To Vaccinate, or Not to Vaccinate: That Is the Question

With Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul now having weighed in on the growing compulsory vaccination debate—Paul telling a radio host yesterday that most vaccines “ought to be voluntary”—the question arises whether there’s a “libertarian” position on the question. Rightly suspicious of government compulsion, a libertarian’s first instinct is to say that this is a question for individual parents to decide. But second thoughts suggest that the matter is more complicated. After all, it isn’t simply a matter of assessing the risk to one’s own child, about which the state is not entirely disinterested—enforceable parental obligations to one’s children come with becoming a parent. It’s also a question of how much risk one can impose, even through one’s children, on others. And on the matter of risk, the rights analyses that easily sort out so many other human conflicts start to break down—or, more precisely, require turning to values as well, about which reasonable people can have reasonable differences. Some people are risk averse, after all, others are risk takers, and between the two there is no principled line, which is why we often have to turn to public solutions through public line-drawing.

Fortunately, there comes just this morning a splendid essay by NYU Prof. and Cato Adjunct Scholar Richard Epstein that sorts out the competing claims on this question in a principled and fairly detailed way. To those reluctant to see any government role, for example, he says:

Even in a free state, quarantines are the only reliable remedy to protect the health of the public at large from the spread of disease. It is sheer fantasy to think that individuals made ill could bring private lawsuits for damages against the parties that infected them, or that persons exposed to imminent risk could obtain injunctive relief against the scores of persons who threaten to transmit disease. The transmission of disease involves hidden and complex interconnections between persons that could not be detected in litigation, even assuming that it could be brought in time, which it cannot. Public oversight should be able to achieve the desired end at a far lower cost.

Yet he adds: “That said, the categorical defense of compulsory vaccination statutes raises serious questions of its own,” which he goes on to illuminate. Read the whole piece. It brings reason to issues too often fraught with and driven by emotion, understandably when it’s our children who are at risk.