The anti-vaccine crowd is a combination of woo guzzling liberals and conservatives. The biggest difference is that the liberals who are not vaccinating their kids don’t have significant elements of their favorably inclined political representation encouraging them while it looks like anti-vaccination will be yet another litmus test used to determine who today is a True Conservative ™ and who is a squish. Why? I think it might have something to do with how vaccines solve collective action problems and how the right does not like to recognize that these problems exist as a class.
Vaccines provide protection through two means. The first is direct protection. I get a shot for something and the probability of me getting that particular disease declines dramatically as my immune system now knows how to fight that type of invader. The second is indirect protection via herd immunity. If I get a shot, I go from being a possible vector and transmitter of a disease to another unvaccinated person to a very low probability of passing the disease along. Herd immunity only works when the vast majority of the population already is immune to a disease as the probabilities of a current carrier bumping into a receptive individual is fairly low if the general population is overwhelmingly vaccinated. If I am the only person in my county vaccinated for Itch Elbowitis (and no, I did not watch a lot of Nick Jr. last night with my kids), any current carrier of Itchy Elbowitis will be highly likely to bump into non-immune individuals by the time they get their first cup of coffee. A nasty bug won’t have the chance to get established in my community as it won’t bump into any receptive carriers during its infectious/spreading phase of its life cycle.
Should everyone get vaccinated?
Immune compromised individuals need to count on herd protection as they should not be placed at risk by even a weakened form of a disease. But this is a small proportion of the population. We as a society have also made a decision that Amish and a few other groups can opt out of most of the 20th century, but on a national scale, they are a tiny population with some local concentrations. But we basically count on high non-Amish vaccination levels to contain any Amish-centric outbreaks to just the Amish. We allow the Amish to free ride on the larger community’s high vaccination rate and thus they gain a low probability of transmitting infectious diseases into their community without particpating in the larger scheme.
Vaccination is a solution to a collective action problem of creating herd immunity. It may not be individually rational for any one individual to get a vaccine when 90% or more of the general population already have been vaccinated. In most cases in that scenario, a non-vaccinated individual will get the benefits of herd immunity by not running into carriers of a disease during its infectious stages without having to get a shot/pill/nose spray. They get to free ride on society. The problem is when there are a lot of free riders the positive externality of herd immunity breaks down.
We have seen that the conservatives in America have two reactions to the concept of collective action problems. The first is that responsibility is for suckers. There is an embracing of free riding and running down the collective commons as that is the individually rational thing to do, and St. Rand in her Commentaries preached that only individual interest matters. Fuck society.
The second is a bit more sophisticated argument that if we as a society value a positive externality, then there has to be some set of welfare raising side payments and agreements that can be made between people who want high vaccination rates and effective herd immunity and those who want to opt-out. It is coercive and therefore unjust to mandate vaccination without a really good reason (where hurt fee fees are not a good reason). Fuck Coase.