Robert Kennedy Jr.

Why Are So Many Libertarians Suddenly Fond of RFK Jr.?

The anti-vax environmental lawyer is not worthy of the rehabilitation tour he's getting from pundits and podcasters.


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Children's Health Defense, a nonprofit that warns of the possible dangers posed by vaccines, used to receive a modest 119,000 monthly visits to its website. When COVID hit and public skepticism of the medical establishment exploded, the site's web traffic went wild, peaking at 5 million monthly visits.

Who's behind this group that warns of the alleged dangers of electromagnetic radiation and a "global cabal" attempting to ban meat? The group's chairman, chief legal counsel, and highest compensated officer is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who recently launched a longshot bid to become president of the United States.

RFK Jr. is not worthy of the rehabilitation tour he's getting from various pundits, podcasters, and tech luminaries. He pushes tabloid-quality "reporting" and he wildly extrapolates from little grains of truth. His and his organization, Children's Health Defense, give opponents of vaccine mandates and government overreach—like me—a bad name by lumping us together with science-denying anti-vaxxers.

Take the 2022 piece "​​Polio: Why Vaccines Are to Blame for Rising Number of Cases," where Children's Health Defense claimed that "cases have been on the rise globally since 2016, and the resurgence is related to the use of vaccines."

Actually, global polio cases fell by 99 percent from 1988 and 2022 and we're extremely close to eradicating the disease, thanks to vaccines. Kennedy's claim is technically true but misleading: He was referring to polio spread through untreated sewage by a form of the vaccine that uses live virus. Not only has that version of the vaccine been retired, but it can cause an outbreak only in unvaccinated communities, such as some Hasidic neighborhoods of New York City and outlying areas. In one ultra-orthodox community in Rockland County, a voluntary vaccine drive mostly solved the problem.

For the last 18 years, Kennedy has been a leading figure in the anti-vax movement. 

"My principal objective is that vaccines and childhood vaccines are immune from pre-licensing safety testing," he has said. "Pharmaceutical drugs are now the third biggest killer in America after heart attacks and cancer. So, no, I do not intend to make it easier to get drugs to market."

This is a rhetorical ploy to make his vaccine fearmongering sound reasonable. The Food and Drug Administration is, if anything, overly cautious with vaccine testing: Bringing a vaccine to market generally takes 10–15 years and costs several billion dollars.

It's ridiculous to argue vaccines are insufficiently tested, or that kids today are overvaccinated. 

"When I was a kid, I got three vaccines. My children got 72 doses of six vaccines," Kennedy has said.

He is playing fast and loose with the numbers: About 30 doses are on the childhood immunization schedule, with fewer required to attend most states' public schools. The reason he didn't get vaccines that prevent measles and mumps when he was a kid is that they didn't yet exist, which is a shame because they've mostly eradicated those serious diseases in the U.S.

"Beginning in 1989, we experienced a chronic disease epidemic in this country, and it is unlike anything in human history. I mean neurological diseases that I never saw when I was a kid—ADD, ADHD, speech delay, language delay, tics, Tourette's syndrome, ASD, autism, narcolepsy," Kennedy has said. "All these suddenly appeared. Autism rates went from one in 10,000 to one in every 34."

A major reason autism rates have gone up over the years is because we've gotten a lot better at diagnosing it.

There's never been an objective test for autism, and the criteria have changed dramatically since the 1940s, when the diagnosis was first introduced. 

"Peanut allergies suddenly appeared, food allergies, eczema suddenly appeared. Anaphylaxis and asthma, which had been around, exploded," RFK added.

Kennedy is correct that food allergy, asthma, and childhood obesity rates are increasing, but there's no evidence it's caused by vaccines. He is once again flubbing the particulars in order to pin blame on a single culprit.

Kennedy frequently mistakes correlation for causation, gets his numbers wrong, and portrays complex trends as simpler than they really are, with easily identifiable villains.

Last year, he produced the documentary Infertility: A Diabolical Agenda. It was directed by Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who wrote a 1998 article in The Lancet arguing that vaccines cause autism.

