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Guest column: The social cost of personal liberty

by Bob Brown
| August 19, 2021 12:15 AM

I received my COVID-19 shots last winter when people were standing in line for them. I’ve been increasingly mystified by the vaccine resistance since then.

The whole country seemed to be behind “Operation Warp Speed” as the Trump administration raced to get approval of a vaccine. Over 100 million people have now been vaccinated. Without question the stuff works, preventing deaths and serious illness. As a result, small businesses, especially in the struggling restaurant and hospitality industries, have been rescued from near certain bankruptcy. Employment is up, and the public mood is upbeat. The country is on the cusp of COVID-19 immunity.

So why on earth are nearly 90 million Americans turning down the shots and thereby risking the salvation of all of us? Incentives in the form of everything from free beer to hundred dollar bills and college scholarships have been experimented with. Education has shown some success, but it has been tentative and creeping. Asian Americans have the highest vaccination rates followed by urban whites. Minorities in the big cities and rural whites lag behind.

It has only been with the recent rise of the delta variant that fear, human kind’s most reliable motivator, appears to have triggered an uptick among the reluctant ones to submit to the needle for the sake of their own protection.

But what about the millions of others in the vaccine-resistant category? Some of the unvaccinated still need reassurances because they lack a trusting and personal relationship with traditional health care systems. But others seem to confidently rely on social media and its disinformation about COVID-19 in general. They remind me of Mark Twain’s observation that it is not as bad to not know, as to know what ain’t so.

In my long experience, I’ve found very few people who are intentionally wrong. A majority of anti-vaxxers, I think, are resentful of all COVID-19 related requirements. Their concept of personal liberty is being threatened by the broader consideration of the public interest. To those who see personal freedom as paramount, “the public good” is something they fear as an inherent threat to their liberty. These folks may see themselves as purely principled. They frequently have deeply held religious beliefs. They also make up the “true believers” of our body politic. “Never giving in” is who they are.

Others, usually the majority, are more influenced by what they identify as practical solutions that will result in desirable consequences. They will ultimately prevail. Their rational view of the COVID-19 vaccine is simply to get it. The self-preservation instinct will control as it always does, and the public good will be accepted as society’s norm as it always has.

Government mandates to require the vaccine in order to hasten immunity are being proposed by some. That can probably work in some sectors, and with those who recognize that refusing the vaccine will increasingly lock them out of an economy that they hope is opening up. The heavy hand of more general mandates, however, would likely serve to broaden and harden the ranks of the resisters.

We are all Americans. Among us are “purists” and “consequentialists,” and that has worked to the benefit of our system and our people for most of our history. Now though, the plague is returning. We could stop it better if the pure were not the enemy of the public good.

Bob Brown is a former Montana secretary of state and Montana Senate president.