On multiple occasions, former President Trump has made it clear that he believes the COVID-19 vaccines are an amazing medical achievement. He’s received significant media attention when, in conversation with Bill O’Reilly, he said he received a COVID-19 booster shot on top of his previous vaccination. He was immediately booed by some in the audience. To his great credit, he shut those jeering down, telling the audience:
Look, we did something that was historic. We saved tens of millions of lives worldwide. We together, all of us—not me, we—we got a vaccine done, three vaccines done, and tremendous therapeutics. This was going to ravage the country far beyond what it is right now. Take credit for it. . . . [T]ake credit because we saved tens of millions of lives.
More recently, the former president has criticized other Republican politicians who refuse to reveal their vaccination status to the public for fear they will upset the anti-vaccination component of their supporters.
Meanwhile, Candace Owens, on whose podcast Trump repeated the same truths about the vaccines, later claimed that Trump’s age is the reason he’s pro-vaccine. She explained that the former president was, like many older folk, not familiar enough with the internet to be capable of “conducting his own independent research,” as she apparently has. She’s so opposed to vaccination that she’d rather die from COVID-19 than get the shot.
What a mess has been made of this topic, on all sides. It is becoming impossible to speak about the topic without being absorbed by the partisan divide that has come to have such gravitational pull in American culture. It seems that almost no effort to look honestly at facts and report on them has the slightest chance of escaping the partisan divide’s nearly irresistible force.
Of course, the ubiquitous leftist overreach and political rhetoric masked as “following the science” is also deeply concerning, and I have written about it elsewhere. I am quite familiar with the overwrought leftist COVID-19 fanatic, who can be seen on the campus where I work every day, driving alone in a car masked, terrified beyond measure of all human interaction despite being fully vaccinated and boosted. This is a ridiculous figure. The absurd overreach on some campuses is astoundingly out of step with science. Even at least one left-leaning member of the Supreme Court has demonstrated how little she knows about COVID-19 facts. There is much more to be said there, and new stupidities appear from people and institutions all the time. Progressive leaders’ aggressive state and federal mandates also generate unnecessary mistrust and opposition to vaccines.
But, for the purposes of this essay, my focus will be the mistaken principles that underlie the right’s opposition to vaccines.
Conservatism and Community
Both the vaccine-skeptical right and their opponents assume that the political principles behind this position are deeply conservative. Is that so? A common refrain in anti-vaccination rhetoric is “I should be free to choose—don’t force me.” Let’s shorthand this as the Gadsden Flag conservative position. Freedom is certainly a value conservatives cherish, but its application has limits. I am not free to drive whatever speed I want around the school. I might be perfectly certain that I’m capable of doing that safely, but the general welfare trumps my desire to crank it up to 80 mph in an area where there are frequently five-year-old children walking in groups. Why, the most radical libertarian might ask? Because the right to life of those children trumps your desire to drive your car recklessly. The individual must sometimes subordinate his own interests to the interests of the community—especially the community’s most vulnerable members.
The same reasoning applies with respect to public health threats such as COVID-19. In asserting my purported right to not take reasonable and safe steps to best protect myself and others around me, I am simply discounting that larger communal entity of which I am a part. It is not conservative to assert an individual right to act without considering the welfare of his community. The precise balance of the two interests must be calculated before one is justified acting against the communal interest.
Conservatives certainly recognize the value of individuals, especially their spiritual value. But they understand that free-standing, autonomous individuals do not actually exist. It is a conservative imperative that individuals must recognize the moral responsibilities they have not just to one but to three interrelated communities: those of the past, present, and future. We commemorate and venerate our ancestors who went before us and made the culture and society we now enjoy. We protect and nourish our descendants, who will carry on our culture and our community when we are gone. We humble ourselves before the community in which we live our lives when doing so is morally right. In all three cases, we often sacrifice pursuit and possible realization of our own immediate self-interest for an interest that exceeds it—that of the moral community.
