A vaccine discussion worth having
Not whether they’re good but how to get people to take them
I more or less agree with everyone who thinks it wouldn’t be constructive for scientists to participate in a live debate about vaccines with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and certainly not on the Joe Rogan show.
And even though it’s not the subject of this post, I do want to say that I think it’s really sleazy and gross for the hosts of the All-In podcast to be engaging in this Kennedy boosterism as a bank-shot way of harming Joe Biden’s reelection prospects. Notwithstanding the recent convergence around Russia policy, Kennedy represents precisely the strand of progressive thought that right-of-center businesspeople have rightly spent the better part of a century bemoaning — his is an anti-progress, anti-technology, ultimately anti-human worldview that stands against biomedical progress, against energy progress, and against human flourishing. If they do succeed in supercharging Kennedy’s campaign, they will greatly set back the state of political argument in the United States.
Back to vaccines, though.
While I don’t think there’s anything new or interesting to say about the scientific or medical issues, I do think the time is probably right for a renewed discussion of the policy issues surrounding vaccination. Because the basic question here is interesting. Vaccines are good for the people who take them — the private benefits far exceed the costs. That said, there are a lot of personal health practices whose benefits exceed the costs; a lot of Americans would benefit from getting on a weightlifting program, for example, but nevertheless haven’t done so. What’s special about vaccines isn’t that they benefit the vaccinated, it’s that they have large social benefits beyond their private benefits, which means we have a compelling public interest in strongly encouraging people to get vaccinated.
To the extent that various vaccination mandates are already in place and are uncontroversial, that seems like a good enough solution. But I think we saw clearly during Covid that they are not always uncontroversial. Flu vaccines are non-mandatory, but that just means they usually have low uptake. And when we hopefully invent even more vaccines in the future, that will once again pose the question of the best way to get people to actually take them.
Getting mad is not a solution
The other day, I wrote on Twitter: “An interesting topic to debate would be ‘what should we do about the fact that the social value of vaccination exceeds the private value to the vaccinated, while the vaccinated themselves bear the downside risks which, however small, are not zero?’”
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