We Are All Anti-Vaccinators

(at least if we use Uber, Amazon, Turbotax, cars, or discount supermarkets)

onion headline

As usual, the Onion nails it: the anti-vaccination crowd misuses the language of individual rights and thereby jeopardizes the social well-being of others.

 But also as usual, the Onion’s joke cuts more deeply – to everyone who uses Uber, Amazon, claims substantial tax deductions, and consumes more than their fair share of natural resources (so basically, almost everyone in America).

Let me explain.  But first, don’t get me wrong: vaccinations are clearly a good thing.  They protect all of us from a variety of potentially deadly diseases, and also, they don’t cause autism.  That should be the end of the argument.

 A variety of fairly ordinary conspiracy theory moves (distrust of the Big Evil Corporations, some Renegade Doctors who relish the spotlight, one Discredited Study, and a Deep Sense of Grievance on the part of some hippie types as well as the Know-Nothing conservatives) are enough to let a small sliver of the population believe that they’re right.  And anything you say to them becomes the dreaded Proof that They Are Right.  Because, you know, “that’s just what they want you to believe.”

 So it’s easy to see the anti-vaccinators as crazy, IGNORANT and irresponsible members of the public who jeopardize the safety and security of others to indulge their whims.

 Which is all fine as far as it goes: except that many of the rest of us engage in similarly irresponsible, ignorant and irrsponsible behavior on a regular basis.

 Consider the case of Uber, strangely, one of the internet’s more polarizing political phenomena.  The pro-Uber people make arguments largely similar to the anti-vaccinators.  There should be a right to what I want – unregulated cab travel.  There is a Big Evil entity here too – traditional cab medallion monopolies.  And there’s the same temptation to see that no harms comes from it.  Some of the anti-vaccinators argue for “herd immunity,” which is just a fancy label for free-riding.  If everyone else does it, and does it for long enough, it’s okay for me to opt out.  So when all the anecdotal pro-Uber folks say “my Uber car was nice, safe, etc.” what they’re ignoring (note – “IGNORING” = “IGNORANT” – a key verbal connection for the rest of my argument) is that this is largely true because cabs have been a regulated marketplace for so long that that safety can be taken for granted as a social norm.  If everyone used Uber or similar services, though, the standard of safety and security would not be there.  Uber is taking advantage of “herd immunity” to skirt the government regulations and fees that allow it to exist.

 Which is why it wasn’t surprising to me to see the data that says millennials are more anti-vaccine than other generations.  This is a generation that’s been raised to believe that you make your own, totally unrelated, independent choices about everything: cabs yes, but also, music, television shows, news, and apparently, science. And of course Uber is just one among many services that work the same way: Amazon being the prime mover here, systemically destroying other forms of media, like traditional authorship (see the dispute with Hatchette Publishing), music recording and sales, and leaving gutted social spaces in their wake, not to mention mom-and-pop stores, brick-and-mortar bookstores, and many other institutions that have heretofore provided a form of social stability we all claim to value when asked.  When we use Amazon we IGNORE the effects it has on social life.

 The rest of us, as much as we’d like it, aren’t off the hook.  It’s pretty common for people my age (myself included) to bemoan the ignorance and facile self-righteous selfishness of millennial culture.

 Let’s talk about taxes for a minute.  We’re all about to do them, unless you’re one of those hyper-organized people who already did.  But even if you’re one of those – in fact especially if you’re one of those, the following argument probably applies to you.

 What does “doing our taxes” really mean?  It generally means squeezing out every last deduction, cutting every last legally available corner in a mad dash to recover as much money from the government as possible.  I suggest this is essentially the very same IGNORANT free-riding of the anti-vaccinators or the pro-Uber-ists.

 The idea is – the government (which means the roads, the police, the fire department, the schools, the libraries, the military, the airports, the national parks, but also Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and many, many other things) is funded by taxes.  I dare say your everyday life and safety depends vitally on something on that list I just gave.  And it’s all paid for by taxes.  But those of us who engage in the squeezing-out-every-last-deduction strategy (not saying I’m innocent of this) are also taking advantage of the “herd immunity” gained from the fact that, by and large, people DO pay their taxes.  We are IGNORING the effects that underfunded government services have on the safety and security of ourselves and others.  And people poorer or with less information than us also tend to pay higher taxes because they don’t spend the time and money required to get them back.

Stepping out further: think about cars (and the rest of the American lifestyle).  If you’re reading this, you know full well the effect that your car’s consumption of fossil fuels have upon global warming, and the effects that shopping at big corporate grocery stores and eating at restaurants that use the products of Big Food have on public safety, health and security, both domestically and internationally.  Yet you ignore that (i.e., you are ignorant) and continue to act as though it doesn’t matter.

