One of the problems I have with my libertarianism — indeed, a big reason I often describe myself as a conservative-libertarian — is the tendency of some libertarians to chase the philosophy into intellectual cul-de-sacs. All political philosophies have a tendency to favor ever “purer” strains. But because libertarians define our philosophy as one of personal liberty, we have a tendency to think that the only acceptable policies are those with maximum personal liberty. Any practical objections tend to be swept under the rug with a few unconnected words about “free markets”.
I’m not explaining this well. Let me illustrate with an unrelated example.
When I was in college, I took a philosophy class with a feminist professor. When we got to the portion on feminism, we were discussing third wavers who thought that women in an oppressive society fundamentally could not consent to sex, that all sex was therefore rape and therefore women should not have sex. My response was that any philosophy that countenanced, at least in theory, the potential extinction of the human race was fundamentally immoral. I said that these were the deranged ramblings of someone who had drunk too deeply of the feminist well. They had taken good ideas (women shouldn’t be second class citizens) and purified them to a bizarre extreme.
A more germane example: a number of libertarians oppose environmental regulation on the grounds that if my neighbor is polluting my land, he is violating my property rights and this should settled in the courts. That sounds good if you only consider the ideology. But as a practical matter, it is a recipe for disaster. First, it’s not always clear that pollution has happened. The residents of Love Canal had no idea why they were getting so many birth defects and miscarriages. By the time they did figure it out, there had been immense suffering already. Second, it’s not always clear who is responsible for ills caused by pollution. In the Woburn Massachusetts case, it wasn’t clear who poured chemicals into the river that sickened the children. The jury was asked to decide the lawsuit based on a series of bewildering technical questions. Third, even in cases where the culprit is clear, you are frequently talking about powerful businesses with armies of lawyers who can drag a case on for decades. The Exxon Valdez lawsuits dragged on for twenty years. You can imagine how bad it is when the polluter is the government itself or when you’re dealing with the decade-old pollution of a business that no longer exists. Fourth, the ability of such a system to prevent pollution is dubious since it’s not always clear that Substance X will produce Harm Y for a long time. Finally, it seems absolutely appalling to countenance reparations for birth defects, miscarriages, severe illnesses and deaths rather than just preventing them in the first place in the name of free markets.
Does this mean the government isn’t over-zealous in fighting pollution? It frequently is and often chases its own ideology into banning minimally dangerous substances. Does this mean government always makes the right decisions? Of course not; the aforementioned Love Canal community was built on land the local government was warned was dangerous. Does it sometimes carve out exemptions for big polluters while hurting little guys? Absolutely; see what happened after the lead toy debacle. But at some point, we have to accept these limitations rather than get seduced by the seductive appeal of bottomless liberty.
(Another good example, on the Civil Rights Act, is illustrated here by James Joyner.)
I bring up this subject because there is a debate going on at Reason between Ronald Bailey and Jeffrey Singer over mandated vaccinations. Singer’s op-ed, which you can find here, crosses as me the rambling of someone drunk on libertarian ideals. It’s a series of libertarian statement strung together in the hope that it makes an argument. And it winds up saying bizarre things like this:
The phenomenon of herd immunity allows many unvaccinated people to avoid disease because they free ride off the significant portion of the population that is immunized and doesn’t, therefore, spread a given disease. Economists point out that free riding is an unavoidable fact of life: people free ride when they purchase a new, improved, and cheaper product that was “pre-tested” on more affluent people who wanted to be the first to own it; people free ride when they use word-of-mouth reviews to buy goods or services, or to see a film; those who choose not to carry concealed weapons free ride a degree of personal safety off the small percentage of the public that carries concealed weapons. So long as a person being free-ridden is getting a desired value for an acceptable price, and is not being harmed by the free riding, it really shouldn’t matter to that person. Achieving a society without free riders is not only unnecessary, it is impossible.
Well, duh. But we should try our best to limit the free riders to people who can not be vaccinated — people who are immunocompromised, for example. And while we can’t force 100% compliance, we can do as much as we can to get the immunization numbers into the 90-95+% numbers necessary to establish the herd immunity that protects the millions who have no choice but to free ride. Or people for whom the vaccine didn’t take.
On this subject, I find myself agreeing with Bailey: your freedom to swing your fists ends where someone else’s nose begins. I find it very difficult to countenance any version of a “free society” that includes the freedom to run around potentially spreading dangerous and deadly diseases. Most people are smarter than their government. But you don’t need a large percentage to be dumber to have, as we now do, huge outbreaks of entirely preventable diseases that are leaving dead and hurt children in their wake. Are those children to be human sacrifices to our idealized notion of freedom?
If we were talking about sexual transmitted diseases, I would agree with Singer. But these are diseases that can be spread by casual contact. They can be spread by people who are already vaccinated. They can be spread by people who never catch the disease themselves. This isn’t the moral equivalent of seat-belt law; this is the moral equivalent of laws against drunk driving.
Vaccinations are one of the greatest achievements in human history. They have destroyed smallpox and put hepatitis A and B, rotavirus, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella and some forms of meningitis on the run. These diseases used to kill and maim millions. Their eradication is far too great an achievement to trust to the ideology-addled hope that people will act in their own enlightened self-interest.
Because too many people don’t.