Published 08/06/2021

Andrew Jacobs is a student at University of Utah studying Philosophy and Cognitive Science. He focuses his philosophical mind powers on cats and good movies.

Mandating Liberty Requires Mandating Vaccines

Earlier today, Bloomberg published an article titled "Vaccine Mandates and Personal Liberty Can Coexist," by Stephen L. Carter, which controversially claims that libertarians everywhere should applaud the vaccine mandates imposed by Indiana University. He argues that libertarian ideals are salvageable despite the seeming contradiction between state-backed mandates and personal decision-making. By restricting regulation to affect only those who might otherwise be unable to act with more liberty without them—in this case, the students at Indiana University—one can avoid imposing on the rights of those who wouldn't.

While Carter's analysis is a clear and direct step in the right direction, he fails to comprehensively extend that analysis to the broader society in which we live. By his thinking, we must conclude that libertarian principles aren't just able to coexist with vaccine mandates. Rather, they require vaccine mandates. Mandatory vaccination is the logical consequence of libertarian ideals.

This sort of thinking initially appears to be nonsensical. How on earth could compulsory action reinforce the core tenets of libertarian individualism?

The relationship between free action and regulated action is complex within the libertarian social framework. Even though libertarianism is principally aimed to preserve personal liberty, it requires certain regulatory measures to do so. As much as libertarians value self-determined actions, no right-minded libertarian would defend someone's decision to assault another person because assault imposes limits on the victim's ability to make free choices, specifically, the choice not to be assaulted. Carter illustrates this relationship by pointing to the ruling of judge Damon R. Leichty, commending how, when brought the case of Indiana University's vaccine mandates, he "engaged in his own detailed march through the evidence before concluding that unless vaccinations were required, the university would not be able to return to normal functioning." Thus, because the students and faculty of the university would be less free to operate as a university without vaccine mandates than with vaccine mandates, Judge Leichty's ruling should be celebrated as a forward step for libertarian values, Carter says.

However, Carter seems to think vaccine mandates are only appropriate at a localized level. "Perhaps most important, other institutions in the state, schools or businesses or anything else, were left free to come up with their own rules, depending on their circumstances." He argues that a significant element of this libertarian victory was that this ruling allows individual entities, of broader scope than individual citizens, to determine for themselves what the proper regulatory statutes ought to be within their scope of influence. Problematically, this position undermines the very thesis of the libertarianism Carter promotes.

Carter's reference to philosopher Jessica Flanigan's argument for vaccine mandates is particularly illuminating of this issue. Flanigan asks us to consider an analogy:

Imagine sitting outside of your house on Independence Day watching the fireworks in the sky. Suddenly, your neighbors start shooting their guns into the air in celebration, and out of understandable fear, you move to run inside. On the way, however, a bullet hits you in the shoulder. Would the shooter be at fault in this situation? Let's hold off on answering that and look at the analogous case she offers.

Now imagine attending a Memorial Day party with your children. Upon arriving, you find out that some of the other children at the event are not vaccinated and hear some of them coughing. You recognize the sound as whooping cough. You know it is unlikely that your children will get sick because they are vaccinated. But out of concern for their health, you gather your children and leave. A week later, one of your vaccinated children contracts a case of pertussis that takes him out of school for two months and is miserable. The doctor tells you that the whooping cough vaccine is only 70-85% effective at preventing the illness, and transmission rates are high because some adults don't receive their booster shots or vaccinate their kids. Are the parents at the Memorial Day party at fault in this situation?

Flanigan argues that both the shooter in the first case and the anti-vax parents in the second case are responsible for the harm that they have caused. Each incident represents avoidable harm caused to innocent others as a result of personally determined, careless actions. Some may think that the cases are not comparable because disease spreads naturally while gunfire must happen deliberately. Flanigan quickly dismisses this objection by pointing out that in a society with readily available vaccines and medicine, one cannot appeal to nature in this way. It is just as viable to blame a shooter for a bullet falling from the sky as it is an unvaccinated person for someone getting sick. After all, bullets falling are also a product of nature, she notes.

We have laws that prohibit celebratory gunfire, and they seem to be a product of common sense—"what goes up must come down." However, we have yet to see any laws mandating vaccination. The opposite is true. Many states are banning vaccine mandates, and more are attempting to do so every day.

Returning to Carter's piece in Bloomberg, is it enough to say that local entities should be able to decide whether to mandate vaccines? Is it sufficient to allow local entities to judge whether celebratory gunfire is permitted? Absolutely not. In the same way that a bullet falling from the sky can end up far, far away from the gun that shoots it, a disease spreads beyond the confines of local organizations like schools. As we can see, even states left to their own devices somehow want to protect the right to harm others.

To preserve libertarian freedoms, we must impose vaccine mandates at a federal level. Libertarian ideals require us to go beyond the comfortable position of Carter's localized statutes. Mandating liberty demands mandating vaccines for all of us.

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