The Implications of Libertarianism for Compulsory Vaccination

Guest Post: Justin Bernstein

Paper: The Case Against Libertarian Arguments for Compulsory Vaccination

In a recent political controversy, libertarian Senator Rand Paul articulated his opposition to a policy of compulsory vaccination, stating that he was “all for [vaccines],” but that he was “also for freedom.” U.S. opponents of vaccines often object to compulsory vaccination on the (false) grounds that vaccines cause autism. But Paul’s claim that he was “for freedom” suggests a distinct, libertarian-minded rationale for opposing compulsory vaccination.

Libertarians deny that the state has the right to restrict individual liberty in order to promote welfare. A policy of compulsory vaccination promotes welfare by ensuring herd immunity. But such a policy also restricts individual liberty because it requires parents to subject their children to a medical procedure, and permits the state to punish non-compliance. So, a policy of compulsory vaccination certainly seems at odds with the libertarian’s commitment to liberty–even if herd immunity is threatened.

Some libertarians, however, attempt to avoid the controversial conclusion that libertarianism is incompatible with compulsory vaccination. In my recent paper, “The Case Against Libertarian Arguments for Compulsory Vaccination,” I argue that such attempts are unsuccessful, and so libertarians must either develop new arguments, or join Senator Paul in opposing compulsory vaccination.

How might a libertarian try to defend compulsory vaccination? One argument is that going unvaccinated exposes others to risk, and this violates their rights. Since the state is permitted to use coercive measures to protect rights, the state may require parents to vaccinate their children. But for libertarians, this argument has two shortcomings. First, there are other, far riskier activities that the libertarian prohibits the government from regulating. For instance, owning and using automobiles or firearms imposes far more significant risk than going unvaccinated, but libertarians defend our rights to own and use automobiles and firearms. Second, one individual going unvaccinated poses very little risk; the risk eventuates only if many collectively go unvaccinated, thereby endangering herd immunity. Imposing such an independently small risk hardly seems to be a rights violation.

The libertarian philosopher, Jason Brennan aims to avoid the two shortcomings of this pro-vaccine argument. First, he distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable risk. On his view, a risk is acceptable if it’s to everyone’s advantage to be exposed to that risk. For example, driving a car imposes risk on others, but this risk is acceptable because (according to Brennan) everyone benefits from being allowed to drive cars. Going unvaccinated, by contrast, seems to impose risk without benefit. Second, Brennan argues that actions that make miniscule contributions to collective unacceptable risk are as objectionable as actions that are unacceptably risky independent of others’ behavior. Going unvaccinated constitutes a contribution to collective risk imposition. Finally, Brennan claims that the state is permitted to prohibit people from imposing unacceptable risk of harm on others. Therefore, the state is permitted to institute a policy of compulsory vaccination.

In reply to Brennan, I raise two objections. First, I object to how Brennan defines unacceptable risk. My second objection concerns Brennan’s claim that the state may regulate activities that collectively impose unacceptable risk.

First, I argue that Brennan’s definition of unacceptable risk turns on whether risk-imposition leads to an increase in welfare. However, libertarianism precludes restricting liberty for the sake of promoting welfare. After all, a deep commitment to liberty is what makes it difficult to justify a compulsory vaccination policy in the first place. So, Brennan’s first premise in his libertarian defense of compulsory vaccination is inconsistent with libertarianism’s core principles.

My second objection concerns justifying compulsory vaccination because it prevents unacceptable collective risk. Imagine a government that could prohibit citizens from performing any actions that expose others to unacceptable collective risk. Such a government would be permitted to restrict our liberty in various ways inconsistent with libertarian commitments. To take one of many examples, by driving a fuel-inefficient car, each individual performs an action that imposes negligible environmental risk. Collectively, however, driving fuel-inefficient cars contributes to unacceptable risk in the form of significant environmental harm. If we accept, as Brennan does, that the government may prohibit us from imposing unacceptable collective risk, then the government may prohibit citizens from buying and selling fuel-inefficient vehicles. Clearly that policy would restrict our free market liberties–which the libertarian staunchly opposes. Brennan claims to proffer a libertarian defense of compulsory vaccination, but his argument is inconsistent with the libertarian’s commitment to extensive free market rights.

Engaging in political philosophy helps articulate core principles underlying political positions and the implications of such principles. If we find the implications of a view unacceptable, then we should reject the view along with the unacceptable implications. If a deep commitment to liberty implies that we must stand idly by as herd immunity is undermined, we should reject the deep commitment to liberty. Rather than joining Senator Paul by opposing compulsory vaccination in the name of freedom, libertarians ought to either develop additional arguments to defend compulsory vaccination, or revise their core principles.