The libertarian dilemma and the politics of outrage

If you want to understand libertarian politics and messaging, the starting point is to recognize that libertarian ideology is very unpopular.  They want to end child poverty – but only through deregulation.  They support good education – but only through vouchers or privatization.  They want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Well, o.k., not really.  They believe in vaccine . . . hesitancy.

This puts libertarians in a difficult position.  They can certainly argue against specific policies that are harmful, and – done honestly – this is a useful and constructive thing to do.  But some policies that libertarians oppose are at least arguably beneficial, and some are highly popular even if they are misguided.  The upshot is that libertarians who are committed to strict limits on government are forced to dissemble, to misrepresent facts, to make emotional appeals rather than arguing about the merits of particular policies, and to vilify opponents and engage in democracy-bashing.

Here I want to examine the connection between the unpopularity of libertarian policies, factual dissembling / misrepresentation, and stoking moral outrage.  To do this, let’s look at some recent posts on Covid-19 by libertarian economist Donald Boudreaux.

Dissembling about facts:  do vaccines reduce the spread of Covid-19?

Boudreaux recently posted this:

The evidence continues to accumulate that, while vaccines are quite effective at preventing serious consequences from Covid, they do little or nothing to prevent the vaccinated from becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2 and spreading it.

This is misleading in several ways.  First, the paper he links to is relevant to transmission, but (contra Boudreaux’s suggestion) it says nothing about the effectiveness of vaccines at reducing infection.  This is important, because reducing the likelihood of infection reduces the prevalence of Covid-19 and protects both vaccinated and unvaccinated people even if, given an infection, vaccinated people are as likely to transmit the virus as the unvaccinated.  Second, there are studies that suggest vaccines reduce both infection and transmission, albeit imperfectly.  Cherry-picking one study and suggesting that it is representative (“evidence continues to accumulate”) without doing (or even citing) a careful literature review is misleading.  Finally, Boudreaux ignores the apparently large effect of third doses on anti-body levels, which may create a stronger and longer-lasting immunity and be much more effective at blocking infection and transmission than either two shots or infection-acquired immunity.

Dissembling through misdirection:  does vaccination benefit third parties?

Vaccine mandates are often justified by pointing to the fact that vaccination benefits third parties, not just the individual getting vaccinated.  (Many people believe that vaccine mandates can also be justified on paternalistic grounds, but let’s put this aside.)  The most frequently cited third-party benefit of vaccination is reduction in the prevalence of disease:  when Jill gets vaccinated, it reduces the risk that she will get sick and transmit Covid-19 to Jack.  When Boudreaux suggests that vaccines do not prevent infection or transmission, he is denying that this benefit is significant. 

Even if vaccination does not reduce the prevalence of disease, however, it has important social benefits.  Vaccination reduces health care costs, which are shared through insurance.  It reduces the risk that hospital capacity will be overwhelmed. It reduces the risk that parents will die or become disabled, which is a huge benefit to their children, friends, and other family members.  And vaccination reduces the various economic and social costs of social distancing when prevalence rises. 

Boudreaux simply ignores these social benefits of vaccination; assuming he is aware of these facts, ignoring them is a form of misdirection.  (Proving a negative is difficult; it’s possible he’s mentioned these costs at some point although I don’t recall seeing it.  But this is certainly not an important theme in his writing.  See, for example, this recent piece in which he ignores all third-party harms that result from contracting Covid-19.) 

Moral outrage and mandates:  parents own their children, vaccine mandates are rape!

Why would Boudreaux make such misleading arguments?  One plausible explanation is that he is adamantly opposed to vaccine mandates.  How adamantly?  He claims that “[e]very parent should have the right to refuse vaccination for his or her children. Every adult should have the right to refuse vaccination for himself or herself.” 

His adamant rejection of vaccine mandates puts Boudreaux in a difficult political position.  Many people support vaccine mandates in at least some circumstances.  The idea that parents should be allowed to refuse vaccination for their kids is simply insane.  (We have seen this movie.  We know how it ends.) 

So what is a libertarian ideologue to do?  One way to proceed would be to try reasoning in a measured way with those of us who disagree with him. 

Instead, what Boudreaux gives us is moral outrage.  Sometimes he just insists mandates are “tyranny”:  pressuring people to get vaccinated is equivalent to raping them, enslaving them, or robbing them.  (Perhaps he also thinks that children are the property of their parents.  This could explain why he believes the government cannot require childhood vaccinations.)

This argument is just dumb, and it will not convince many thoughtful people to oppose vaccine mandates.  I strongly suspect Boudreaux knows this – I very much doubt he will be asking any rape survivors he knows if they agree with his analogy.  Nor will he ask any human trafficking victims to evaluate his argument.  Nor will he argue that parents should be able to deny their sick kids essential and effective medical treatments.

The politics of outrage

So what’s going on?  My guess is that Boudreaux knows that most people will not buy his rape/slavery/vaccine analogy if they think carefully about its implications.  He knows that reasoning with people will not work.  His only hope is to get people to oppose vaccine mandates based on distrust of mandate supporters.  He is using moral outrage to turn support or opposition to vaccine mandates into a sign of tribal identity.  If you are defending an unpopular view in a polarized political climate, ginning up moral conflict is good strategy.

This also helps to explain Boudreaux’s dissembling about the effects of vaccines.  Misrepresentation and outrage go together logically and politically because misrepresentation feeds outrage.  Most people think that vaccine mandates are at least potentially justified if vaccination reduces the spread of disease.  By creating the misleading impression that vaccines do not reduce infection or transmission, Boudreaux can undercut an important argument for mandates, and make mandates seem not just debatable, but outrageous.  Similarly, ignoring the third-party costs of remaining unvaccinated – such as the orphaning of innocent children – fuels the impression that mandates are not just debatable, but outrageous.

To be clear, nothing I have said here shows that vaccine mandates are justified.  We can debate whether mandates are the best policy right now.  We can debate the effects of vaccination and how to weigh the moral values at stake.  But any such debate takes it for granted that mandating vaccines is at least potentially a legitimate function of government.  Boudreaux is such an uncompromising libertarian that he cannot bring himself to acknowledge this.  Instead, he dissembles and foments moral outrage among people looking for an excuse to be outraged.