Margaret Wente is exactly right?

I don’t often find myself agreeing with Margaret Wente. In some cases, I think she begins with a plausible premise but then pushes it far beyond what is reasonable. Other times, I think she takes an unsound premise and then… actually I don’t know what happens in those cases as I usually don’t finish the article.

However, as the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. In my opinion this is one of those moments: Margaret Wente is exactly right about vaccinations. A salutary reminder that it’s always important to separate the message from the messenger.

One of the central political issues around vaccination relates to the issue of herd immunity. This is a topic on which the rights (or the needs, if you’re a pointy-eared Vulcan) of the many really do conflict with the rights of the individual (or the needs of the one, as it were). To some extent, they do so in a way analogous to smoking. Individuals who insist on a right to smoke inflict costs on society at large, principally in the form of second hand smoke, reduced quality of life (for those who don’t like smoke, at least), and increased health care costs.

To make this post just that much more controversial, you could draw a further parallel with the decision to own assault rifles. Studies such as this account of the Australian experience with gun control demonstrate that more people die in gun-related incidents in societies where many people own handguns than in those where relatively few people do. The Australian example is so important because it allows us to see the effects of guns independent of other factors. Simply put, Australia with less guns was a safer place than Australia with more guns. By extension, everyone who owned a firearm was marginally increasing the overall risk of firearm-related injury and death in his or her community.

Likewise, the decision to not get vaccinated imposes costs on larger society, both in the form of increased health care expenses, as well as an increased marginal likelihood that anyone can get sick. When everyone is vaccinated, no one is at risk of infection; when only some are vaccinated, everyone is at an elevated risk due to increased presence of the bug in the general population.

Politics is partly about the art of the possible. It is also about reconciling conflicting rights (and, too often forgotten, responsibilities). The exaltation of the rights of the individual often comes at a cost to the rights of others in the societies in which they are embedded.

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