Is It Time for a Boston Tea Party for Vaccines?

Would vaccine vigilantes be justified in stealing and distributing AstraZeneca doses locked up by order of the government?


On one night in December 1773, patriot activists disguised as Native Americans broke into Griffin's Wharf in Boston Harbor, boarded three vessels loaded with tea owned by the British East India Company, and dumped it all overboard.

Now immortalized as the Boston Tea Party, this famous theft is celebrated today as a heroic act of resistance against the oppressive British government.

Usually forgotten in the story is Francis Rotch, an American merchant and co-owner of two of the ships invaded that night. Rotch had unwittingly agreed to ship crates containing the controversial tea from Britain. When he arrived in Boston, patriots prevented him from unloading the cargo and British authorities stopped him from leaving with it. In a conflict between crown and colonist, Rotch was squeezed between two sides.

Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is stuck in a similar position today.

The company, The New York Times reports, is currently sitting on some 30 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in a warehouse in West Chester, Ohio, all vialed up and ready to go. Millions more unpackaged doses are being held at a Baltimore facility, the Times says.

Both clinical trials and the vaccine's actual use in the 70 countries that have approved it tell us that this is a safe and effective way of preventing COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. Millions of Americans would gladly take it.

Standing in the way of this mutually beneficial exchange is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for approving vaccines and has thus far refused to give AstraZeneca's shots the green light.

Worse still, the Biden administration is forbidding the company from exporting its idle doses to countries that do allow their use, and which have worsening COVID-19 outbreaks of their own.

Much like the forgotten Rotch, AstraZeneca finds itself in possession of some very valuable cargo that can neither be offloaded nor exported.

That raises an interesting question: Would modern Americans be justified in following their revolutionary forebearers' example and just stealing that shit?

For all its merits as an act of anti-monarchical, anti-monopoly resistance, the Boston Tea Party remains an act of theft—one that ultimately put a private party in its crosshairs. That's something most libertarians wouldn't support, except perhaps in the most extreme hypothetical circumstances.

Would equally energized citizens today be justified in forcing their way into that West Chester warehouse and absconding with 30 million doses of life-saving medicine? The heist itself would require a few dozen people willing to offer the AstraZeneca warehouse staff enough cash to look the other way, plus enough refrigerated trucks to carry everything away. Once boosted, there would likely be countless doctors, nurses, and pharmacists eager to help administer a vaccine we have every reason to think is safe and would be saving lives today but for a pathologically risk-averse federal government. And if Americans didn't want to take it, our vaccine vigilantes could bring the doses out of the country—maybe to Brazil, which has approved the vaccine's use and where 3,000 COVID-19 deaths were reported yesterday.

Jason Brennan, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, says there's some merit to the idea. Violating the FDA's prohibition on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine should trouble no one's conscience, Brennan says. That prohibition is imposing severe costs on Americans' lives and livelihoods, and the agency's refusal to approve the vaccine is motivated by perverse incentives that no one should feel the need to respect.

"If [the FDA doesn't] approve a drug or if they don't approve a face mask, if they don't approve a testing kit for COVID, lots and lots of people die, but no one other than health economists blame the FDA for that," says Brennan. "But if an FDA approved a drug and it fails or has side effects, people blame the FDA." The desire to avoid blame encourages the FDA to adopt an overly cautious approach to approving drugs, even in the middle of a pandemic when the cost of that caution is hundreds of lives a day.

Should people manage to acquire the vaccine, they should feel free to take it, Brennan argues. And if AstraZeneca executives find a way to sell it onto a black market, he adds, they should be lauded as heroes.

Of course, AstraZeneca executives are not going to sell their vaccine into the black market, given the many legal consequences. That's where the heist comes in.

Brennan acknowledges that this is a more difficult calculation. In emergency situations, he argues, theft or trespassing might be justified. "I don't think property is completely sacrosanct," Brennan says.

He gives the example of someone who comes across a privately owned cabin while being chased by a bear: You shouldn't feel bad about breaking into the cabin to escape the animal, although you'll probably owe compensation to the cabin's owner after the emergency bear situation has lapsed.

