Politics & Policy

A Vaccine against Chaos

(David McNew/Getty)
The idea that elites know best, versus individuals’ control of their own bodies.

On the matter of vaccines and those parents who refuse to allow them to be administered to their children: First, the case against the ordinary battery of vaccinations is approximately as sound as the case against genetically modified foods, the case against the official account of the 9/11 attacks, or the case for the proposition that the United States is governed by a secret cabal of billionaires run by the Koch brothers. It is about as intellectually defensible as arguments in favor of providing federal subsidies for homeopathy and acupuncture — i.e., 99.44 percent pure horsepucky. There are many reasonable arm-twisting measures that could be taken to encourage vaccination, such as categorically excluding unvaccinated children from public schools, denying unvaccinated persons entry or reentry into the United States, and the like. But the success of the anti-vaccination project is only a symptom of a deeper and more worrisome problem.

The fight over vaccinations is not a new one. Since the invention of vaccines, their use and their mandatory use have been a hotly contested issues. In the early days of the Progressive movement, when panels of experts in thrall to a vision of their managerial expertise rolled over the literally and metaphorically untidy cities and rural communities in which social dysfunction flourished, resistance to mandatory vaccinations became a crusade, especially in New England. The Supreme Court decided in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) that the state could fine a Swedish immigrant who refused to undergo mandatory vaccination, protesting that he’d been made seriously ill by an earlier vaccination. Just a few years prior, the case of Wong Wai v. Williamson considered whether federal authorities could require that all of San Francisco’s Chinese residents undergo a fairly dangerous vaccination against the bubonic plague or be forcibly prevented from leaving the city.

In Jacobson, Justice John Marshall Harlan found that the vaccine resister in question could be fined, and punished for refusing to pay the fine, but that he could not be physically coerced into accepting the vaccination. But the precedent — that state interests trump individuals’ control of their own bodies — provided Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. with the ammunition he needed to find in Buck v. Bell that “the protection and health of the state” was sufficient to justify involuntary sterilizations of “the unfit” and “defectives” — principally meaning mentally disabled people — whose rights were, in his judgment, not protected by the 14th Amendment, at least not to such an extent that they could not be forcibly neutered like stray dogs. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” the justice infamously wrote. As Jonah Goldberg notes in Liberal Fascism, the lone dissenter in the case was the “archconservative” Pierce Butler. (Read Jonah’s post on Margaret Sanger and contemporary eugenics here.) The subsequent history is pretty ugly.

As commenters as different as Jamelle Bouie and Michael B. Dougherty have observed, the dynamic in the anti-vaccination movement is only subordinately one of science and medicine, the superordinate dynamic being the general collapse of social authority. But that is not entirely new, either. As University of Wisconsin scholar Karen Walloch writes in her account of Jacobson and the anti-vaccination “heresy” rampant in Boston and Cambridge at the time:

Jacobson arose in the context of [the] conflict for control of public health and social authority at the beginning of the Progressive Era. Filthy cities crowded with immigrants, political radicals, and working people demanding economic and political change seemed to threaten the basic order of society. Antivaccinationists’ insistence on the primacy of individual control of the body subverted older ideas about a citizen’s obligation to put his or her community above self, the very essence of police power. . . . By asserting that individual citizens had federal civil rights that states may not invade, they asserted a new antagonistic relationship between states and their residents, one where individuals could overturn police power in the name of individual liberty.

American Progressivism resembles its European counterparts in important ways. The foundation of the modern welfare state was laid not by German socialists but by Otto von Bismarck, who sought to preempt the more radical elements by pacifying their sympathizers with social insurance and other benefits, while simultaneously regimenting them with a factory model of education designed to produce good (read: “obedient and economically useful”) citizens the way other factories produced widgets. The Progressive vision is based on the belief that experts can improve the lives of the poor, the uneducated, and the disadvantaged by running their lives for them with a vast carrot-and-stick architecture of domestic policy. The managerial model of governance across ideological lines assumes much the same thing. It is easy to see the appeal of that vision to a Barack Obama or a Bill Clinton: “If only everybody would manage their own lives as intelligently as I have managed mine, then they would be as successful as I am, or as near to that as their implicitly inferior faculties can take them.”

Elites can perform a couple of different functions in society. In the ancient model, they simply rule, with political and social life dominated by hereditary aristocracies, titled nobility, clan hierarchies, and the like. That has not been entirely extirpated in the more modern and democratic model — think of the Bushes, Clintons, Pelosis, and others for whom public office effectively is treated as a kind of family entitlement, or of Mitt Romney, the millionaire businessman, governor, and presidential candidate whose father was a millionaire businessman, governor, and presidential candidate — but we today look (in theory) to our elites more to set an example: Part of the key to having a life as successful and rewarding as Mitt Romney’s is to live a life that is more like Mitt Romney’s and less like . . . take your pick. In that model, which is the liberal model in the best sense of that word, the function of elites is to transmit habits and mores that transcend the merely political. The truly civilized society does not need laws against cannibalism or parent–child incest, because such laws are superfluous, the prohibitions against such atrocities being written in the national soul rather than in the law books.

The prestige of the old elites was undermined by their excesses, and the prestige of the new elites — scientists, “experts,” politicians — has been undermined by their adventuring. One of the illuminating things about Twitter is its almost unique power to illustrate that people who are geniuses in their own fields — Neil deGrasse Tyson, Joyce Carol Oates — are ordinary imbeciles like the rest of us when they venture very far beyond them. The politicization of science has been particularly destructive. Recall Stephen Schneider’s essay in Discover in which he argued that scientists have a moral duty to lie about climate change, because the truth is so complicated as to prevent the emergence of the political consensus he believes is necessary to address the issue: “We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” Economists, physicians, and social scientists of all descriptions have been seduced by the same line of thought. And of course the scientists and economists have been spectacularly wrong about any number of things that they believed — and assured the public — were absolutely certain. It does not take too much familiarity with Vox to detect that expert consensus is very often a veneer covering other motives.

And scientists and other scholars are at the high end of the credibility curve. On the other end we have — what? Celebrity culture? The familiar faces in Washington? Chris Hayes partly considered this in his disappointing Twilight of the Elites, but he is so ideologically blinkered by the (non)issue of economic inequality that he fails to appreciate the darker and more terrifying truth: Social authority is indeed in decline — and it deserves to be.

Anti-elitist rhetoric is very much in vogue on the right at the moment, because our elites are perceived — not without good reason — as being unreliable, destructive, self-serving, prone to daft and voguish enthusiasms, and ungrounded in any meaningful moral tradition. But we haven’t found a good replacement for them yet, either. Resistance to vaccination is a small part of that, albeit a small part with potentially large and destructive consequences.

In the battle between the vaxxers and the Vox-ers, the only winner is chaos.

—  Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.


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