Uber and Amazon, but also H&R Block, Turbo Tax, car owners and anyone who shops at Mariano’s – these are anti-vaccinators of a different, more socially acceptable type.  They take money and consume resources that allow government and the world to work effectively for health, safety and security, under the guise of personal liberty and lower prices.  Imagine if the Onion headline had read “millions of Americans exercise their right to prevent the social services they benefit from from working effectively and prevent their communities from meaningfully producing cultural products and cause global instability and destruction”  It might not be as funny (I’ll admit I don’t have the Onion’s skill with word-economy), because it doesn’t allow us to point at the crazies, and feel self-satisfied, but it’s still right.

I think the vaccination uproar provides a crucial moment where we can all consider not just a few crazies and how their decisions can impact everyone, but also the role that ALL of our decisions play in our lives and the lives of others – to use internet-based services that deny people of good jobs, to reclaim tax money that short-changes essential government services, to drive cars and eat food that destroy the world we live in.

So before you post your next status update smugly lampooning the ignorant decisions of anti-vaccinators, take a moment to consider all the IGNORANT decisions YOU make on a daily basis.  Sure, measles is bad, but are global warming and lack of access to health care and other essential services far, far worse?  Perhaps you think these analogies are strained, or somehow overly simplistic.  Perhaps they are, but you might ask yourself why you’re so quick to dismiss them as such?  Even if you quibble with the details, there is certainly some truth there: many of us, much of the time, act as free-riders upon our communities, our country and our world.

If we want a politics of the common good, we will all have to sacrifice for it, not just a few people we saw on TV from California.  Or to put it in Biblical terms – we must cease to “strain at a gnat [or a virus] and swallow a camel.”

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2 Responses to We Are All Anti-Vaccinators

  1. Sam Brown says:

    First of all, awesome. One criticism is that I am not sure where the generalizations about millennials gets you (other than its “click-bate” characteristics, which clearly you are not going for). Not that it disproves the larger point but I think throwing it around lazily exposes a real danger. While you point to” your generation” and taxpayers as an example I think this discussion requires us to look back to the roots of the disease. The “free rider” problem is not generational but an inherent part of society (I think anyways, given its roots in economic theory). A great example is “right to work” laws and those who opt out of paying their union dues (these are not millennials, but mostly middle aged workers who have been convinced the union is scamming them). Millennials enhanced access to, and expertise in technology may make them particular susceptible to taking a free ride, or buying books on Amazon, but does not make them feel any more “entitled” to do so. My fear is that millennial bashing (again, not that that is what you are doing, or intending to do) essentially allows the 45-65 crowd, that effectively runs the country and controls the wealth, to pass the buck. What you hint at here is that really the “entitled to use Uber crowd” is merely an evolution of what I would clumsily call the “just because the GI Bill, New Deal and strong middle class economics of the 50s and 60s put me in position to succeed doesn’t mean I should have to use that position to assure that my kids (and definitely not other people’s kids) can also” Crowd. We often credit this generation with initiating lot of social progress (i.e. Civil Rights, Feminism, environmentalism (at least as a concept) but we don’t condemn them for overseeing the destruction of the middle class, erosion of public education, destruction of unions, destruction of the environment, and corporate takeover of politics, pretty much in exchange for large houses in the suburbs and the paying one’s child’s tuition to earn a degree rendered less valuable by the above mentioned erosions. My point is the “anti-vaccinators” you speak of are not new, nor unique to the smart phone-wielding, debt ridden, i-Pod packing generation, whose existence, perhaps ironically, is actually the product of the failures of the previous generation to secure the type of economic opportunities and affordable education that would lead them to appreciate what a “good job” is. It is amazing how mature and responsible someone like Hillary Clinton sounds when she says “the world is round and vaccines are a good idea.” Just imagine how much better off we would be if people her age had loudly, consistently, and un-apologetically said “of course we need strong labor laws, of course we need affordable public education, of course we need progressive income taxes, of course we need regulation, of course we need [insert any Robert Reich/Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren endorsed public policy here].” I guess am trying to make the not-all-that-sophisticated point that public policy failures have been both the result of, and cause of the broadly defined “anti-vaccinators” you identify.

  2. Josh says:

    i totally agree. I thought I said what you said but maybe I didn’t really., I’m saying it’s not just anti-vaccine people, it’s not just millennials using uber – it’s a lot of us. Only difference I might point out is I think this might be more endemic to the libertarian-ish USA than a lot of the rest of the world, especially w/r/t consumption of globally scarce resources.

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