Libertarianism: mandatory vaccinations, yay or nay?

In 1853, the British Parliament adopted the Compulsory Vaccination Act which made it mandatory for all parents to have their children innoculated againsted smallpox within three months of their birth or face a twenty shilling fine.

Opposition to the act was considerable. The lower classes thought it unfairly targetted them, as they were most likely to be afflicted by the disease. Liberals thought that it unfairly reduced personal choice, as there was already vaccinations freely available, if anyone chose to have them done.

Given that the 1853 act considerably helped in reducing smallpox deaths (although it was becoming less common due to living conditions gradually improving) should the argument that mandatory innoculation reduces personal choice be ignored?

We don’t have mandatory vaccinations here in the US. In fact, my sister, who home schools her son and doesn’t believe in ‘western medicine’ hasn’t had her child vaccinated with anything…she relies on ‘herbal cures’ and accupuncture and the mysteries of chinese/oriental medicines and such.

Vaccinations are a sort of a social contract that we have with our fellow citizens. I think the majority of the citizens can be trusted to do whats best for their children, so I don’t think it needs to be ‘mandatory’ today.

Just my opinion of course.


Well sort of mandatory.

The US is historically good at recognizing the need to balance individual rights versus the needs of the society. Certain bases of individual rights are harder to trump for societal good than others and compromises are struck. Such is the case with vaccines.

For many (not all) vaccines the situation is such that very substantial benefits are far greater if almost all are immunized than if only 50 to 75% are. This occurs because of herd immunity - the result of most people never being exposed in the first place because they are in the middle of a herd of protected individuals. The societal benefit for getting nearly all to participate is great. Therefore only a very few individual rights can trump it. One of those rights is religious freedom. Religious exemptions are allowed. So is a true medical contraindication. And it is only enforced throught he school system (with the presumption that school attendence is the major at risk environment) so home schooling is also an out. Otherwise it is required for school attendence (and in some cases preschool or liscensed daycare).

As a liberterian leaning liberal with some common sense I do think that the case needs to be made that the public health good is great enough before such mandating of a vaccine. Hepatitis B vaccination at birth did not, for example, cross that threshold to me. I think it is a good idea. My kids were vaccinated. I am vaccinated. As a pediatrician I would advise it. But if I fail to make the sale then a parent should have the right to make what I consider a stupid decision since the risk of HepB in early childhood is very small and they are not putting anyone else at increased risk other than their own. (Little blood or sexual exposure in early childhood)

To me, this is a case where what you see isn’t signficantly different than what would likely happen in a “real” libertarian society. The cool thing about freedom is that if something is truly believed to be beneficial by most of society, that society will figure out a way to make it happen.

Here is what I would expect: Because so many parents would want their children kept safe from disease, it would become a competitive issue for schools to require vaccination (trust your children with us! Relax in the comfort of knowing that they are in a safe environment where all students and teachers have received all vaccinations, etc.). In other words, there would be large penetration and it would be “enforced” by schools. There just wouldn’t be a legal requirement.

And, yes, there would be some exceptions. Personally, I doubt that they would amount to anything more than the exceptions that we see here in the real USA, as noted above. Keep in mind that for those who are vaccinated, the ones who are not pose no particular danger. And there will always be people who endanger themselves and their children for one stupid reason or another. I don’t see anything particularly special about this example.

Freedom DOES mean freedom to make bad choices (and face the consequences). It does NOT mean anarchy, and there’s no reason to expect that it would lead to everyone becoming selfish mercenaries.