Liberty, Division, and Vaccination

by Nikola Lj. Ilievski

Libertarianism represents a broad ideological tendency, covering multiple scholarly traditions and activisms. The central position forms the value of human liberty, and it has two general justifications or interpretations, moral and utilitarian. The moral or philosophical position concerns the individual, as a starting point, and his Nature- or God-given right of self-ownership; while the utilitarian is focused on the society, and states that individual liberty actualized results in a society of welfare, low crime, reduced poverty, etc. Based on these interpretations, there is a division line among libertarian theorists and activists.

Vaccines are tools of contemporary medicine and technology, with a mission to prevent and/or fight inevitable pandemics and diseases attacking human health. Vaccines have been perceived mainly as an efficient tool for fighting certain diseases throughout history. However, the development of most vaccines requires a timeframe of many years, even decades. For a vaccine to be more or less safe, there is a period of time needed for development and approval. However, testing and approval are perceived as crucial.

Libertarianism, in general, does not have a problem with vaccines, nor with any tool which can potentially upgrade human life, as long as the tool is the human’s personal choice and subject to their consent. In 2020/2021, within a short period, several vaccines were developed against Covid-19. Some of these were released out of the protocol, but a vast number of the world population has been vaccinated. The effects and the efficiency of vaccines would be soon relieved. The controversies of vaccination are related to the state’s mobilization methods for its promotion among the population. It has been based on compulsory or crypto-compulsory political measures for vaccination; such as restricting freedom of movement in public places such as restaurants, closing borders, compulsory vaccination of public sector workers, exclusion of public life, subsidizing vaccinated persons, etc. All these measures are violating liberty and stimulating segregation. Maybe there were no explicitly compulsory vaccine measures (police and medical forces are not visiting neighborhoods and vaccinating the population yet) however, a real government pressure is present.

In the period of these restrictions, through overwhelming government interference in human life, libertarians (who one would expect to stand firmly for liberty) have been divided among the question of vaccination and, more importantly, its application among the population. 

The first faction of libertarians are the ones supporting crypto-compulsory or even compulsory vaccination. They usually start with the statement that unvaccinated individuals are regarded as a threat to the rest. The issue transforms from individual to collective, and the freedom-limitation of the unvaccinated is seen as justified. Furthermore, they support mass vaccination based on utilitarian motives, such as “going back to normal,” removing the traveling restrictions and lockdowns, easy border crossing, shopping mania etc. In conclusion, it can be stated that they are supporting acts that are coercive, in order to improve human well-being, freedoms, and cooperation; and, thus, the vaccine is a tool for upgrading or returning human liberty. Generally (but not exclusively), this group of libertarians are utilitarians, influenced more by the consequences of human freedom rather than its meaning for human beings.

The second faction of libertarians are the ones that are attached to the moral basis of liberty, and they stand firmly against any kind of state pressure for vaccination. Since most of them are moralists, their starting position is the principle of self-ownership. They claim that the government measures to enhance mass vaccination are unjustified, immoral, and in direct violation of the aforementioned principle. It raises the question: are there any utilitarian arguments against compulsory vaccination? Consistently, if there are utilitarian justifications for liberty, it seems that there should also be utilitarian arguments against compulsory vaccination (which violates liberty). There can be two general assumptions regarding the vaccination and its consequences. The first is that vaccines are efficient, and they are fighting the virus; in that case, compulsory vaccination is ridiculous (if one wants to stay safe, he will get the vaccine, and the story ends here). The second assumption is that the vaccines are not efficient: in this case, compulsory vaccination is also ridiculous and does not make sense (why make something compulsory if it is not working?) Furthermore, if the vaccines are safe and efficient, there will be no need for state measures since people would receive them voluntarily. 

This division line among libertarians is expected among those who have insights into the libertarian movement and the motives of the influential figures. Friedrich Hayek and Murray Rothbard have written about radicalism in liberalism, or radicals for liberty, regarding the libertarians that are true to the principle of self-ownership and are willing and capable of promoting it in any social context. These are the ones that are the real or the hardcore (heartcore) libertarians, as opposed to the opportunists or the sectarians, who do not have a problem sacrificing principles for a moment to gain short-term utilitarian goals. Can we call someone an actual libertarian, if they are supporting compulsory or crypto-compulsory vaccination, based on justifications such as collective good, removing restrictions, and “going back to normal”? The liberty classics provided the answer a long time ago, but we all need to do it now, faced with the contemporary threats to liberty.

You can learn more about the factions in libertarianism:

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organisation as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!

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