Saturday, February 7, 2015

Three Quarters

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) stirred up something of a firestorm with his contention that vaccinations for children should be voluntary - decisions made by the parents of said children based on their priorities, and not those of the state, or society at large.

Of course, we all like choice - there are things about our lives that we feel are our own prerogatives, and we resent other people levering us into surrendering our choices. But when we talk about choices, who should have them - who should not, and what things should be subject to personal choice, we run into an interesting situation - because while the argument is often framed as being a dispute over choice, it's really about the choices under consideration right at that moment - and what justifies the given positions.

Typically, disputes about choice break down into three camps: those people who are fighting to preserve or obtain the right to make a particular choice because they want to make it, people who wouldn't make the choice themselves, but wish it to be available to others and those people who have no use for that choice themselves and do not wish it to be available to others. The debate over marriage equality for same sex couples here in the United States tends to break down this way - you have same sex couples who want the right to marry, you have people who have no intention of ever marrying someone of the same sex who want same sex couples to have the right to marry and you have people who have no intention of every marrying someone of the same sex who want to deny same sex couples that choice. When the people who want a particular choice are a small enough minority, they can become, interestingly, bystanders in a public debate that they are ostensibly the subjects of - again, same-sex marriage comes to mind - the primary warring factions in this Culture War campaign (one which is rapidly drawing to a close) are straight people who support same sex marriage equality and straight people who want the practice to remain (or, quixotically, return to being) illegal.

The "to vax, or not to vax" debate lacks that "allies" faction, and so primarily pits those who wish to opt out of vaccinations against those who wish to make vaccination either effectively or literally mandatory. But both arguments lack a fourth facet - people who want, and would make, a given choice, but fully support the right of the society at large to restrict it. So we don't see, for instance, a vocal group of gays and lesbians who argue that while they would like to marry any partner of their choosing, society is perfectly within its rights to deny them this choice. By the same token, there isn't a vocal group of anti-vaccine activists, who similarly accept that the final choice isn't theirs to make. (Note this is different from doing something under protest, or vocally submitting to the threat of punishment.)

And this, I think, is why politicians, like Senator Paul, can move these social arguments into an area of "freedom versus tyranny." While many people tend to argue that societies have the right to restrict choices, it's rare to hear people openly argue that societies have the right to restrict choices that they actively wish to make.

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