Chris Christie, the gift that just keeps on giving, says that parents should have choice when it comes to whether or not to having their children vaccinated. And, you know, in a certain sense he’s right. I think that nobody should be forced, by governmental power or corporate, to have their children injected with any particular kinds of chemicals or agents. I just think that a refusal to do so should necessitate that those children be barred from entering public spaces, most certainly including public schools. The fact that this provision is not already implied in this discussion demonstrates the degree to which the individualist fantasy undercuts meaningful American discussion of communal and social responsibility. Infectious disease is a perfect lens through which to view the notions of responsibility towards the broader society in which you reside. You don’t choose to be part of the spread of a disease like measles, but you’re implicated in its spread by your actions whether you choose to or not. The only way to opt out of the responsibility to vaccinate is to truly withdraw from the broader society, physically withdraw to the point where you pose no risk of infecting others. A healthier public conception of social responsibility would entail a broadly shared understanding that participation in an economy is no less a matter of exposing others to risk, in just as direct and concrete a way.
Both taxation and capitalism can seem, to those within them, as truly inescapable systems. And unlike a lot of my lefty friends, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to those who complain that, for example, they cannot simply own a house without having to worry that the government will someday come and take them away if they don’t keep up a steady stream of tax payments. The problem is that this frustration is almost never matched with a recognition that capitalism is precisely as inescapable as taxation, and precisely as coercive. I can no more opt out of our system of capital exchange than the libertarian survivalist can opt out of taxation. The confusion, and the hypocrisy, stems from the notion that there is something inherently more chosen in the existence of taxes than of markets. Markets are no more indicative of a state of nature than taxes or regulation. I mean, I get the urge to be seasteader. But most philosophies of seasteading simply presume market exchange as a necessary precondition of survival. Their version of coercion is, I guess, somehow more noble than that of your average government.
I suppose I wish that there really was a frontier out there which we could, if we chose, light out for and leave all these forms of coercion behind, as we also recognized that as we leave behind the tangle of social obligations we also leave behind the systems society has built, both physical (like plumbing and electricity) and moral (the obligation I have to help an injured man in the street, or more to the point, the obligation of others to help me). But suppose the frontier existed: how would I get there? I mean physically, how can you walk away from the system? I might be lucky enough to hitchhike, but I’ll still probably have to buy a sandwich along the way. Meanwhile, the libertarian couldn’t get there without public roads, unless he’s very lucky and has a path to negotiate to the frontier with private landowners. And even then, he’s surely taking advantage of socially-enforced systems of right behavior, such as the one that prevents someone from shooting him on sight for the hell of it. We couldn’t even get to the frontier without being forced to take part in the unchosen systems we are trying to escape.
The point is that in the real world, we’re stuck in this mangle. A market economy is a system of mutual coercion. The lie of conservative politics is the notion that this coercion is only enforced with government agents with guns, when in fact its also enforced by a system that prevents you from eating food if you have no money. In the state of nature, I at least might be able to hunt and forage. I encourage you to try and hunt and forage for sustenance in the real world without running afoul of someone’s private property rights.
What the issue of anti-vaccination should reveal to us on the broad left is that the social and cultural markers that serve as shorthand for political convictions, in this country, fail us when it comes to these more fundamental issues of social responsibility and individual need. I’ve been struck not by the anger my left-wing friends direct at parents who don’t vaccinate their children — that anger is perfectly understandable and justified — but at the particular flavor of this anger. It’s that peculiar American habit of being madder at people that you assume should know better. Barely suppressed in a lot of the online venting I read from progressive types about vaccines is the implicit claim, “I expect this from weirdo rural religious types, but I’m enraged that educated liberals are falling for it too.” It’s the soft bigotry of high expectations.
As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig puts it today in a piece on just this issue:
“In other words, parents who opt out of vaccines come to their decisions by prioritizing the very virtues American culture readily recommends: freedom of choice, consumer primacy, individualism, self-determination, and a dim, almost cynical view of common goods like public health. If enclaves of anti-vaccination advocates are limited to the rarefied exurbs of California and Oregon, then the prevalence of this neoliberal frame makes all the more sense, as a certain laissez-faire attitude toward matters of mass coordination is associated with wealth and an attendant sense of personal control: Since money affords the wealthy a certain amount of control over their personal affairs, they both experience feelings of control (which may or may not correspond to reality) and feel less concerned with the welfare of others. After all, if one is convinced they can manage their own affairs, why shouldn’t everyone else be able to?”
What particularly frustrates me is that efforts to address this divide between the cultural and social signifiers we tend to associate with political polarization (Prius vs Ford F-150, farmers market vs Walmart) often involve asserting the cultural similarities between crunchy farm-to-table hippy liberals and survivalist home-schooling Christian conservatives. “You know, if you think about it, an Oakland CSA type is a lot like an Orange County anti-taxer….” Instead, the effort should be to admit that these cultural signals are a lousy substitute for politics. As Stoker Bruenig points out, economics are far more in play here than we tend to discuss. What we on the left should admit is that a good portion of those who fund our organizations and drive our conversations are inoculated from the negative impacts when social responsibility fails. And while they can (usually) be relied on to put a penny in the cup for the poor, vaccination is a perfect example of how social responsibility fails to come home to roost for the more affluent side of 21st century progressivism. When you’ve always had the best doctors, why would you worry about your kid getting sick? But then, when you’ve always had a house, it’s hard to intuitively care about whether other people can pay the rent.
This is not to suggest that the affluent can never be left-wing. If we came to that conclusion, we’d just be deciding that an actually winning left-wing political party can’t exist. But hopefully, we can use a topic like the responsibility to vaccinate, with its direct stakes and the profound emotional devastation of the failure to enforce that expectation, as a useful lens to develop a more material, less culturally-inflected vision of a politics of social responsibility. Because we live in a world with people like Chris Christie, and they are always ready to take advantage of our failure to articulate who we really are and what we really value.