Nov 112009

In late September, some folks on OActivists raised questions about the New York state government mandating the swine flu vaccine for its health care workers. One person wrote:

But what of the authority of the state to do this? I do think it’s a valid question. … I think there can only be justification for such coercive action by the state if it’s proven that the flu will be more dangerous than usual and if this vaccine has been proven effective against this virus in an objective scientific manner. Is that the correct Objectivist response?

I replied:

No, I don’t think that’s right.

First, any government action for an epidemic must concern a seriously dangerous disease — meaning one that risks mass death — not merely a “more dangerous than usual” flu.  That danger must be demonstrated objectively by lots of actual deaths.  Moreover, people must be unable to take measures to protect themselves from the disease such as wearing masks, not shaking hands, etc.

Moreover, while quarantine of infected people (or perhaps, in severe cases, suspected infected people) might be justified, a proper state could never mandate vaccination.  Why not?  Vaccination primarily protects the person vaccinated.  It’s not a violation of the rights of others to fail to be vaccinated.  You have every right to get sick and die!  The tort lies in knowingly or willingly spreading the disease to others.

So… when a person contracts a dangerous communicable disease and then exposes other people to it by ordinary social interactions, he violates their rights.  It’s akin to driving a car while drunk.  That person is exposing other people to major threats to their life and limb without their consent.  That’s what justifies government action to protect the healthy — but only in the form of forced isolation of the sick.

I was reminded of this discussion while catching up on some of Leonard Peikoff’s podcasts a few days ago. In Episode #82, Dr. Peikoff addressed this issue, briefly answering the questions: (1) “Is it justified to force sick patients into quarantine if the disease is serious enough?” and (2) “What about a vaccine to force citizens to take it?” Like me, he said that quarantine would be justified in certain cases, but that vaccinations could never be required by the state. Good!

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