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Who Is To Blame for Vaccine Hesitancy?


Tennis star Novak Djokovic famously (or, depending on your perspective, infamously) refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19 as a condition for entering Australia to play in the Australian Open. 

Djokovic’s refusal prompted National Review’s Kevin Williamson and Charles Cooke to engage each other in an online debate over the merits of government-mandated Covid vaccination. Williamson finds such mandates to be less objectionable than does Cooke. Especially because each man is thoughtful and principled, reading their exchange is worthwhile. This issue is a serious one and must be dealt with accordingly, as is done by Williamson and Cooke.

The Williamson-Cooke exchange prompted Washington University economist Ian Fillmore to share with me his thoughts about vaccination mandates. Here’s part of an email that I recently received from Ian (which I share with his kind permission):

I have seen the argument “You didn’t oppose HepA vaccine mandates in the past, so why are you so upset about mandating the Covid vaccine?” It’s a fair point, and my unsatisfactory answer is that, while they made me uneasy, I kept my mouth shut because everyone seemed to be going along with it. How harmful is a mandate that no one minds obeying? It would have seemed quixotic to take a principled stand against a mandate that almost no one minded (and the few objectors could usually get exempted from in one way or another). The holdouts weren’t going to hurt my kids because we were up to date on our vaccines. And I didn’t give it much more thought than that.

Well, now we have a larger chunk of the population that doesn’t want to take a vaccine. I think the vaccines are terrific (set boosters aside) and should have been our ticket back to full normalcy in early 2021. Most people agree with me and got vaccinated months ago. Some disagree and that doesn’t bother me at all. They’re taking on a greater risk of severe illness or death from Covid and that’s their choice to make! Since I’m vaccinated, their choice to forgo vaccination doesn’t affect me. This is especially true now that it turns out the vaccines are not so effective at preventing spread. As an economist I would say that the vaccines have essentially eliminated the externalities of Covid. As a human being, I would say that the vaccines allow us to all make our own choices and mind our own business.

More generally, I’m amazed by how quick humans are to abandon persuasion in favor of coercion. Some people aren’t persuaded to take the vaccine, and we treat it like it’s their fault for not being persuaded. Maybe it’s your fault for not persuading them! But no, we give it the old college try with some public health messaging, then we start dropping the hammer with mandates.

Ian’s email radiates wisdom. I especially admire his willingness to admit uncertainty about the justification of mandating Covid-19 vaccination in light of the fact that governments already, in a variety of forms and circumstances, require some vaccinations.

He, of course, goes on in his email to offer some excellent reasons to oppose mandated vaccination against Covid. 

Let me here offer some additional reasons.

From the start of Covid, the scientists and bureaucrats who were treated as virtually infallible by the media, and by most governments, embarked on a journey featuring some notable U-turns. Anthony Fauci’s 180-degree flipperoo on the advisability of wearing masks is the most famous of these. In light of such reversals, who can blame people for being skeptical of assurances offered about both the effectiveness and safety of vaccines by the likes of Fauci?

A related problem is the record of deceits, dodges, and half-truths practiced by many who are in power. Fauci and Francis Collins clearly were not forthcoming about the role played by the NIH in funding, if only indirectly, research done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Far worse is the effort by Fauci and Collins to orchestrate a scheme to discredit the scientists who wrote the Great Barrington Declaration. Why shouldn’t the general public be wary of proclamations made about vaccines by government officials who are fearful of open scientific debate? Why shouldn’t the public be leery of following the advice of officials who deride as “fringe” scholars who are tenured in scientific departments at Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford – a derision motivated by nothing more than Collins and Fauci’s fear of these prominent scholars’ public objections to the unprecedented use of general lockdowns and other authoritarian measures?

Then there are the too-many-to-count instances of hypocrisy by those who loudly insisted on draconian Covid restrictions. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s now-infamous partygate; Gavin Newsom’s soiree at the French Laundry; Neil Ferguson’s clandestine visit with his mistress; Matt Hancock’s not-socially-distanced passionate embrace in an elevator of his mistress; Muriel Bowser’s trip to Delaware to celebrate Joe Biden’s election; Deborah Birx’s Thanksgiving 2020 visit with her family; Nancy Pelosi’s hair-salon episode; San Francisco mayor London Breed’s maskless partying; New York mayor Bill de Blasio dancing in Times Square with his wife on New Year’s Eve 2021…. This list of high-level politicians’ and government advisors’ refusal to follow their own orders and advice can be extended. In light of such a list, is it any surprise that not a few members of the general public distrust government officials’ and their advisors’ affirmations of the safety and effectiveness of Covid vaccines?

And looming especially large for me are three other telling realities of the past two years.

 One is that public-health-experts’ consensus until late 2019 for dealing with pandemics was almost instantly discarded in early 2020. Further, those who publicly continued to endorse this pre-2020 consensus were vilified. How can that which was a consensus view in late 2019 be a dangerous superstition in early 2020? Regardless of which position is correct – the one that prevailed before Covid-19 or the one that has prevailed since – the near-instantaneous reversal of ‘official’ knowledge (and of the resulting policy recommendations) is alone sufficient reason for many people to question today’s official recommendations regarding Covid vaccines.

Second, most governments and prominent advisors push for vaccination as if Covid’s consequences don’t have a very distinct age profile. I can well understand why vaccine hesitancy rises when the public encounters high-profile officials and advisors who press for vaccination as if Covid is as dangerous to fifteen-year-olds as it is to seventy-five year olds. Because of this unscientific refusal to acknowledge Covid’s distinct age profile, why should advice about vaccines issued by people who refuse to acknowledge this age profile be treated as being scientific?

A similar point can be made about the Covidocracy’s continuing disparagement of natural immunity.

Third, we Americans have been repeatedly told for the past 60 years that private companies are untrustworthy if left inadequately regulated by government. Specifically, we were taught to distrust pharmaceuticals and medical devices that are not meticulously reviewed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration and found to be both safe and effective. And the review process typically takes a long time – on average, ten years.

Yet since Covid-19 arrived, the public has witnessed unusually speedy development and approval of a vaccine to combat a novel coronavirus. While I’ve long believed that market forces and tort law are sufficient to keep pharmaceutical companies honest and responsive – meaning, there’s no need for an FDA – my view has also long been derided as reckless. Although my own research (such as it is) assures me that the Moderna vaccine that I received is likely of net value to me (a 63-year-old), I cannot criticize the many people who, having observed the unprecedented speed of the vaccines’ development and approval, worry that these medicines are not sufficiently safe to inject into their and their children’s bodies.

Universal vaccination against Covid is today insisted upon with the same fervor that religious zealots centuries ago exhibited when insisting upon the truths of their particular dogmas. Sensible people naturally are highly suspicious of such dogmatism and will resist becoming its victims.

If governments and public-health officials are looking for people to blame for vaccine hesitancy, they need only look in the mirror.

This column was written for AIER

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Donald Boudreaux

    Donald J. Boudreaux, Senior Scholar at Brownstone Institute, is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, where he is affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center. His research focuses on international trade and antitrust law. He writes at Cafe Hayak.

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