One hears almost nothing of the community and its needs in the language of the anti-vaccination Gadsden right. The left’s cynical exaggerations of communal obligations should be criticized, and robustly, as I have done. But the left’s manipulation of our community obligations does not mean the notion is meaningless. Community is after all our baseline concept, not theirs. The good of the community—not arbitrary claims to freedom—is the justification for opposing excessive state power.
Vaccines and Compassion
So how do you help those around you—not the state, but your neighbors, your friends, your family—by vaccinating? In a straightforward way. You decrease the likelihood that you will be infected or that, if infected, you will suffer serious symptoms, which decreases the likelihood that you will require medical resources that others in greater need might require. You decrease the likelihood that you will infect others who might be more vulnerable than you are. You also help to decrease the likelihood that the virus will have more time and more iterations to further mutate and escape vaccination efficacy.
What is the purported individual interest stacked against this by the anti-vaccination conservatives? My right to my health, it is asserted, since we do not know if the vaccines are truly safe. But we have now the empirical evidence of many, many millions of people around the globe fully vaccinated and tiny, tiny numbers of people harmed by those vaccinations. The good done by all those vaccinations overwhelmingly outweighs that minuscule amount of harm. My right simply to do as I like must be weighed against the good that will be done by my getting vaccinated. Again, while mandates are not the best way to achieve this common good, conservatives should reflect on their cherished principles and recognize the vaccines’ importance to the community’s welfare.
In truth, the “Don’t Tread on Me” faction on the US right is always in some danger of falling into solipsistic narcissism. One thinks here of the way in which some men who purport to be on the political right present, as a counter to the rightly criticized feminist view of sex roles, a stereotype of the hyper-macho churl as the conservative male ideal. But the conservative male ideal is not the reckless bully who uselessly throws his life away in a fight for status with other such miscreants. It is the father, the husband, the brother who sacrifices his own interest for those of his loved ones and his friends and those who share his culture, who bravely faces enemies and threats to those his ones. The assertion of bravery is not about him, ever. It is about others he has a sacred responsibility to protect. I’ve seen little Christian compassion for the weak in the anti-vaccination Gadsden right position.
Hostility to power from above is a conservative hallmark from the beginning. But why is power from above to be resisted? Merely to strut and preen in one’s autonomy from it? No, the reason that power is to be resisted is that there is a true source of morality and human commitment that must be protected from it. The positive good of the community, to which we dedicate ourselves, is the justification for opposition to the power from above. Freedom for freedom’s sake is a non-value. It requires an end. Love for the other members of our community and the desire to protect them and aid them in the struggle of life is that end.
Reaching Balanced Discussion
The discussion surrounding vaccines desperately needs nuance. There is room for some caution about vaccines when it comes to the young. The Moderna vaccine especially seems to pose a non-negligible risk of cardiac problems for boys, though overwhelmingly mild. It may be that one dose of the Pfizer vaccine is more than enough to confer added protection from serious disease to kids without comorbidities. But some children could have comorbidities about which they and their parents are unaware and might benefit from full vaccination. And, again, there are communal benefits to fully vaccinated young people who are less likely to spread the virus to those at greater risk. Note well: not “rendered incapable of spreading the virus to others,” but merely “less likely.” Probabilism, again, is our only effective language here.
Overreaching paternalism by the left has undoubtedly produced much harm, especially in the psychological costs of isolation during lockdowns, missed educational opportunity for children, and serious health problems resulting from COVID-provoked postponement of treatments. And the left’s attempts to coerce vaccination through mandates is not a winning strategy.
But the carelessness and moral solipsism of too many on the right, especially those with a big platform, are contributing to catastrophic decision-making by too many Americans. People are dying, their children and loved ones left bereft and alone, because of misguided, anti-conservative reasoning about our responsibilities to one another during a serious pandemic disease for which we have imperfect but still powerful vaccines.
Conservatives should recollect the ways lives are intimately connected to those around us and opt for receiving the vaccine. Doing so would reduce the number of needless tragedies to come.