Whether the COVID-19 pandemic counts as a severe enough emergency to justify stealing vaccines from a pharmaceutical company hinges on a lot of details, says Brennan. Stealing the vaccine to give it to an 80-year-old at high risk of dying from the disease is closer to our hypothetical bear victim and would thus plausibly be justified. Stealing it to give to a healthy 20-year-old who faces fewer risks would not.

The coercive force necessary to take the vaccine also needs to be considered, Brennan says. If a few AstraZeneca vaccine vials fall off the back of a truck, then their theft is easier to justify. If one has to shoot a security guard to get them, it almost certainly isn't.

Revolutionary Bostonians had similar qualms about the destruction of private property during and after the Boston Tea Party. For that reason, they refrained from damaging the ships or molesting their crews during their act of thievery. Patriots even went so far as to replace a privately owned padlock they'd cut when breaking into the wharf.

Only the tea itself was destroyed, which Sam Adams and others later justified as a targeted protest against both unjust taxation and the monopoly privileges given to the East India Company.

One could deploy similar logic to justify the theft of AstraZeneca vaccines. The fact that they're sitting idle in warehouses is solely the result of government restrictions. Their very existence is also the result of government action, namely a $1.2 billion contract the U.S. government has inked with the company to purchase 300 million doses of the vaccine it refuses to approve.

The anarcho-libertarian philosopher Murray Rothbard—a private property rights absolutist—has argued that forcible confiscation of property owned by state-supported universities and military contractors is justified under a libertarian framework, given that those institutions are bankrolled by stolen tax dollars.

"What of the myriad of corporations which are integral parts of the military-industrial complex, which not only get over half or sometimes virtually all their revenue from the government but also participate in mass murder? What are their credentials to 'private' property? Surely less than zero," wrote Rothbard in a 1969 essay. "To say that their 'private' property must be respected is to say that the property stolen by the horsethief and the murderer must be 'respected.'"

Grant Babcock, an editor at the Cato Institute's and self-described Rothbardian, says there is some truth to that sentiment when it comes to Pentagon contractors. But he doesn't think the reasoning applies to AstraZeneca or its vaccines.

"The market for fighter jets outside of government demand is basically nil. Whereas a lot of people might be interested in purchasing [a coronavirus vaccine] irrespective of the demand from the government," Babcock says. "So to that extent, I don't think we would consider AstraZeneca an arm of the government the way a lot of defense contractors could be."

The FDA's restrictions on AstraZeneca's vaccine are clearly unwarranted, Babcock adds, saying people should be free to consume whatever drugs and medicine they want to. But that still wouldn't justify theft of a restricted product.

"If there's an unjust law, you shouldn't feel too bad about breaking it," he says. "But in this case, the unjust law is the law that's prohibiting a transaction for the vaccine. It's not the laws against theft, which are not unjust."

Brennan argues that coercing the FDA directly into approving more vaccines would be appropriate, saying "if you could blackmail the head of the FDA to force them to" approve the vaccine "that would be a heroic thing to do. You would be deserving of praise."

Whether or not that's morally defensible, it seems like an impractical caper to pull off.

So the FDA's restrictions on the vaccine remain both lethal and unjust. Yet injuring private third parties to right that wrong remains morally dubious.

Moral calculations aside, it should fill every American with Sam Adams–like revolutionary fervor to know that while some 800 Americans die each day, and countless more labor under governments' pandemic restrictions, millions of life-saving vaccines sit untouched.

The public policy debate about the pandemic has largely been about what coercive force the government is justified in exercising to prevent infections and deaths. It's worthwhile to at least think about how much force citizens themselves can use against a government that denies them access to life-saving cures.

NEXT: The Media's Obsession With Boulder's Blocked 'Assault Weapon' Ban Defies Logic

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  1. SleepyJoe knocked it out of the park at the press conference today. Such a sharp mind and quick witted.

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  2. I’m not participating unless Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed are involved.

    “Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin, we gonna do what they say can’t be done….”

