Posted to LewRockwell.com
February 12, 2015
By Dan Phillips, MD
The mandatory vs. voluntary vaccination debate is once again occupying a vastly disproportionate share of the media airwaves and social media bandwidth. A noteworthy aspect of this debate is that it cuts across traditional ideological lines and is often quite hostile.
The “conservative” opinion on this topic could potentially swing both ways, but on the surface the “libertarian” position seems clear cut. That the government should not force a person to be vaccinated strikes me as the obvious libertarian position, but there is perhaps more to it judging by the level of intra-libertarian debate. Like the abortion debate, there is nuance required because other people are subject to the consequences of an individual’s decision. It is also complicated by the fact that we are generally talking about children here, and the people whose decisions are either being respected or ignored are the parents.
For example, Ron Paul has come down on the side of vaccine science but against compulsion . His son Rand has essentially done the same thing , but with a few missteps or at least what the mainstream media perceived to be missteps. Libertarian leaning conservative Thomas Sowell comes down on the side of mandatory vaccines in this article where he also attempts to address the science.
I strongly side with Ron and Rand against compulsion, but I think Sowell does a fair, if necessarily cursory, job of addressing the science. What strikes me the most about this debate, however, is not that it crosses ideological lines, but how acrimonious it is. For example, “Libertarian Girl” (one of a few so designated) noted this in a Facebook post (modified slightly for grammar and punctuation):
…the vaxx or not to vaxx debate has turned way super nasty…folks on both sides are saying horrible things , drawing lines in the sand and otherwise being giant assholes to each other. I’ve not seen as divisive an issue as this in a while…
What follows is a highly contentious debate that perfectly illustrates her point, and at this time has generated 400 comments.
So why so much emotion regarding this debate? For one, it involves potentially serious consequences. Serious medical illnesses and even death could be at stake. For another, it involves children. Parents understandably get emotionally invested when their children are involved, whether they think unvaccinated kids put their vaccinated kids at risk or they think vaccines potentially poison their children.
That conceded, I am convinced that there is more going on here than intra-ideological skirmishes over the limits of libertarianism or concerned parents. I believe this debate is so rancorous because there is really a subtext below the surface and more at stake than initially meets the eye. The vaccine debate is acting as a kind of proxy debate for a person’s tendency to generally accept or reject the conventional wisdom. Pro-vaccine forces are signaling that they hold the “correct” belief, and seem to have an emotional investment in indicating that they are not “one of those types” of libertarians/consersvative/liberals. The anti-vaccine forces are signaling their unwillingness to automatically believe everything they are told by the Powers That Be, and are emotionally invested in demonstrating that they are independent thinkers who are unwilling to simply follow the herd.
So what is driving all this emotion is, I suspect, less about potential harm to children, which is a very low incidence occurrence regardless of which side you are on, and more of a battle between competing identities. It is less “Your position threatens the children,” and more “You’re a science denying fool who should be forced to conform,” or “You’re a sheep who blindly believes everything the so-called ‘experts’ tell you.”
This is a dynamic I commented on in a previous article . One thing that makes it obvious that there is a dynamic in play here that cuts across ideological boundaries is the fact that Rob Schneider, the anti-vaccine subject of my previous article, is scrupulously liberal. Also, the highest percentage of unvaccinated schoolchildren is in ultra-liberal Marin County, California.
By my observation, anti-vaccination sentiment tends to cluster around other similar sentiments. I don’t have a study in front of me, but I don’t think it would be at all controversial to speculate that Marin County also very likely has a high percentage of people who seek out organic food and avoid Monsanto and who eschew traditional allopathic medicine in favor of more holistic approaches, for example. It’s no coincidence that advertisements for colloidal silver are found in conspiracy oriented magazines, not National Review or The New Republic.
Pro-vaccine forces need to demonstrate more respect and less derision when dealing with anti-vaccine forces and realize that it is not enough, and is likely counter-productive, for them to just stamp their feet and insist the science is settled and dissenters should be made to comply. If an anti-vaccine person has an objection, that objection should be addressed politely and thoroughly and not simply dismissed with a hand wave and condescension.
Pro-vaxxers also need to step back from their pro-conventional wisdom flag flying for a minute, and look at the larger picture. I agree entirely with Tom Knapp of the libertarian Garrison Center when he says “rule by experts is more dangerous than measles.” Whether one is pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine, when you look at the actual numbers, the risk either way are statistically minimal. On the other hand, do the pro-mandate voices who value freedom really want to live in a society where experts can force those who disagree with them to comply or else? It’s not surprising when a nanny state advocate like Hillary Clinton blasts out a snarky and condescending tweet implicitly supporting mandates. It’s disappointing when Thomas Sowell does.
This part of the equation seems pretty clear to me. I’m surprised it is lost on so many who normally know better. It’s a shame so many seem to be letting their desire to culturally signal outweigh their normal pro-freedom inclinations.
Dan Phillips, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia. This article discusses Thomas Knapp’s article about vaccines, plus, Dr. Phillips was also featured in a previous articleon IPR that be be found here .