The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing proponents of America’s libertarian movement to question just what their philosophy demands of them.
Many libertarians, who champion individual freedom and are generally skeptical of government authority, have been outspoken in denouncing vaccine mandates and social distancing measures as an unwarranted intrusion on personal liberty.
But others are just as voluble in defending the measures, arguing that libertarian principles prohibit reckless behavior – such as going maskless in a crowded room – that puts innocent others at risk.
“There's been a real split among libertarians about how to respond to the pandemic,” said Matt Zwolinski, a philosophy professor at the University of San Diego who runs the “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” blog.
“Some libertarians supported lockdowns, some libertarians supported face mask requirements, and some libertarians now are supporting vaccine mandates," he said. "On the other hand, there are also a lot of libertarians who opposed in very strong terms all of those things.”
With large swaths of Americans declining to get vaccinated, the debate has real-world implications. While many anti-vaxxers question the safety and efficacy of vaccines, opposition to vaccination is often couched in libertarian terms: It’s my body, my choice.
“Governors say things like, 'We expect citizens to be responsible and make their own choices, and it’s not the role of government to tell people what to do,' ” said Justin Bernstein, a philosophy professor at Florida Atlantic University who has advised the Centers for Disease Control on vaccine allocation and distribution.
This is a view that is widely shared by many card-carrying libertarians. One of the staunchest critics of government-mandated vaccination is Dave Smith, a comedian and a rising figure in the Libertarian Party. Although he doesn’t question the effectiveness of vaccines, Smith, who is mulling a presidential run as a Libertarian Party candidate in 2024, sees vaccine mandates as an infringement on individual liberty.
“On a purely principled level, I believe you own yourself, and once you concede that you don’t own yourself, on the practical level, you’re going to get a lot of really bad outcomes from that, and egregiously immoral ones,” Smith told the libertarian “Reason TV” last week.
Yet as important as the right to “bodily autonomy” is to libertarianism, other libertarians say it doesn’t justify exposing others to the virus. These libertarians defend mandatory vaccination not by reason of promoting public good but on the ground that vaccine refusal puts others, including those who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons, at risk.
Libertarian philosopher Jessica Flanigan has likened vaccine refusal to firing a gun into the air on Independence Day, inadvertently injuring innocent bystanders.
“Citizens do not have the right to turn themselves into biological weapons that expose innocent bystanders to undue risks of harm.” Flanigan wrote in a 2014 journal article, "ADefense of Compulsory Vaccination.” “Mandatory vaccination policies are therefore justifiable in most cases because citizens do not have a right to remain unvaccinated.”
Other libertarian academics have advanced similar arguments in defense of measures that require vaccination as a condition for admission into public buildings or events.
“Libertarians have the view that we have limits to how much risk of harm we can impose upon other people,” said Jason Brennan, a libertarian philosopher at Georgetown University who made the “libertarian case for mandatory vaccination” in a 2016 journal article.
“The real complicated question is: At what point do we think other people are imposing a sufficiently high risk of harm onto third-party bystanders that the people imposing that risk can be interfered with as a way of protecting others?” Brennan said in an interview.
With COVID vaccines widely available, however, the case for a COVID-19 vaccine mandate has grown weaker, Brennan said. Vaccine resisters, Brennan said, voluntarily put themselves at risk.
“Part of the complication is the people who want to be immune are mostly immune and the people who aren't immune, most of them aren't really a high risk,” Brennan said, noting that the virus has been found to be less dangerous for children than adults - an assertion the delta variant is putting to the test.
The debate over vaccines comes as a growing number of colleges, universities and businesses around the country have announced vaccine mandates. Although the federal government’s authority to impose a national vaccine mandate is in question, the U.S. military is considering requiring military personnel to get vaccinated.
Last month, eight Indiana University students sued the school over its vaccine mandate, claiming it violated their constitutional rights. While rejecting “blind deference to the government” on matters of public health, a federal judge later dismissed the lawsuit, delivering vaccine advocates a major victory.
Some libertarians hailed the judge’s relatively narrow ruling.
“If you're a libertarian, you take individual liberty really seriously, and so even if you think that we can restrict liberty by forcing people to get vaccines, you want to use as gentle a hand as you can in that mandate,” Zwolinski said.
Zwolinski said the rift among libertarians over vaccine mandates reflects a similar divide over social distancing measures during the pandemic.
“You find basically the same people on the same side of the debate no matter what the specific restriction is,” Zwolinski said.
While academic libertarians are generally supportive of vaccine mandates and other restrictions, “popular movement-based libertarians” such as activists and members of Congress tend to oppose them, Zwolinski said.
But libertarian support for vaccine mandates doesn’t appear to be limited to academic circles. A recent Reddit thread titled “Where do libertarians stand on vaccine mandates?” prompted hundreds of comments, the responses in equal measure critical and supportive.
“It is the right of an individual to make the choice for themselves. If they want to die, they are free to do so,” one commentator wrote.
Another wrote, “I don't view vaccine mandates as too much of an infringement on liberty. It's got zero cost to the individual and there are obvious externalities to not being vaccinated."