when it suits you. 

We are now seeing a battle in the Republican Party between the populist wing and traditional limited government conservatism. Some so-called conservatives want to regulate businesses to prevent them from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment. Still, my beliefs do not allow me to waive the constitution because I disagree with a private business. 

It is human nature to want to wield power, and a crisis adds to that impulse. As an emergency unfolds, many will insist that “somebody should do something,” and governments, eager to pass laws and hire people with weapons to enforce them, step in. It’s up to pro-liberty conservatives to stand on principle and to stand up to government mandates.

To be clear, I don’t think businesses should require a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment. I also believe that government is too big, and mandates are not a conservative tool in forcing the behavior of its citizens. Since when did the Republican Party become the party of big government and social engineering using government power to force behavior? Once we, as a people, open the door to increased government power to put mandates on businesses, expect a Pandora’s Box of liberal mandates to hit in the future that touch on faith, the right to keep and bear arms, and the expanding list of genders the left has invented. 

William F. Buckley once referred to the growth of government as “creeping socialism.” We are seeing a version today with both Republicans and Democrats calling on the government to mandate behavior they find acceptable. Even if I agree with a new mandate, that mandate limits freedom and sets a precedent for even more mandates, taxes, spending, and expansion of government into the daily lives of average Americans who just want to be left alone.

Since March of 2020, we’ve seen governors from California to New York declare that they have sweeping powers to ban activities, close businesses, and strongarm sick people into nursing homes. These “leaders” must have temporarily forgotten the principle that the proper powers of government are limited, even (and especially) during a crisis.

On the federal level, power is granted and specifically limited by the Constitution. On the state and local level, power is limited by state constitutions and, frankly, common sense.  

For example, as governor last year, I refused to issue lockdowns or mask mandates. I did not shut down any business, nor did I close one church. I follow a principle: I am a limited government conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan. The government may have the brute force to declare a business “essential,” yet that is not a proper role of any government, federal or state. 

Now, as a new COVID variant is spreading, some state legislatures and governors are trying to mandate that a person must provide proof of vaccination to work in a private business. This is a bad idea because no government has that power over the private decisions of small businesses.

In South Dakota, I used my valid power as governor to prevent the state from issuing Vax Passports. That means you won’t see a government-run vaccine passport system in South Dakota –under my watch, South Dakota will have a limited government.

Our policy allows individuals to make decisions and limits the decisions forced upon them by the government. Freedom cuts both ways, and the government doesn’t have the power to weigh in on either side of this. I’m going to make certain that we respect the limits of the state government. Small businesses won’t be forced to cede management decisions to a bureaucrat or politician.

I don’t believe that a business should require proof of vaccination to work there, and as a former business owner, I would not have imposed such a requirement on my employees. But my personal beliefs are irrelevant when it comes to the state’s role in what a business may or may not choose to do.  Government should not exercise its power to force a small business to agree with me. 

I am reminded of a famous Reagan quote: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Conservatives see that liberals are trying to use this crisis to expand the size and scope of government at every level. On everything from mandates to spending, the left wants more government. Conservatives must stand on principle and oppose big government in all its forms.

The Coronavirus pandemic has tested how far politicians will go to use heavy-handed tactics to get their way. One reason why South Dakota is considered a great place to live, work, raise a family, and do business is because we have a tradition of governance that respects individual rights and because we respect the limits of government power. These principles will allow us to overcome COVID-19 and to build the country we all want to live in.

• Kristi Noem is the governor of South Dakota.

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