I am not, and never have been, an anti-vaxxer. When my one child, Thomas, was young, neither his mother nor I hesitated to have him receive the full range of childhood vaccines – just as my own parents didn’t hesitate to have me, in the 1960s, receive the full range of vaccines then available to children. And when COVID-19 vaccines became available a few months ago, I got the full dosage. (Moderna, in case you’re wondering.)
But I am, and have forever been, an anti-authoritarian. And being such, I oppose efforts by government to mandate vaccination or to punish persons who aren’t vaccinated. In this real world of ours, the state has no business imposing penalties on anyone who chooses not to inject or ingest certain medicines. Such an intrusion into individuals’ private affairs is unethical and inconsistent with the principles of a free society. Every parent should have the right to refuse vaccination for his or her children. Every adult should have the right to refuse vaccination for himself or herself. No explanation for such refusal should be required beyond a simple “No.”
The most common retort to those of us who oppose state punishment of people who refuse vaccines is to allege that anti-vaccinated persons jeopardize the health, and even the lives, of innocent third parties. Read, for example, Washington Post columnist Leana Wen, whose strong obsession for mandatory vaccination is matched by her weak ability to put data into proper perspective. In econspeak, the charge is “externality!” – or as University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers recently exclaimed in response to someone who objects to what smells like a move toward mandatory vaccination, “Because externalities.” An unvaccinated individual, it is alleged, unjustly spreads to other people dangerous pathogens whenever that individual is in public.
But shouting “externality!” is not the trump card that many economists (and non-economists) naïvely suppose it to be. In a world in which not every human being lives an isolated existence – that is, in our world – each of us incessantly acts in ways that affect strangers without thereby justifying government-imposed restrictions on the great majority of these actions. Therefore, justification of government obstruction of the ordinary affairs of life requires far more than an identification of the prospect of some interpersonal impact. (See David Henderson’s brief response to Wolfers.)
Justification for mandatory vaccination also requires more than a vivid imagination. Clever seventh graders can describe hypothetical situations in which every reasonable person might agree that forced vaccination is justified. (“Like, imagine a virus so super-contagious and lethal that it will, with 100 percent certainty, literally kill every human being in the country if even a single person in the country remains unvaccinated!!!”) To be relevant, the case for mandatory vaccination must be made with respect to reality as we know it. Furthermore, in a free society, the burden of proof falls, not on opponents of mandatory vaccination, but on those who assert that the externality is real and serious enough to justify making vaccination mandatory.
That the choice to remain unvaccinated against COVID creates some risks for strangers is indisputable. Yet this fact about this choice does not distinguish it from many other choices with similar consequences, nearly all of which choices, again, do not justify government intervention – a fact that holds true even if we confine our attention only to actions that put in greater jeopardy the physical health of others.
The choice to drive to the supermarket creates health risks for pedestrians and other drivers. The choice not to be tested for the flu and then go about life as normal creates health risks for others. The choice of diving into a community swimming pool creates health risks for others. The choice to use a public restroom creates health risks for others. In each of these situations, the benefits of allowing individuals to freely make such choices are believed to be greater than the benefits that would arise from imposing novel restrictions on such choices.
So What About COVID and the Vaccines?
So is there something special about COVID-19 that justifies the unusual authoritarian step of making vaccination mandatory? No.
First there is this important and relevant reality that warrants repetition given the bizarre yet widespread belief that this reality is neither important nor relevant: COVID reserves its dangers overwhelmingly for the old and ill – that is, for an easily self-identified group, the members of which can take measures to protect themselves from exposure to the virus without requiring the vast majority of humanity, very few of whom are at real risk from COVID, to suspend and upend their lives.
Second – and even apart from the first point – the fact that vaccinations are quite effective at protecting vaccinated persons from contracting and suffering from COVID should be sufficient to drive the final stake through the heart of the case for mandatory vaccination. Yet mandatory vaxxers have a retort. They believe that their case is made by establishing two facts. The first of these facts is that vaccination not only protects vaccinated individuals from COVID, it also reduces the prospect of vaccinated persons spreading COVID to others. The second fact is that not everyone is or can be vaccinated. These two facts are then cobbled into a springboard from which mandatory vaxxers leap to the conclusion that, therefore, the state should mandate vaccination of everyone who is medically able to be vaccinated.
But this leap is illogical, for it ignores several pertinent questions. And persons bearing the burden of proof are in no position to ignore pertinent questions.
Among the pertinent questions ignored – and, hence, not answered – are these:
- By how much does being vaccinated reduce a person’s chance of transmitting the coronavirus? Is this reduction worth all the costs of mandating vaccination?
- How many people have medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated against COVID? And what portion of these people are in groups whose members are at especially high risks of suffering from COVID?
- What does having a medical condition that prevents someone from being vaccinated against COVID even mean? Does it mean that such persons, were they vaccinated, would incur a 100 percent chance of dying from the vaccination? Surely not. But if not, to what specific risk-levels would COVID vaccination subject such people? And are these risks high enough to be part of a credible case for mandatory vaccination?
- What is the cost to the “unable-to-be-vaccinated” group of otherwise protecting themselves from COVID compared to the cost of mandating that everyone else be vaccinated?
- The very existence of a group of people for whom COVID vaccines are too risky to take implies that COVID vaccines are not risk-free for anyone. (Even apart from the inherent, if sufficiently small, “natural” random risk posed by any medical treatment, each of us has some positive chance of unknowingly being afflicted with one or more of the conditions that are recognized as rendering COVID vaccination as too risky.) Why, then, should everyone – save individuals in the formally exempt group – be required to be vaccinated and, thus, be required to be subjected to some positive risk of being physically harmed by the vaccine?
- If, as the mandatory vaxxers imply, any action that poses a risk to the health of strangers is an action that government should treat as an “externality” and forcibly prevent, why should not government treat all expressions of arguments in support of mandatory vaccination as externalities to be forcibly forbidden? Because vaccination itself is not risk-free, forcing people to be vaccinated is to forcibly subject some people to a risk that they’d prefer to avoid. Further, publicly advocating for mandatory vaccination increases the risk that a policy of mandatory vaccination will be implemented – meaning that publicly advocating for mandatory vaccination (according to the logic of the mandatory vaxxers themselves) exposes innocent others to a risk that government is duty-bound to prevent.
Of course, I would oppose efforts to quiet the speech of mandatory vaxxers with the same energy and sincerity that fuel my opposition to efforts of mandatory vaxxers to impose on humanity their authoritarian measure. But the fact that the logic of the mandatory vaxxers can easily be used to make a case for forcibly stripping them of their freedom to peacefully advocate mandatory vaccination reveals just how flimsy is the case for mandatory vaccination.
That case, to repeat, cannot be settled in the abstract with the mere intonation of the word “externality.” The above-mentioned questions (and perhaps some others) about facts must be answered. And the burden in a liberal, open society for answering those questions in ways that make the case for any government mandate rests on the proponents of the mandate and not on the defenders of freedom.
David J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) and economics professor at George Mason University.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on AIER.