John Stuart Mill versus Great Barrington Declaration libertarians on vaccine mandates

The Great Barrington Declaration is the founding text of one influential school of covid-libertarianism.  The GBD made two claims –

  • First, that we should try to protect the vulnerable from contracting covid, and,
  • Second, that we should let the virus spread freely through the non-vulnerable population to reduce the time needed to get to herd immunity. 

More recently, many of the people associated with the GBD have taken to arguing vigorously against vaccine mandates, especially but not only in the case of people who have recovered from covid and now have natural immunity.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the covid vaccines are effective at preventing serious illness, but are not effective at all at preventing infection or transmission.  If this is true, it seems to suggest that the vaccine is individually valuable but not socially valuable:  whether I get vaccinated has no influence on whether you get sick.  This, in turn, seems to suggest on that mandates are unjustified, since the standard justification for mandates is that vaccines protect other people from infection.  It is easy to find essays with a libertarian bent that flirt with this argument, as well as encouraging vaccine hesitancy.

I want to make two points about this argument. 

First, even if vaccines do not protect third parties from covid, getting vaccinated still has considerable social value.  Widespread vaccination can accelerate a return to normal life by making people less fearful.  It can reduce medical costs (which are largely insured and thus socialized).  It can prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.  And it can reduce the harm to family members of people who, if unvaccinated, would die or become disabled.  In the United States, over 120,000 children lost a parent or caregiver to covid between April 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021.

Is it acceptable to pressure parents to get vaccinated for the sake of their children?  Well, let’s see what John Stuart Mill, arguably the greatest liberal defender of individual autonomy, said about the subject in On Liberty.  Naturally, Mill did not address the subject of vaccine mandates.  But he was clear that parents had strong, legally enforceable duties to their children.  In Chapter 4, we find this:

If, for example, a man, through intemperance or extravagance, becomes unable to pay his debts, or, having undertaken the moral responsibility of a family, becomes from the same cause incapable of supporting or educating them, he is deservedly reprobated, and might be justly punished . . .

This seems to suggest we might have cause to punish people who fail to get vaccinated to protect their children (and their creditors!), but the “might” makes this conclusion uncertain.  In Chapter 5, however, we find this:

. . . if from either idleness or from any other avoidable cause, a man fails to perform his legal duties to others, as for instance to support his children, it is no tyranny to force him to fulfil that obligation, by compulsory labor, if no other means are available.

OK, then.  I note in passing that there is also textual support in On Liberty for using vaccine mandates to deal with the other harms I listed above, although of course vaccines, hospitals, and health insurance are not mentioned.

The second point I want to make concerns paternalism. 

Mill appears to stake out a strong position against paternalism in On Liberty, although he qualifies his insistence on free choice considerably in the final chapter of the book where he considers applications, and there are real questions about how On Liberty should be interpreted.  The point I want to emphasize, however, is that Mill simply did not address a political situation in which large numbers of people were deliberately bombarded with anti-vaccine propaganda they were unable to critically evaluate.  Nor as far as I know is this possibility addressed by other anti-paternalists (Nozick, Feinberg).  But there is an analogy, admittedly imperfect, between pressuring people who have been conned by anti-vaccine propaganda into getting a shot and laws prohibiting fraud or annulling transactions based on fraudulent statements, laws that do restrict freedom of choice but are not particularly controversial.