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Freedom, the Harm Principle, and the COVID Vaccine

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Freedom, the Harm Principle, and the COVID Vaccine

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2020 has gone from being an all bad news year, to what I guess can be described as a good news/bad news kind of year. 

The good news?  We have several very promising vaccines that should be available fairly soon – in fact in record time.  The bad news is that public distrust about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine is surprisingly widespread; and it’s particularly high among African-Americans, according to NPR.  Three former presidents- Clinton, Bush and Obama- have all volunteered to receive the vaccine live in order to reassure the public over its safety.

Just last year before the pandemic hit there was a lot of discussion about the problems that have arisen as a result of the decisions by so-called “anti vaxxers-” those who refuse to take vaccines or have them administered to their children for either religious reasons or because they doubt the veracity of the science behind them.  I don’t need to make a lengthy case that such beliefs fly in the face of reality, so I won’t.  If you think vaccines cause autism you’re just dead wrong.

And yet as Ron Bailey over at Reason has adroitly noted – vaccines don’t in and of themselves solve the problem unless the vaccinations are widespread enough to help achieve herd immunity.  Public officials have to convince the public that the vaccine is effective in helping to solve the pandemic and safe.  As I have noted elsewhere, at the moment public trust in our political leadership is not especially high, for good reasons.

So what should a liberty-minded person think about the role that the state should play in getting the public as widely vaccinated as soon as possible?  Initially, one might believe that a libertarian would make this an individual decision – a person has the right to decide to do what she sees as best.  However, libertarians and liberty-minded individuals also very much believe in John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”.  The harm principle states that the only reason to restrict the actions of individuals is to prevent harm to others.  By not getting vaccinated individuals make hitting the herd immunity threshold a longer and more difficult goal to achieve, putting others directly at risk. 

So for those of us who defend the concept of liberty, vaccines seem to be an example where perhaps the state can and should use its coercive power to force citizens to be vaccinated, assuming the vaccine is deemed safe and effective.  While this runs contrary to the intuition one might expect, individuals who reject the vaccine are obviously violating the harm principle.

Freedom, the Harm Principle, and the COVID Vaccine 2

Should those of us who defend liberty endorse the idea that the state should set up mandatory vaccination clinics and drag people out of their homes in the night to vaccinate them?  Obviously not.  But just as schools require children to be vaccinated before attending, it seems to me that requiring a COVID vaccine for certain activities is a way to “encourage” such behavior.  One might even use the rather unpopular word “nudge”.  Want a driver’s license?  Show me your COVID vaccination.  Care to enter a public building?  You need to document you’ve been vaccinated.  Private businesses should take the same steps.  I would much rather peacefully and comfortably comb the aisles of Walmart and Costco without a mask but with my vaccination certificate.

Freedom and responsibility are tied at the hip, and we are at the point where we must individually agree to act swiftly and responsibly to help save lives – let’s get vaccinated as soon as possible and save the lives of others.  But let’s also accept that we must allow for the prospect that the state might have a role to play here.  If cigarettes are regulated because of the risk of secondhand smoke, encouraging COVID vaccination seems like a no-brainer.

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