Archive for May, 2009


A Commitment to Liberty

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

Last night, I got into an interesting discussion with one of my more liberal leaning friends.  The subject of the discussion was about public policy as it relates to vaccination, particularly, the vaccination of school aged children.  In his view, this is clearly an area where existing mandates for vaccination have become too diluted with exemptions, particularly the “personal belief” exemptions which allow parents to opt out of otherwise mandatory vaccinations because they hold strong personal beliefs against administering them.  He seemed to hope that I would come to agree with his position that the solution is to reduce the availability of exemptions.  On principles of liberty, I stubbornly refused.

Society has a clear interest in preserving herd immunity, as the alternative is significant exposure to serious illnesses like small pox and polio which have not afflicted society for many years.  As my friend rightly argues, if enough people individually make the decision to not vaccinate, the collective risk is nothing short of a possible epidemic.  Clearly a bad thing.  Yet, as my friend observes, a rising interest in natural / holistic medicine and fears about the safety of vaccines (perhaps most notably the thoroughly debunked vaccine-autism link) has moved society closer to a dangerous precipice.  And, as he points out, the most efficient way to prevent a bad outcome is to prevent people from making the decision to not vaccinate.

While my friend’s method may be efficient, it is also a direct assault on liberty.

Whenever people in society are free to make decisions, it is inevitable that some of the decisions people make will be sub-optimal, or flat out wrong.  Sometimes disastrously so.  Knowing the danger, it is tempting to want to step in to reduce the chance of a bad outcome.  It is tempting to step in and say that some decisions are too risky to leave in the hands of the people.

Liberty demands more.  It is impossible to talk seriously about liberty when the only available freedoms are with respect to low risk issues.  Liberty itself is dangerous business and, as history has shown, the freedom to talk about freedom is always one of the first that governments try to strip away.  The reason, of course is obvious: A free person might decide to do something other than what whoever has power wants them to do.

A commitment to liberty demands accepting the fact that some things will not go your way.  To be sure, it is proper to try to persuade people to your side, and much of the discussion I had with my friend focused on how to persuade parents to vaccinate their children even if they may be skittish about the idea.  At the end of the day, however, a freedom itself requires that parents themselves make the decision.

There is only meaning in liberty if the people are at liberty to decide something meaningful.

Tags: ,