The war on the war on covid intensifies: an attack on vaccine mandates

Yesterday Donald Boudreaux published a letter to the Wall Street Journal about the Zywicki lawsuit against George Mason University that I posted about here.  Let’s take a look at classical liberalism in action:

Today’s edition contains three letters critical of my colleague Todd Zywicki’s defense, in your pages, of his lawsuit against George Mason University’s vaccination requirement. Each letter-writer, alas, misses a point that’s central to the broader case against vaccination mandates – and, indeed, against all Covid restrictions: Because vaccination is indeed quite effective at protecting each vaccinated person against suffering serious consequences from Covid, there’s no good reason to require anyone to be vaccinated. Each individual has easy ability to acquire such a high degree of protection that we can stop tyrannizing each other in the name of fighting Covid.

Note that Boudreaux is arguing against all vaccine mandates.  Zywicki was merely arguing that he should be exempt from the GMU mandate because he has natural immunity to covid.  In addition, as we have previously discussed, we might want to pressure people to get vaccinated for their own good.  Yes, this is paternalism, but given the power of misinformation and simple procrastination, some degree of paternalism may be justified here.  I have yet to read any news reports of people celebrating their decision to remain unvaccinated while choking to death in an ICU.  I note in passing that most liberals (e.g., Hayek, Friedman, Mill) accept that paternalism is at least sometimes justified.  Let’s continue:

Furthermore, evidence from amply vaccinated countries, including Israel, Iceland, and the U.K., reveals that vaccination doesn’t stop disease spread. It provides a personal benefit – reduced disease severity upon infection – but little public benefit.

Huh?  Vaccination does reduce disease spread.  People who are vaccinated are less likely to get covid, and thus less likely to transmit the disease.  It seems that vaccinated people are more likely to have breakthrough infections with the delta variant than with covid classic, but this does not mean there is no disease prevention benefit from vaccination. 

Furthermore, there are potentially large social costs to remaining unvaccinated in a university setting (and in many other settings as well).  In addition to the obvious risk of infecting someone else, an outbreak of covid at GMU could easily lead to the university cancelling in-person classes, which would be quite costly and disruptive. 

The predictable response is that vaccination isn’t 100 percent effective even for the vaccinated. True. But whatever additional benefits might be gained from vaccine mandates and other Covid restrictions must be weighed against the costs of these intrusions – costs that include solidifying an ominous precedent for until-now unprecedented authoritarian intrusions into Americans’ private affairs.

The cost of getting vaccinated is trivial (GMU has exemptions for people with health conditions or religious objections).  Furthermore, there is plenty of precedent for mandatory vaccination.  Boudreaux may not like the precedent, but that’s no excuse for misrepresenting basic facts.

Now, Boudreaux believes that the costs of lockdown policies exceed the benefits.  Let’s assume he is right about this (he might not be).  He might believe that resisting vaccine mandates or having the courts rule them unconstitutional will somehow prevent lockdowns.  But this is an empirical claim that is far from obviously true.  If anything, getting people vaccinated may help get restrictions lifted.

Contrary to each letter-writer’s supposition, establishing the case for vaccination mandates requires more than pointing out the trivial reality that an unvaccinated person might impose more risks on nonconsenting others than does a vaccinated person. Other questions must be asked and correctly answered – chief among these are ‘How much more risk?’ (answer: not much), and ‘At what cost?’ (answer: immense).

Let’s recap.  Boudreaux tries to claim that the costs of mandatory vaccination exceed the benefits, but as we have seen his arguments are half-baked and misleading (i.e., getting vaccinated may not “stop” disease spread, but it very likely reduces the spread of covid considerably, and requiring people to get vaccinated may help GMU avoid a costly return to remote instruction).  Boudreaux seems to suggest (“ominous precedent” for “authoritarian intrusions”) that mandatory vaccination will somehow put us on the road to actual totalitarianism.  That sounds like crazy talk to me, but if Boudreaux has evidence for this claim he should trot it out and we can have a discussion.  Finally, Boudreaux may simply believe that any vaccine mandate is “tyranny” because freedom or something.  He can certainly make this argument (it’s a free country!), and he may believe it, but he will lose this debate, which I suspect is why he muddies the water with his other claims that sound like they are based on the kinds of costs and benefits that most people actually care about.