Politicians of all stripes have professed anti-scientific views on mandatory vaccinations at some point, or fraternized with dedicated anti-vaxxers. Hillary Clinton's good friend and advisor on medical issues is Dr. Mark Hyman, who literally wrote the book claiming the existence of a connection between vaccines and autism.
And yet when the vaccine issue roared back into the news cycle earlier this week, the form it took—for some strange reason—was that of another example of anti-science tendencies in the GOP. Why would the media take a case of bipartisan folly and use it as a moment to mock inarticulate Republicans, I wonder?
The GOP's libertarian wing is particularly impugned, according to The Washington Post:
If you thought that every GOP candidate would be rushing to pander to people's fears about big government forcing them to stick needles in their kids, you'd be wrong. In fact, the ones we've heard from so far have been clearly pro-vaccine. And this shows just where the limits of libertarianism within the Republican Party are. …
So the vaccine issue demonstrates that while nearly every Republican agrees with libertarian ideas on some issues, this doesn't necessarily reflect just an inviolable philosophical commitment to individual liberty. When being a libertarian means getting something they want without having to give up anything they like, they're happy to wave the anti-government flag. But if it means their kids might get sick because some people are dumb enough to take their medical advice from Jenny McCarthy, the needs of the many begin to look much more pressing than the delusions of the few.
To buy the above argument, you would have to accept that opposition to vaccination is a pressing libertarian issue. It's not. Some libertarians hold opinions about vaccines that clash with the facts, of course—as do some non-libertarian Republicans, Democrats, liberals, and crazy people of all affiliations. Noted non-libertarian (or possibly secret libertarian?) Barack Obama shared his concerns about vaccines causing autism during the 2008 campaign.
Now, it's true that libertarians are generally opposed to government-mandated things with a philosophical fervor that people of other ideologies are not. And so the idea of forcing people to be vaccinated is a bit vexing for many libertarians, not always because they are suspicious of vaccines but because they reject the government's right to make that call. Libertarians oppose government agents force-feeding kids their fruits and veggies, too! But since non-vaccinated people can make other people sick in a way that kids who have rejected their government-mandated veggies cannot, it's a bit trickier sorting out whose rights should trump whose, what level of state authority gets to make that call if any, whether dissenters should be ticketed, arrested, or merely denied public services, and so on. Reason's Ronald Bailey, for instance, favors "shunning and shaming" those who refuse vaccination.
My point is that the vaccine issue doesn't have much bearing on libertarianism as a philosophy. Republican Sen. Rand Paul might have made a thoughtless, incorrect remark about vaccination—one he quickly walked back after receiving his booster shot—but so have many, many other politicians at one time or another.
Making the extreme opposite case—that anti-vaccine hysteria is both foundational to libertarianism and a harbinger of of even scarier views—is The New Republic's Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, who writes with just maybe a hint of exaggeration that "to avoid a hellish death spiral of infectious disease and neglect, we would all do well to reject Paul and his cohort on the subject of child rearing." (Emphasis added, because what the fuck?) More from Bruenig:
When confronted with the question of whether or not discouraging vaccination is a threat to children's health, Paul launched into a meandering consideration of public health and liberty that concluded with the assertion that "the state doesn't own your children, parents own the children."
Paul's bizarre rendering of the parent-child relationship as unilateral ownership is not the most unhinged thing a well-regarded libertarian has ever said about children. In fact, libertarians exhibit a historical inability to adequately explain how parents should relate to their children, why parents are obligated (if at all) to care for their children, and whether or not moral nations should require that parents feed, clothe, and shelter their children within a libertarian frame.
For examples of other libertarians saying "unhinged" things about parenting, Bruenig cites Lew Rockwell, Murray Rothbard, and Williamson Evers. In other words, two Rothbards and someone I've never heard of. (Checks Wikipedia.) Nevermind, make that three Rothbards. Fine.
Of course, if we are playing the game of picking three people at random and then using their crazier views as stand-ins for an entire philosophy, we could make any ideology look bad—even Bruenig's, which appears to be Christian socialism.
In any case, I reject her argument that libertarian parenting is horrifying. The alternative—parenting as principally the domain of the government—is what's horrifying. When the government thinks as a matter of policy that it knows how to take care of kids better than their own parents do, bad things happen. Browse the archive of Reason's Lenore Skenazy if you don't believe me. There you will find parents who were arrested for letting their kids enjoy some autonomy and play at the park, or hauled off to jail for trusting a perfectly safe kid to wait in the car while mom ran an errand, or shamed by agents of the state for being insufficiently paranoid that child molesters are lurking around every street corner. Consider the Meitivs. Or Debra Harrell.
Libertarian parenting provides an essential counterbalance to helicopter parenting—to the fear that kids are in constant danger. This fear is irrational and anti-scientific—we are living in the safest time in human history—but it's largely been codified into law, anyway.
I'm a libertarian, and I'm relatively untroubled by local governments mandating vaccinations one way or another. What does trouble me is the idea that parenting decisions should default to the state. This bothers me because we have a wealth of evidence suggesting that the state is a deluded and paranoid parent. When it comes to kids, mommy and daddy usually know better.