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2015 Is Apparently the Year of Peak Dorm-Room Libertarianism

Are we really arguing about vaccines and hand-washing in restaurants?

By Nathan Pippenger

It’s entirely appropriate that most people have reacted to the recent measles outbreak with outright, jaw-on-the-floor stupefaction. There’s no other sensible way to respond when an eradicated disease reemerges due to a toxic mix of paranoia, ignorance, and unconscionable irresponsibility. And while lots of the blame can be placed on anti-science quackery that surfaces at the extremes of left and right, the rise of vaccines as a political issue is also evidence of what is hopefully the high-water mark of knee-jerk libertarianism.

For evidence, look (where else?) to Rand Paul, who took this public health crisis as an opportunity to hold forth on why vaccinations are really about freedom. Opposing the idea of mandatory vaccinations earlier this week, Paul mused, “I don’t think there is anything extraordinary about resorting to freedom.” He went on to endorse the bogus, debunked idea that vaccines are linked to mental disorders before concluding that “the parent should have some input. The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom and public health.” Yet even Paul seemed to realize this might have been a step too far: in addition to denying that he had implied any causal connection between vaccines and mental disorders, he later invited a reporter to witness him getting a booster shot, with a staff member along to take photos. Other Republican hopefuls rushed to distinguish themselves from Paul while (for the most part) remaining quiet on the question of whether vaccinations should be mandatory.

These are baby steps, but any pushback is welcome against the insipid dorm-room libertarianism behind Paul’s initial remarks. There is really no realistic theory of individual liberty that can justify exposing other members of society to dangerous diseases. In the modern political tradition, the most famous statement of individual liberty comes from the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who proposed in 1859’s On Liberty what is today known as the “harm principle”: “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.” A densely populated, highly mobile modern society is one where a small number of freedom-lovers can make other people incredibly sick, incredibly quickly. On any sane definition, this is a matter of society’s “self-protection,” as Mill would put it. You might think that Paul, who fancies himself a political thinker and who (incredibly) went to an accredited medical school, would regard the totally unnecessary threat of epidemics as the real assault on freedom. But instead, as he said in a 2009 interview with 9/11-truther website InfoWars, mandatory vaccines are actually an omen of imminent martial law: “The first sort of thing you see with martial law is mandates, and they’re talking about making it mandatory.” (Voters were so horrified by this comment that they elected him to the Senate the following year.)

As if to stretch this dopey version of libertarianism a little further, U.S. Senator Thom Tillis also wondered this week why we assault freedom by requiring restaurants to make employees wash their hands after using the bathroom. “I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy,” Tillis said, “as long as they post a sign that says we don’t require our employees to wash our hands after leaving the restroom. The market will take care of that. It’s one example.” It didn’t take long for people to point out that requiring restaurants to post such a sign would also be, um, a regulatory mandate. Is it too obvious to add that dethroning Starbucks from its position of market dominance would be a long, difficult process, and that thousands of people would get sick (and go on to infect others who hadn’t even been to Starbucks!) in the meantime? Does this have to be pointed out to a member of the U.S. Senate?

Thinking about freedom and social obligation is hard. Political thinkers struggle with it all the time. But if your theory of freedom is leading you to shrug off disease outbreaks, question the hassle of hand-washing, and speculate about martial law with 9/11 truthers, that’s a pretty good sign that somewhere along the line, something went pretty wrong.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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