People who do not get the vaccine are not “moochers”

A recent editorial in the L.A. Times claims that people who choose not to receive the Covid-19 vaccine are “mooching off the rest of us.” I strongly disagree with this idea. 

First of all, the editorial repeatedly uses the verb “refuse” to characterize the decision not to get a vaccine. I disagree with this word choice, as it implies that the decision not to get a vaccine is a bad thing. In my opinion, it is not. People have a fundamental right to decide for themselves whether or not to get a vaccine (or any medical procedure, for that matter). Both options are equally valid and acceptable. 

The editorial criticizes Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Sen. Rand Paul, who have (in the author’s words) “defended the right not to be immunized as an exercise in individual freedom” and are “casting themselves as courageous individualists.” These two gentlemen are 100% correct. The right not to be immunized is an exercise in individual freedom, and those who defend this right are courageous individualists. 

The editorial tries to debunk Cawthorn’s and Paul’s arguments as follows: “The hazards of refusing the vaccine don’t confine themselves to the individual refuser. Vaccine resisters are putting the rest of us in danger, too. Unvaccinated people who contract COVID-19, even if they don’t become seriously ill, can pass the virus to family and friends.”

It is true that not getting a vaccine can have indirect effects on other people. But this is no reason to take away people’s freedom to choice. Every decision that a person makes has the potential to indirectly affect other people, but no sane person would argue that people shouldn’t have the freedom to decide on anything. The deciding factor is not whether a decision carries risks for other people but whether a decision violates others’ rights. In aggregate, the choice not to get the vaccine does increase the odds of catching Covid-19 for everyone in the community. But this choice does not violate the rights of anyone. There is no right to live in a world without infections diseases, or a world where one’s risk of catching any particular disease is below any particular threshold. The demand that the vaccine be made mandatory does violate people’s rights, however. Those who make this demand are essentially attempting to force medical procedures on other people, something that blatantly and unquestionably violates rights. They are arguing that the ability to live in a community with low rates of Covid transmission is more important than the ability to make one’s own medical decisions. I vehemently disagree with this claim. People have the right to make their own medical decisions regardless of what effect this has on the community’s risk level. In other words, no one has the right to demand that people be made to get medical procedures against their will for the sake of reducing their own risk or that of others.

The editorial goes on to insult Cawthorn, Paul, and others who think like them (including myself): “In fact, they’re acting as epidemiological moochers. They’re free riders, relying on the rest of us to protect them by helping the country reach herd immunity. Their relatives and friends, especially those 65 or older, should give them a wide berth. And their voters should treat them as what they are: dangerous to the health of their communities.”

I disagree with this characterization as well. No one is morally obligated to undergo any medical procedure, even if doing so would have indirect benefits to others, and no one who opts out of a medical procedure is a “moocher.” It is true that Covid-19 vaccination has what is called “positive externalities” – meaning that in aggregate it does tend to benefit society as a whole by reducing the overall amount Covid transmission. But there is no rule that if an activity has positive externalities, then everyone should be required to do it. I would be perfectly happy to live in a world where no one got the vaccine, but given that a lot of people are choosing to get it, there is no way for me to avoid the positive externalities. A moocher is someone who deliberately obtains a benefit without paying for it; therefore it is not accurate to describe people who do not get the vaccine as “moochers.” 

Additionally, although each person has the right to make his or her own decisions about who to associate with, it is intolerant, mean-spirited, controlling, and nosy to take another person’s medical decisions into account when deciding whether or not to spend time with them. I would never make a friend or relative’s vaccination status a factor in whether or not to associate with them, because it is none of my business. 

It may be true that Cawthorn and Paul are infinitesimally contributing to their communities’ virus risk. They are also bravely standing up for individual rights at a time when doing so is unpopular, and therefore desperately needed. That is far more important.