  3. Meat muppet.

  4. I would never advocate theft or destruction of property.
    But it’s long past time for a Boston Tea Party style revolt against lockdowns and pointless rules.

    1. When I saw the first half of the title, I got excited, then came “for Vaccines” and I was disappointed.

    2. What would be their damages? The US government has already contracted to pay for them, and I’m sure there’s a clause that says that if the goods are destroyed by or lost to a force majeure such as a Tea Party, they still collect.

  5. No way around it; under Trump vaccines got approved rapidly, and deployed to the citizens. Biden has slammed the breaks on rapid anything, and put the FDA back into sleepy mode.

    1. Calm down. This is all within normal parameters. Of course Trump would have told the FDA to shove it up their overpaid asses. But that would be outside normal parameters and make Reason libertarians sad.

    2. yes, vaccines did get rapid “approval” from the corrupt and profit-moved FDA. Trump made it a strong practice to let those with “authority over certain areas use that authority.
      I DO fault him for faiing to can that creature Fautchee pretty much straightaway, though. He’s flip flopped on just about every aspect of the crazy WuFlu. And NOW look at him go.. we’ve got “vaccines” in place, and HE says not only to keep wearingyour mug nappie, but to put a SECOND ONE ON YER MUG. Are he nutz er whut? READthe physics of those masks, and the aerosol particles.

      Now read about what must happen inside your body to allow some virus cells to enter yours and replicate. Once ybou’ve done that, do a bit of research and learn what simple natural ways exist to PREVENT that happening. Reliably. No side effects.

      And they want me to take that vaccine? They be barmy.

      1. The second he saw Fauci start to get political he should have fired him. Big error. Now Fauci is flipping on reinfection. He’s an unethical weasel who probably contributed to the death count.

      2. No, the vaccines themselves did not get approved. Only their emergency use got approved. The paperwork still describes the vaccines as “unapproved”.

  6. Didn’t we pay for these vaccines?

    1. You didn’t pay for them ,the government did.

  7. The Boston Tea Party was not theft; it was vandalism. The tea was ruined when they threw it overboard. They didn’t make off with it.

    A ‘Boston Tea Party’ event for these vaccine doses would result in the destruction of the doses.

    1. Plus you’d be canceled for dressing up like Indigenous peoples.

      1. I’ve never understood this. I was at an Indian owned casino-resort in Albuquerque years ago and they (Native Americans) were selling headdresses for like $400. Truth be told, it didn’t seem like anything was being sold at the listed price; they were making deals on everything just to get cash into the register.

        They didn’t strike me as the type to sell me something “sacred” and then have the gall to tell me I couldn’t do what I wished with it, including wearing it. Now, giving it to me and then asking for it back…

    2. I wondered at the comparison as well, because they are totally different things.

      Maybe some early American’s walked off with some of that tea for personal use, but as far as I know there’s no records to indicate they did anything other than destroy the shipment in it’s entirety.

      So yeah, if you’re saying we need a ‘Boston Tea Party’ style anything involving these vaccines we’d be destroying them not using them.

      Seems stupid.

    3. It was neither. Three privately owned merchant ships were at the quay, laden with the stale old tea the Brit government (British East India Tea Company was part of the government) decided to foist off onto the colonists. Not only was the tea several years stale, thus poor quality, they decided to TAX it. Hokay, fine. Merchants would add the price of the tax to the price of the tea, and sell it.

      Trouble came when the Port officials at Boston (again, part of the Brit government) declared the tea could NOT be unoaded from the ships UNTIL the tax was paid. But it had not yet been sold, so no one had the money to pay the tax. One of the vessels slipped her mooring lines and nade for the open sea, to go elsehwere. The British Navy sent a pair of gunbats to bring them back. The owners of the ships were paying port fees, paying their officers and crew who were doing nothing, and losing new revenue from other cargoes they now could not carry. They were going broke, did not have the mone to pa the tax (why should they anyway? It was not THEIR tea, they had contracted to carry the stuff, deliver it to the warehouses in Boston, at which point they’d collect their fees and be off to find the next cargo. SOMETHING had to give…. three days of “illegal” meetings, the result was BOSTON HARBOUR A TEAPOT TONIGHT. The goal was to free up the three merchant vessels so the owners could not only stop paying the port fees but also get back to work. and have their crewmen earn their keep again by handling the ships, now making a profit again.

