Bioethics Blogs

The Implications of Libertarianism for Compulsory Vaccination

Guest Post: Justin Bernstein

Paper: The Case Against Libertarian Arguments for Compulsory Vaccination

In a recent political controversy, libertarian Senator Rand Paul articulated his opposition to a policy of compulsory vaccination, stating that he was “all for [vaccines],” but that he was “also for freedom.” U.S. opponents of vaccines often object to compulsory vaccination on the (false) grounds that vaccines cause autism. But Paul’s claim that he was “for freedom” suggests a distinct, libertarian-minded rationale for opposing compulsory vaccination.

Libertarians deny that the state has the right to restrict individual liberty in order to promote welfare. A policy of compulsory vaccination promotes welfare by ensuring herd immunity. But such a policy also restricts individual liberty because it requires parents to subject their children to a medical procedure, and permits the state to punish non-compliance. So, a policy of compulsory vaccination certainly seems at odds with the libertarian’s commitment to liberty–even if herd immunity is threatened.

Some libertarians, however, attempt to avoid the controversial conclusion that libertarianism is incompatible with compulsory vaccination. In my recent paper, “The Case Against Libertarian Arguments for Compulsory Vaccination,” I argue that such attempts are unsuccessful, and so libertarians must either develop new arguments, or join Senator Paul in opposing compulsory vaccination.

How might a libertarian try to defend compulsory vaccination? One argument is that going unvaccinated exposes others to risk, and this violates their rights. Since the state is permitted to use coercive measures to protect rights, the state may require parents to vaccinate their children. But for libertarians, this argument has two shortcomings.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.