Kennedy has frequently pointed to thimerosal, a preservative that's mercury-based and was removed from vaccines out of an abundance of caution back in 1999, as the main culprit for increasing autism rates. But thimerosal has been removed from many childhood vaccines since then, and we haven't seen autism rates trend downward.

A measles outbreak in 2014–2015 and another in 2019 were caused by a drop in vaccination rates, which Wakefield and Kennedy helped stoke.

As for the film that Kennedy and Wakefield collaborated on, it recycles long-debunked myths from the '90s that tetanus vaccines administered in Kenya were deliberately laced with a hormone blocker that caused infertility. 

This, they say, was part of the World Health Organization's depopulation plot, but the Catholic bishops who are the source for that claim never presented conclusive evidence. 

Libertarians who understand the incompetence of government entities should be more skeptical that the World Health Organization would be so effective at carrying out such a nefarious scheme.

Kennedy has chaired Children's Health Defense for the last eight years, speaking at events all over the country on its behalf. He used his famous last name to add the veneer of respectability to the anti-vax cause. 

In fact, he's been focused on this single issue for decades now: In 2005, he first became obsessed with the preservatives in vaccines, writing an article for Salon on the danger of vaccine additives that needed five corrections appended to it and was later retracted.

He's not really a persecuted truth-teller—although recent attempts to go after Joe Rogan for having him on his podcast, or to cut him out of public debate in other ways, have fed that impression. The real issue is that RFK Jr.'s bold claims don't hold up to scrutiny, even when examined by people who don't have a dog in the fight.

So what would RFK Jr. be like as president?

Part of his appeal, to libertarians at least, is that he's staunchly anti-war and a huge critic of COVID lockdowns and mandates.

But he's fundamentally a big-government liberal. He supports Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal. He favors heavy-handed government intrusion in the realm of environmental policy. He's against nuclear energy. He favors massive wealth redistribution, saying: "I don't think huge disparities in wealth are healthy for our country or healthy for democracy."

He also wants pharmaceutical companies to burn in hell, and he seems to believe in an almost Alex Jones–esque concept of the deep state. He correctly points out that government and big business have an unholy alliance, but he doesn't understand that too much regulation is the root cause. He just thinks large companies are inherently bad. 

He says he's concerned about government spending, and he throws out wild figures to make his point: "We spent $16 trillion on the lockdown we wasted. Got nothing for it. $8 trillion on the Ukraine war. That's $24 trillion that they had to print to pay for nothing."

But he's no better than any establishment Republican or Democrat in his unwillingness to scale back the eldercare entitlements that are driving the federal government into bankruptcy. "I would say it's a red line for me to touch Social Security or Medicare or Medicare," he once said.

What's surreal about libertarians now embracing RFK Jr. is that he's publicly fantasized about jailing his political opponents and cracking down on free speech for years. At the People's Climate March in 2014, Kennedy said this: "They should be in jail. I think they should be enjoying three hots and a cot at The Hague with all the other war criminals who are there. Do I think the Koch brothers should be prosecuted for reckless endangerment? Absolutely."

And, more recently, he told Reason's Nick Gillespie this: "The First Amendment does not protect that. The First Amendment does not protect fraudulent speech. If you say something that is fraudulent, you're not protected." To which Gillespie responded: "It just seems like that way madness lies, because the government will always come up with a pretext for saying your speech is not just wrong, it's criminal, and you need to be shut down."

"Well, I don't know, but I do believe that prosecutors and judges make decisions about what's fraud all the time," countered RFK Jr.

He's not a real free speech advocate, and he's not especially thoughtful about the principles or people he endorses. After all, this is a man who once heaped praise on Hugo Chávez, touting the socialist dictator's bogus literacy programs and alleged commitment to democracy.

Is it fair to hold 15-year-old soundbites against RFK Jr., as some of his fans that I've sparred with have claimed? One thing I'll say for him is that, unlike most politicians, he's been extraordinarily consistent in his views. He thinks the world is divided into heroes and villains, and he makes wild, unsupported claims that portray things as simpler than they are.

The difference is that he's no longer a widely ignored crackpot environmental lawyer. He's asking you to vote him into the White House.

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