      The tea had become an unlawful encroachment upon the full possession of the three vessels. The government would not budge, so they GOT budged. And oh how da King roared when he larned of it. And Parliament did as well, closing down the city and port of Boston, bringing thousands of new troops to fill the city, and impose what amounted to martial law.

      Had the Port authorities done what was customary worldwide, and allowed the cargoes to be unloaded and warehoused in bond until the owners paid the imposts upon it, then the vessels would not have been effectively seized. They would have been back to work earning their owner’s keep, and the fate of the tea would have been of no ocncern for the ship’s owners/masters or crew. But they put on stupid, and lost it all. Serves em right.

      As to the vaccine.. from MY personal perspective, these items are dangerous and should be secured away from any place where they could find their way into the arms of the unsuspecting public. Look aat what is going on in Isreal now, as more than half the population are now stabbed, and about helf of them are having very strong adverse reasctions….. safest place for those vaccines would be in a very large incinerator. DO NOT dump them into the ocean. No telling WHAT manner of bio-emergency that might develop.

      Perhaps kidnap them and ferret them off to someplaceof safekeeping…..

      1. “Look aat what is going on in Isreal now, as more than half the population are now stabbed, and about helf of them are having very strong adverse reasctions…“

        It is more like 1:1000 with side effects. None of them serious. 0.008% sought medical attention.

        1. If you prefer a peer reviewed study here is one.

          It is up to you to decide for yourself but spreading false information is simply wrong.

    4. What was the break down of tea lost? Shame if peppermint tea was ruined.

  8. So why are they denying an export license for the vaccine? The FDA can’t certify that they’re safe and therefore the potentially unsafe vaccines can’t be released, despite the fact that the importing country has certified the vaccine as safe? And Biden just claimed that he wasn’t willing to stand there and do nothing while a little illegal immigrant child starved to death because only the Trump administration was so evil as to do such a thing. How many people are you willing to kill over a vaccine, Joe? And how evil does that make you?

    1. He should have a press conference, and someone should ask him this!

    2. They are denying eexport license because they are paranoid about running out of vaccine. EVERYONE knows that the vaccine is going to get approved, this is just a bunch of paperwork shuffling for appearances. Therefore, exporting the vaccine hypothetically cuts down on the supply we’ll have around May when the FDA finally does what half the world has already done. I’d almost be able to tolerate it, except for the fact that by May we are going to be drowning in vaccine doses. Even if we pretended every adult was going to take the vaccine, and that the pharmaceutical companies are not over delivering on their commitments, we will have more than enough by June. We don’t need the AZ vaccine and having it will barely accelerate any vaccination timeline. We are going to ultimately give away most of the doses to the 3rd world, so I am so in favor of getting that process started today.

  9. “Would vaccine vigilantes be justified in stealing and distributing AstraZeneca doses locked up by order of the government?”

    I didn’t know stealing could be justified ?

    Britshgi couldn’t even pose the question in a meaningful way !

  10. Well we are over 100 million vaccines administered, sleepy stumbling bumbling Joe says 200 million in the next month or whatever stupid shit he was mumbling about today. Don’t think there’s a need to steal them, plenty for people who want it.

    Anyway so Joe thinks the filibuster is racist huh. Even though he used it and promoted it during his waste of time in the Senate. Good call voting that fool into office instead of the guy who actually brought you the vaccines.

    1. C’mon man. No one could have possibly foreseen any of this. Least of all the professional journalists at Reason.

      1. To be fair, I am still in total shock that both of GA’s senate seats went Dem. That doesn’t happen, then neither does the vast majority of the crap that is about to hit us.

