All Commentary
Friday, July 1, 2016

Mandatory Vaccinations Are Incompatible with Liberty

Mandatory vaccinations are a gross violation of liberty. On some government policy issues — including mandatory quarantines, airport checkpoints, and NSA email scanning — there is at least a coherent allegation of a trade-off between individual freedom and public safety. But when it comes to mandatory vaccinations, there is little scope for plausible debate.

Mandatory vaccinations involve a supreme violation of liberty, where agents of the state inject substances into someone’s body against his or her will. On the other side of the ledger, even in principle, mandatory vaccinations do not offer much benefit in enhanced public welfare, relative to a free society. When we throw in the realistic worries of government incompetence and malfeasance, the case against mandatory vaccinations is overwhelming.

Before making my case, I will explain in basic terms how different groups are likely to treat the proposition, according to major conceptions of the state’s proper role. I do this in order to show that, even if we’re being charitable to the most inclusive conceptions of liberty as a principle, mandatory vaccinations are still not justifiable.

First, among those who hew strictly to a nonaggression principle and a stateless society, mandatory vaccinations are, of course, a nonstarter. Whether they identify themselves as “strict libertarians,” “voluntaryists,” or “anarchocapitalists,” this group would obviously never condone the state’s forcing someone to be vaccinated, because most believe the state is illegitimate.

Second, for minarchists, the proper role for the state is that of a “night watchman,” a minimal government that only protects the individual from domestic criminals and foreign threats. In a minarchist framework, it is only legitimate for the state to take action against someone who is violating (or threatening to violate) the rights of another. A person’s failure to become vaccinated is hardly by itself a violation of someone else’s rights. Flipping it around, it would sound odd to say you have the right to live in a society where everyone else has had measles shots.

Third, and most interesting, let’s consider a broader notion of liberty, which balances a presumption of individual autonomy against the public welfare. In this approach, there’s not a blanket prohibition on the state restricting the liberties of individuals — even when they haven’t yet hurt anybody else — so long as such restrictions impose little harm on the recipients and possibly prevent a vast amount of damage. This is the only conception of the state for which the mandatory vaccination debate is possible.

Let’s be charitable and assume this more expansive definition, under which, for example, even self-described libertarians might not object to stiff penalties for drunk driving or prohibitions on citizens building atomic bombs in their basements. How does mandatory vaccination fare in this framework, where we’re not arguing in terms of qualitative principles but instead performing a quantitative cost-benefit test?

Even here, the case for mandatory vaccinations is weak. First of all, the only realistic scenario where the issue would even be relevant is where the vast majority of the public thinks it would be a good idea if everyone got vaccinated, but (for whatever reason) a small minority strongly disagreed. This is obvious: if the medical case for a vaccine were so dubious that, say, half the public didn’t think it made sense to administer it, then there would hardly be an issue of the government clamoring to inject half the population against their will.

Now, let’s push our analysis further. We’re dealing with a scenario in which the vast majority of the public thinks it would be a good idea for all of the public to become vaccinated. In that environment, if vaccines are voluntary, then we can be confident that just about all of these enthusiasts would go ahead and become vaccinated. In other words, any “free riding” would only take place at the margin, if most of the population had gotten the vaccine and thus an outbreak of the relevant disease was unlikely.

This is a crucial point, and it shows why the case for mandatory vaccines is so much weaker than, for example, the case for mandatory restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions or mandatory contributions to the national military. When a person gets vaccinated, the primary beneficiary is himself. And this benefit is all the greater the lower the rate of vaccination in the population at large. In other words, among a population of people who all believe that a vaccine is effective, the individual cost-benefit analysis of taking the vaccine will only yield a temptation of “free riding” once a sufficient fraction of the population has become vaccinated, thus ensuring “herd immunity.”

Unlike other examples of huge (alleged) trade-offs between individual and public benefits, with vaccinations there is no threat of a mass outbreak in a free society. With vaccines, we have the happy outcome that when someone chooses to vaccinate him or herself, so long as the vaccine is effective, then that person is largely shielded from the consequences of others’ decisions regarding vaccination.

However, the proponents of mandatory vaccinations say that this analysis is too glib. There are people who can’t undergo certain vaccinations because of medical conditions, including young people (babies) who are not yet old enough to receive certain shots. It is to protect these vulnerable pockets of the population that some want the state to force vaccinations on those who are too ignorant or too selfish to recognize their duty of living in a community.

Notice the irony and how weak the mandatory vaccination case has become. We are no longer being told that vaccines are “safe,” and that anyone who fears medical complications is a conspiracy theorist trusting Jenny McCarthy over guys in white lab coats. On the contrary, the CDC warns certain groups not to take popular vaccines because of the health risks. This is no longer a matter of principle — of the people on the side of science being pro-vaccine, while the tinfoil-hatters are anti-vaccine. Instead it’s a disagreement over which people should be taking the vaccine and which people should not take it because the dangers are too great.

Regarding children, social conflict can be resolved through the fuller application of private property rights. If all schools, hospitals, and daycare centers were privately operated and had the legal right to exclude whichever clients they wished, then the owners could decide on vaccination policies. Any parents who were horrified at the idea of little Jimmy playing with an unvaccinated kid could choose Jimmy’s school accordingly.

We have seen that even assuming the best of government officials, it is difficult to state an argument in favor of mandatory vaccinations. Yet, the debate tilts even more when we recall that throughout history, government officials have made horrible decisions in the name of public welfare, either through incompetence or ulterior motives. It should be obvious that no fan of liberty can support injecting substances into an innocent person’s body against his or her will.

  • Robert P. Murphy is senior economist at the Independent Energy Institute, a research assistant professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.