Why are antivaccinationists so at home with Libertarianism?
That’s the question Orac asked last month at Respectful Insolence. It’s kind of an odd question, since the main piece of evidence he discusses is Ronald Bailey’s pro-vaccination article at Reason Magazine, one of the flagship publishers of libertarian thought. Here’s the main point of Bailey’s argument:
People who refuse vaccination for themselves and their children are free-riding off herd immunity. Anti-vaccination folks are taking advantage of the fact that most people around them have chosen the minimal risk of vaccination, thus acting as a firewall protecting them from disease. But if enough refuse, the firewall comes down and other people get hurt.
Oliver Wendell Holmes articulated a good libertarian principle when he said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” Holmes’ observation is particularly salient in the case of whooping cough shots.
To borrow Holmes’ metaphor, people who refuse vaccination are asserting that they have a right to “swing” their microbes at other people. There is no principled libertarian case for their free-riding refusal to take responsibility for their own microbes.
Orac’s evidence of libertarian anti-vax leanings is in the response at Police State USA, and a bunch of Facebook comments about Bailey’s article. Orac quotes a few of the dumber comments:
Explain how not getting a vaccination yourself puts someone else at risk. If you get sick and they are vaccinated then they won’t get sick because they a vaccinated against it right? Oh, vaccinations don’t actually protect against getting sick?!? Then why do we get them.
Herd Immunity is more Bullshit from Big Pharma with NO logic behind it!
That’s certainly uninformed anti-vaccination nonsense, but all it proves is that libertarianism is not totally free of anti-vax goofballs. Neither are the Democrats or Republicans. A few idiotic comments hardly make the case that libertarianism is a good home for anti-vaxers.
In fact, far from shunning vaccines, libertarians have complained that the government-controlled vaccine market often experiences shortages, a problem rarely seen with more commercial medications that trade in a freer market. And when Reason Magazine published their “45 Enemies of Freedom” edition, they picked anti-vax nutjob Jenny McCarthy as #28, saying that “hundreds of thousands of fearful parents have needlessly endangered the health and lives of their children.”
Orac also objects to this comment, without realizing it’s substantially different:
How about “I DON’T WANT TO!”? That’s about as libertarian as it gets. There is no such thing as a positive obligation in libertarian philosophy and that includes an obligation to be vaccinated.
From the libertarian viewpoint, there’s a world of difference between saying “X is a good thing” and saying “the government should force people to do X,” and that’s true whether X is getting vaccinated, wearing motorcycle helmets, or drinking smaller beverage portions. The government does not enforce its rules with a gentle hand, and even the most trivial infractions are ultimately enforced by men with guns who will drag you off in shackles, lock you in a cage, and take your stuff.
Ronald Bailey’s article is actually part of a Reason debate with Dr. Jeffrey Singer over vaccination policy. Neither debater questions the general efficacy of vaccines, both reject the autism danger, and both debaters think getting vaccinated is a good idea. Those are not the questions being debated. The libertarian issue in question is whether the government should force people to get vaccinated.
Questioning the appropriateness of forcing medical treatments on people against their consent is not some kind of crazy fringe concern. One of the cornerstones of medical ethics is that all treatments require the informed consent of the patient. If a patient refuses even lifesaving treatments, doctors will generally respect that decision.
There are exceptions, of course, but the issue is complex, confusing, and worthy of careful thought. In most cases it’s also highly controversial, such as the requirements in some states that women seeking abortions receive a medically unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasound, which involves placing a probe into the woman’s vagina. There’s also a long history of school systems pressuring parents into putting their children on psychoactive drugs, ostensibly for the child’s benefit, but apparently also as a tool for classroom management.
I’ve written about doctors who perform invasive procedures on patients in the name of the war on drugs, and this country has a disgraceful history of involuntary sterilization of people with undesirable attributes, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and of course the Nazi atrocities that led to some firm rules about informed consent which have informed medical ethics all over the western world. Generally speaking, this is not good company to be in, and I think that before implementing plans to forcibly vaccinate people we should give careful consideration to alternatives such as education.
It’s one thing to believe — as Ronald Bailey and Orac both apparently do — that the utilitarian social benefits of vaccination outweigh the violation of self-ownership and personal dignity that forced vaccinations would necessarily entail. But it’s disingenuous to lump this libertarian objection in with the generic anti-vax crowd that denies the effectiveness and safety of vaccination.