        I had the sense that the progressives were SO bad, that I tossed my worthless, non-swing state vote to Trump, just to throw the biggest possible middle finger at them even though I understand Biden himself is not a progressive, it was very predictable he would have to throw them more than a few minutes (also, every time Biden blamed Trump for every COVID death, it reinforced my belief that Biden is going to take credit for defeating the virus, which just pisses me off).

        1. Bones not minutes

  11. Delusional, disaffected, desperate clingers are among my favorite culture war casualties.

    Open wider, losers.

    1. Irrelevant and boring.

      1. Irrelevant is a fringe-dwelling conservative watching America’s betters win the culture war, shoving progress down whining right-wing throats.

        Watching the clingers flail and rant and whimper adds to the fun.

        1. Just because your mother used to shove her rubber cock down your throat is no reason to inflict your rape fantasies on the rest of us, Kirkland.

  12. Well, no one stole the tea for personal use or consumption. It was all destroyed so that no one could use it.

  13. As long as it doesn’t turn people into vampires or zombies, there should be no issue. Send them out.

  14. The vaccines could not be administered once the chain of legitimate custody was broken.

    1. You just need to find black market nurses and you can get it administered.

      However, all this speculation is really no longer germane. Everyone at high risk can already get the vaccine. The low risk folks mostly want it for the CDC card, which you obviously wouldn’t get with a stolen dose.

  15. I would not believe vaccine propaganda

  16. Humorous – And the summation of the revolutionary war was the U.S. Constitution which DID NOT give the federal government the power/authority to start a “Food and Drug Administration (FDA)” at the national level.

  17. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God… the genius of that. The genius.

    1. Mistah Kurtz. . . He dead.

  18. What are we doing here, Reason?

    Naturally, I opened this article from another website thinking that surely this is worth clicking on because it will making the case to steal vaccines to safely *discard* of them.

    1. Britches, you’re getting danger close to the idea that government is illegitimate unless it has the full consent of the people. That’s a dangerous flirtation that will get you kicked out of cocktail parties and put on a watchlist.

      1. That was not supposed to be a reply.

  19. The vaccines currently being given in the USA against Covid-19 are also unapproved by FDA. Their administration has been authorized pursuant to an emergency. It’s likely that had they not been produced for the US government as the sole buyer, their administration would not have been authorized.

  20. Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is stuck in a similar position today.

    No they’re not. The vaccine supply/demand issue has a lot of elements of the supply/demand dynamics of lettuce at the end of the day in a farmer’s market.

    Right now – like today – there is still a supply shortage of vaccine so article upon article can be written about how restricting that supply is a gummint problem. Within a couple of weeks, that is going to reverse.

    As is always the case in the US, we chose the most corrupt way for govt to distribute/jab the vaccine. We chose to make sure that taxpayers would pay for the first round – delivered to that subset of the population that had the highest demand AND was probably willing to pay the highest price too. So – let’s make sure that gets paid by everyone else (esp children and grandchildren).

    Once the highest value product is shipped/used, the marginal price drops really fast. Esp when, with this product, there’s a pretty substantial part of the population that will NEVER get jabbed regardless of price. So that, in the event there is some hostility to taxpayers continuing to pay for the vaccine, it will be OK because they already paid for the customers who are both most desirous of and least in need of the subsidy. What’s left is the anti-vaxxers, the young (demand is likely so low that getting enough of them vaccinated to affect herd immunity does require some subsidy), and the semi-older poor (no ability to pay for the product).

    THAT is what the pharm giants are potentially annoyed at here. Rather than have their supply used up with the high prices of the govt subsidy of the first couple rounds, they will have to ship their supply off to Burkina Faso.

  21. Remember thalidomide? The drug interfered with the babies’ normal development, causing many of them to be born with phocomelia, resulting in shortened, absent, or flipper-like limbs. Used across Europe, stopped in US by FDA inspector, Francis Kelsey .

    1. No not really because that was 60 years ago and everything is completely different in terms of both the regulatory environment and in terms of the technology.

      So if we want to shut down promising treatments because thalidomide despite the fact that everything is different … idk man. People read up on one case with zero understanding of the regulatory environment (on both pro and anti FDA sides) and think they know everything.

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