Libertarianism and Communicable Disease
In a recent post, I mentioned that I tentatively support UC’s new requirement that all students, faculty, and staff get vaccinated against the flu. (I say tentatively because it’s possible that the medical benefits aren’t great enough.) My reasoning there specifically focused on the government’s propriety role there: I think it’s generally legitimate for institutions (government or otherwise) to protect their clients (including students) and employees from the risk of harm—including inadvertent harm—inflicted by other clients and employees.
But I also think that it would be morally permissible for the government to require various vaccines for everybody, and not just for its employees or students. Again, it might be that the costs of some particular vaccine mandate would exceed the benefits; and we should count cost to liberty in some measure in this analysis. But I don’t think that vaccinations are categorically precluded on libertarian grounds, or in particular the Millian “free to do what I please so long as I don’t harm others” principle. Let me quickly lay out my thinking.
It is a sad fact of biology that we can spread communicable diseases without any conscious decision on our parts, even without knowing that we are infected. Any time we do this, we are causing physical harm to someone else, and indirectly causing physical harm to many others; and we do that without choosing to cause such harm.
An analogy might be guns. Libertarians generally frown on gun bans, and instead seek to ban misuse of guns. People who use guns properly, the theory goes, should be free to keep doing that; only those who choose to misuse them (to kill or to shoot recklessly or the like) should be punished. Likewise with alcohol and the like.
But say that you had a gun that had a 1% chance of just randomly shooting someone—or perhaps a 1% chance of leaking a deadly poison into the air around you—even when that wasn’t at all your desire; and there was a procedure that could be performed on your gun that would pretty safely eliminate or at least sharply reduce that chance. It seems to me
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