As a libertarian I believe in the rights of private parties to enact vaccine mandates. Why? Because vaccines work and private property rights are paramount. Libertarians accept that some societal rules that protect others would exist with or without government being the one doing the mandating. Speed limits, rules against harming others, insurance mandates, and other requirements would still exist in a free society. Responsible restaurants would still require its employees to wash their hands after using a bathroom even without the mandates of the health department. As a believer in strong private property rights, I believe that it would be irresponsible for a property manager to willingly disregard the safety of those using their property. Mandates are not against libertarian philosophy, especially if they would exist even without government coercion.
I would hope that hospitals, elder care facilities, and any facility that deals with at risk populations impose a vaccine mandate on their staff. Private and public universities should consider requiring the vaccine for students, just like they currently do for other vaccines. I would hope that when appropriate these mandates include exceptions for medical and sometimes religious reasons with potential alternate risk mitigation requirements like testing.
In 2016, Presidential candidate Gary Johnson stupidly suggested that Jewish bakers should be forced to bake a Nazi wedding cake. He was dead wrong about this from any libertarian angle you can find. Those who oppose allowing employers to set their own vaccination rules makes the same mistake. The owners of hospitals and/or their board of directors would be wise to require that their employees are vaccinated, even without a government order. Not having this mandate opens the hospital up for litigation.
At the same time, I believe in bodily autonomy. You have the right to choose to not be vaccinated. No one has a right to inject your body with any substance without your consent. However, with this choice comes responsibility. You do not have the right to endanger others. If you choose to not get vaccinated, you should choose personal responsibility. Isolate yourself as much as possible. Wear a mask in appropriate conditions. Respect the private property requests of others.
The moral dilemma are places that use force with mandatory attendance laws. This is true for prisons and government schools for (in NJ) those under 16. If you do not have everyone vaccinated the wardens of these two institutions are placing lives at risk. If you require vaccination the wardens are violating the bodily autonomy of their wards and their staff. In these cases, I see the problem not being vaccine mandates, rather the compulsion in attendance. We should work on alternative choices for both institutions.
The issue of mandates has been controversial among libertarians. The libertarian knee-jerk reaction has been to oppose mandates, however not all libertarians believe that in a free society we wouldn't still have privately required mandates. Walter Block has stated:
“My bottom line is that I think there could be circumstances in which compulsory vaccination would be required by law (let’s forget about who imposes them; well, governments for minarchists, private defense agencies for anarcho-capitalists) and parents should be required to vaccinate their kids. After all, people who do not vaccinate endanger not only themselves, but also the people they communicate with and thus break the NAP and should be punished accordingly.”
He posits that the COVID-19 threat has been greatly overrated. He may be correct here, especially now that doctors and hospitals are doing a better job at treating people who are infected. The number of deaths in many locations is down (but not all locations). The truth is that COVID-19 is a potential threat to both life and liberty. Perhaps, in some instances, more of a threat to liberty than life.
The Science and the History
Vaccinations work by training the immune system to recognize and fight a specific viral signature quicker. This does not mean you can't get infected or that you can't pass on the pathogen to others. It simply means that your immune system will fight the pathogen quicker than if your body can't quickly recognize the pathogen. By fighting the pathogen faster your chances of getting very sick are less and the amount of time that you are infectious is less. This reduces the chance of hospitalizations, death, and passing the vaccine on to someone else.
Vaccines have been developed over the years using many methods. The first vaccines were live viruses. The recipient would get sick, but then would develop their immune system so that they would be mostly immune to the virus. This was done as early as perhaps 200 BCE by the Chinese. (technically this is not vaccination, but variolation).
Edward Jenner in the 1770's would use a related virus (cowpox) as a variolation against smallpox. In the 1880's, Louis Pasteur started experimenting with attenuated (weakened) strains of virus as a vaccine and had great success in preventing dogs from getting rabies. In the 1890's Richard Pfeiffer and Almroth E. Wright separately found that injection of killed Typhoid bacteria successfully created immunities in humans.
After thousands of children died or became paralyzed from Polio, a vaccine was created by Dr. Jonas Salk in the 1950's. This virus included killed versions of the vaccine.
In the late 1930's a pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine was developed. In the late 1940's simultaneous vaccination for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis became the norm leading to a rapid decline in the incidence of these diseases.
In the 1960's Maurice Hilleman developed the MMR (Mumps, Measles, Rubella) vaccine. This was then routinely given to children in the United States. Cases dropped dramatically.
Beginning in the 1980s research into messenger RNA (mRNA) began mostly while looking for a vaccine against the AIDS virus. Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman found that mRNA could be used to instruct cells to create specific proteins. The idea they had was that mRNA can be used to instruct cells to create a sample of a spike protein that was part of the virus being targeted. The immune system would then react to this protein. When the COVID-19 virus outbreak occurred, the technology to create an mRNA vaccine was ready. At a time when the government approval and regulatory apparatus normally cripples development of new medical approaches, thousands of volunteers took the first COVID-19 vaccines with success. There are now several companies producing versions of the mRNA COVID vaccine and almost 5 billion doses have been administered. The FDA has now finally approved the use of this vaccine.
It is important to note that there is no alteration of your DNA and that the mRNA vaccine breaks down quickly after it is given. Side effects are normally the result of immune system over reactions and are rare. The risks of the rare side effects are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks of long term damage from COVID-19.
There is also a long history of the anti-vax movement. In the 1880's many refused to believe that there was a pathogen, and that smallpox was spread by filth alone. This idea and the idea that vaccines were part of a vast medical conspiracy were fueled by William Tebb who traveled the world spreading his anti-vaccination message. Much of the anti-vaccination hysteria was fueled by government mandates as well as some real problems that occurred during the development of vaccines.
In 1901 a smallpox vaccine was contaminated with tetanus leading to an outbreak. In 1955, Cutter Laboratories failed to follow the proper procedures for creating the Polio vaccine causing 40,000 children to get Polio.
The original diphtheria vaccine used whole cell Bordetella pertussis bacteria. Whole cell bacteria had many adverse effects in individuals. It was not until the 1990's that an acellular version (using parts of the cell) vaccine was developed greatly reducing side effects.
Bacterial contamination of vaccines led to the need for preservatives to be added. Among these preservatives Thimerosal, an ethylmercury containing organic compound has been used since the 1930s. Ethylmercury is processed by the body better than the more dangerous Methylmercury and is less likely to cause any harm. However, since 2001 Thimerosal has been removed from childhood vaccines. The measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and varicella vaccines do not and never did contain thimerosal.
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and 12 colleagues published a study in the Lancet linking the MMR vaccine to a rise in incidences of autism. Quickly after the study was released 10 of the colleagues retracted the interpretation of the data. By 2004 the study was shown to be fraudulent. However today may people still believe in the linkage between the MMR vaccine and autism.
There is no denying the huge success of vaccines. Vaccinations work and the recent development of an mRNA vaccine will provide mankind with rapid development of effective tools for reducing illness and perhaps eradicating pandemics completely. Vaccines, along with the spread of wealth though capitalism has drastically increased the life expectancy of humans. In 1900 the global life expectancy at birth (LEB) was only 31. Today it is over 70.
Stop spreading misinformation. Get vaccinated. Whether or not you choose to be vaccinated, be responsible for your actions.
Charts courtesy of Our World in Data