Compulsory vaccination and libertarianism

With the ongoing measles concern in the United States, and compulsory vaccination orders being issued by city and municipal governments, libertarianism has come into the fray. And the old misconceptions of libertarianism along with it.

The chief misconception being the conflation of libertarianism with anarchism, or that libertarianism means you can’t ever force anyone to do anything.

So is compulsory vaccination incompatible with libertarianism? Yes and no. It depends heavily on nuance.

Back in the 1940s when the last pockets of smallpox were being eradicated in the United States, compulsory vaccination was part of the arsenal. For context, smallpox killed 1 in 3 of everyone who contracted it, and left another 1 in 3 horribly maimed. The smallpox vaccine protocol was developed and published back in 1798. I won’t go into details, but that protocol is the only reason smallpox is, today, “extinct in the wild”.

But given the history of smallpox and that it killed so, so many people, mandatory vaccination orders were issued whenever any outbreak occurred.

So how can I say that compulsory vaccination is compatible with libertarianism? It comes down to the misunderstanding that libertarianism means all force is bad. And that. is. not. true. Instead the person or government wanting to use force must justify that force before exercising it.

When there is an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable illness, compulsory vaccination becomes justifiable, depending on the illness in question and the risk that illness poses to a population not vaccinated against it. And for compulsory vaccination to be justifiable, the virus or bacteria in question typically must be very contagious and pose a high risk of great bodily harm or death.

Compulsory vaccination on a mass scale against influenza, for example, would be very, very difficult to justify. Influenza for most people is a few very bad days. Hospitals, however, are perfectly within their right to compel influenza vaccination among their staff, simply due to being around people for whom influenza poses a much greater health risk.

Measles is much different. So compulsory MMR/MMRV vaccination against measles is perfectly justifiable. To an extent.

During the smallpox outbreaks that were still occurring in the 1940s in the United States, the compulsory vaccination orders applied only to those areas where the outbreak occurred. The Federal government did not, nor did it have the power to compel vaccination on a nationwide scale, nor could any State government justify vaccination on a State-wide scale. And compulsory MMR/MMRV vaccination orders being issued today apply only to those places where the measles outbreaks are occurring.

And as measles outbreaks become more frequent across the United States, something I predicted nearly 10 years ago would happen, compulsory vaccination orders will become more frequent.

And there is nothing about them that is incompatible with libertarianism.

90% of those exposed to measles will contract it unless they have been successfully vaccinated against it. Measles isn’t something to scoff at either. Complications include

  • pneumonia
  • bronchitis
  • seizures
  • encephalitis (swelling of the brain)
  • corneal ulceration (which can lead to corneal scarring)
  • acute ear infections (otitis media) and hearing loss
  • immuno-suppression lasting for several weeks or months

Like with most viral diseases, supportive care is the only option once someone contracts it and symptoms present, which can take nearly two weeks from contraction. Meaning a person who contracts measles has a very miserable week to 10 days ahead of them. If they develop complications, it’s a very miserable hospital stay. In quarantine. The mortality rate used to be nearly 1 in 3 about 100 years ago, but better treatments of symptoms and control of complications have dropped the mortality rate to under 1% of those who contract it.

The virus can survive for a rather inordinate amount of time outside the human body as well. Measles is a very serious public health threat.

So compulsory vaccination is perfectly justifiable and compatible with libertarianism simply due to the risk to the public that measles poses. The greater harm that is abated through compulsory vaccination well offsets any harm to personal liberty.