They’re your kids. You can do what you want with them. Right?
Actually, no. The wonderful American tradition of individual liberty stops well short of the entitlements claimed by the parents opposed to vaccinations who have contributed to the alarming measles outbreak centered in California. The anti-vaxers, as they’re known, believe they’re asserting their right to individual liberty by rejecting the collective wisdom of public-health authorities and choosing not to have their kids vaccinated against measles and other dangerous organisms. But they’re confusing self-interest with liberty, as are tongue-tied politicians such as Chris Christie and Rand Paul. The whole episode reveals the troubling ways we have distorted and trivialized the true meaning of liberty in the so-called land of the free.
As popular as the concept is, liberty is actually a difficult word to define, as I explore in my latest book, "Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom." Liberty means different things to different people, based on the rights and privileges they’re accustomed to, socioeconomic context and every individual’s life circumstances. For the purpose of my book, which focuses on economic issues and prosperity, I researched the views of many experts and defined liberty as this: the ability to make of your life what you wish, within reasonable constraints.
That's quite different from simply doing whatever you want, which is where the anti-vax parents veer off-course. When exercising a particular type of liberty imposes no risk or cost on anybody else, everybody’s generally fine with it, no matter how wacky it might be. But when one person’s liberty interferes with somebody else's, civil society intervenes with rules meant to protect the largest portion of the population while harming the smallest.
Speed limits are one obvious example. They exist because drivers with the “freedom” to cruise at any speed pose an unacceptable risk to other drivers. Most states have motorcycle helmet laws because unhelmeted bikers who get hurt in a crash must be treated at the hospital, even if they’re uninsured and the cost is borne by taxpayers or others who pay for insurance. Parents who walk away from their kids aren’t just allowed to skip out — they’re usually required to pay child support, at a minimum, as a way of bearing responsibility for something they helped create.
By the same measure, parents who forgo vaccinations for their kids are passing the risk of infection on to others who never agreed to accept the same risks. As a society, we’re not cool with that. Asking others to bear the risk and cost of your decisions, in fact, is more akin to cowardice than to liberty.
The civil institutions that regulate liberty — legislatures that pass laws, courts that enforce them, etc. — sometimes make mistakes that get corrected over time, as society evolves. The government legally denied equal rights to blacks for a century after the Civil War. Society began to correct that in the 1960s (and is still working on it). More recently, gays are beginning to enjoy most of the same civil liberties as everybody else. But every cause isn’t ultimately vindicated by time, as Branch Davidians, McCarthyites and supporters of the Confederacy learned bitterly. The causes that prevail — in America, at least — usually end up on the right side of science, decency and common sense.
There’s a lot of academic research on what liberty actually is, which anti-vaxers might want to bone up on. For starters, there are two basic types of liberty. Positive liberty is the capacity to do something, such as seek gainful employment or create art. Negative liberty is the absence of constraints, impediments or interference in the pursuit of positive freedoms. When Franklin Roosevelt gave his famous “four freedoms” speech in 1940, he highlighted two positive freedoms — freedom of speech and the freedom to worship God in one's own way — and two negative freedoms: freedom from want and freedom from fear. Anti-vax parents are trying to exercise a negative freedom by escaping a government constraint — the requirement to get their kids vaccinated. But in doing so, they themselves are creating an impediment to the freedom of an untold number of others, whose negative freedoms include the right to escape unnecessary illness.
The sad irony of the anti-vax brigade is that they’re actually impeding their own liberty rather than enhancing it. Their kids are needlessly exposed to avoidable risks and perhaps even stigmatized, now that vaccinations have become a dividing line determining who can attend school in certain hot zones and who can’t. If science were on their side, it might be a fight worth fighting. But when you’re willfully blind to facts and you cling instead to some disproved theory that fulfills a preexisting suspicion, you are imposing upon yourself (and, in this case, your kids) the severe limitations that come with ignorance.
Unfortunately, this trivialization of liberty is not just an isolated phenomenon but a mushrooming national problem. In the most recently completed session of Congress, legislators introduced more than 20 bills invoking “liberty” and more than 150 in the cause of “freedom,” including such gems as the Internet Poker Freedom Act, the Letting Insurance Benefit Everyone Regardless of Their Youth (LIBERTY — get it?) Act, and the Television Consumer Freedom Act. Marketers tell us that smoking, drinking, eating potato chips and watching Netflix are vital expressions of our personal freedom. And of course we want government off our backs, except when it sends out Social Security checks, builds highways or kills terrorists.
Rand Paul, the libertarian senator from Kentucky, is right about one thing: The government doesn’t raise kids; parents do. And there are plenty of ways parents can genuinely exercise their personal freedom in the service of their kids. It starts by accepting and even embracing the many things civil institutions do well for kids — including protecting their health through vaccinations. Then, do the things institutions can’t do, such as reading to them at night, teaching healthy diet and exercise habits, encouraging curiosity, and providing an ever-present example of humble confidence. Liberty is alive and well in America, but only for those who know how to harness it.
Yahoo Finance reporter Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.