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“Externality” Is Not “Open Sesame”

In my latest column for AIER I push back against the notion that the contagiousness and lethality of Covid-19 combine to create a sufficient condition justifying mandatory vaccination. A slice:

Second – and even apart from the first point – the fact that vaccinations are quite effective at protecting vaccinated persons from contracting and suffering from Covid should be sufficient to drive the final stake through the heart of the case for mandatory vaccination. Yet mandatory vaxxers have a retort. They believe that their case is made by establishing two facts. The first of these facts is that vaccination not only protects vaccinated individuals from Covid, it also reduces the prospect of vaccinated persons spreading Covid to others. The second fact is that not everyone is or can be vaccinated. These two facts are then cobbled into a springboard from which mandatory vaxxers leap to the conclusion that, therefore, the state should mandate vaccination of everyone who is medically able to be vaccinated.

But this leap is illogical, for it ignores several pertinent questions. And persons bearing the burden of proof are in no position to ignore pertinent questions.

Among the pertinent questions ignored – and, hence, not answered – are these:

1. By how much does being vaccinated reduce a person’s chance of transmitting the coronavirus? Is this reduction worth all the costs of mandating vaccination?

2. How many people have medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated against Covid? And what portion of these people are in groups whose members are at especially high risks of suffering from Covid?

3. What does having a medical condition that prevents someone from being vaccinated against Covid even mean? Does it mean that such persons, were they vaccinated, would incur a 100 percent chance of dying from the vaccination? Surely not. But if not, to what specific risk-levels would Covid vaccination subject such people? And are these risks high enough to be part of a credible case for mandatory vaccination?

4. What is the cost to the ‘unable-to-be-vaccinated’ group of otherwise protecting themselves from Covid compared to the cost of mandating that everyone else be vaccinated?

5. The very existence of a group of people for whom Covid vaccines are too risky to take implies that Covid vaccines are not risk-free for anyone. (Even apart from the inherent, if sufficiently small, ‘natural’ random risk posed by any medical treatment, each of us has some positive chance of unknowingly being afflicted with one or more of the conditions that are recognized as rendering Covid vaccination as too risky.) Why, then, should everyone – save individuals in the formally exempt group – be required to be vaccinated and, thus, be required to be subjected to some positive risk of being physically harmed by the vaccine?

6. If, as the mandatory vaxxers imply, any action that poses a risk to the health of strangers is an action that government should treat as an “externality” and forcibly prevent, why should not government treat all expressions of arguments in support of mandatory vaccination as externalities to be forcibly forbidden? Because vaccination itself is not risk-free, forcing people to be vaccinated is to forcibly subject some people to a risk that they’d prefer to avoid. Further, publicly advocating for mandatory vaccination increases the risk that a policy of mandatory vaccination will be implemented – meaning that publicly advocating for mandatory vaccination (according to the logic of the mandatory vaxxers themselves) exposes innocent others to a risk that government is duty-bound to prevent.