Vaccines and The Social Contract

26 Mar

RousseauLet me be frank. This is not about whether vaccines do or do not cause autism. They don’t. Andrew Wakefield, the guy who published the original paper stating that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism amongst children, has been completely discredited. The Lancet, the journal that published the article, fully retracted it. Wakefield has been barred from practicing medicine in his home country of the UK. (He lives in America, but can’t practice here either.) No other studies have shown that the MMR vaccine has caused autism. No sane, credible medical professional actually thinks that vaccinations cause autism. It is a crackpot theory that exists in the vicinity of phrenology and cryptozoology.

The fact that people still buy into this bunk is not at all surprising. There are people who think that aliens took the Malaysian plane. There are those who think that we didn’t land on the moon. There are still flat earthers. No really, there are. People will believe in anything. Just listen to talk radio at three in the morning or google Xenu.

And you know what – I generally don’t care if someone believes that the President was born in Kenya or that Jews made up the Holocaust. Most of these people have rightly been pegged as the nutjobs that they are. Society does not give them too much credence, which is exactly what should happen when people say insane things. We will never get rid of all the crazies just like we will never do away with racism no matter how far advanced our species may become. There will always be outliers within society who just don’t accept that up is up, down is down, and that Lost was a TV show and not something that is actually happening right now to a real world airplane.

But saying crazy things and doing crazy things are completely different. If a person believes that vaccines cause autism – even when there is ZERO proof that they do – that’s fine. But if you decide not to vaccinate your child, that crosses a sacred line.

The latest spokesperson for the anti-vaccination movement is Kristin Cavallari, who is – according to Wikipedia – an “American television personality,” which generally means someone whose attractiveness is inversely proportional to her talents. She is also married to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who apparently is “weirded out” by pregnancy sex, probably because he’s afraid the baby might kick him and he might lose half the season with a fractured pelvis. But I – a Bears fan who dons a Jay Cutler jersey on Sunday afternoons – digress.

Here is what Cavallari said about not vaccinating her kids:    

There’s really scary statistics out there, and to each their own.

First: there are no really scary statistics out there. Those are no statistics. There are lies and damned lies. But no statistics.

Second, it’s “to each her own,” please.

But third: no, it’s not even to each her own. When you don’t vaccinate your child you put other children at risk of getting sick. The more parents that listen to the Jenny McCarthy crackpots in the world, the more kids will get sick with diseases that are all but eradicated in First World countries. In fact, the CDC states that “If vaccinations were stopped, each year about 2.7 million measles deaths worldwide would be expected.” There are schools that will not allow students who aren’t vaccinated to attend. Not because they themselves might get sick, but because they could get other kids sick.

What Cavallari and McCarthy and all the rest of the vaccine haters can’t understand is that we live in a society. We live one on top of another. I don’t get my kids vaccinated only because it will prevent them from getting sick, I do it so that your kids don’t get sick as well. The anti-vaccination crowd is its own virulent strain of secessionary libertarianism – if they don’t like the rules of society, they just opt out. But that’s not how the world works. No matter how much we may dislike certain laws, certain rules and regulations, even some of the basic elements of civilized society, we all have to live in the same world and suck it up when we don’t like it.

In the end, we are all in this together.


The idea of the social contract is not new. It can be traced to antiquity, but was articulated best by Hobbes, Locke, and specifically Rousseau (that dude up top) in his treatise, The Social Contract. There are various permutations of it, but my take – and the one I am closest to both philosophically and politically – goes something like this:

People suck. If there were no rules against raping and murdering, there would be a lot more rapes and murders out there. But we make rules that say that certain things are permissible and certain things are verboten. I agree not to kill you and you agree not to kill me. But it’s not just murder. It’s also things like taxes. I agree to give up a portion of my income that then goes into a common pool that goes to things like traffic lights, weather satellites, and sanctioned air robot death. There are plenty of things that my taxes go to that I disagree with but that you love, and vice versa. Our tax dollars go to wars and to school lunches. And we adjust that social contract when we vote, either for the guy who likes wars or the guy who likes school lunches.

The social contract states that individuals give up some of their rights so that society as a whole is improved. And there are always things that we don’t like giving up. There should be a limit to the killing power of the guns a person can buy because there is a point where what one person needs is outweighed by the possible detriment it may cause society as a whole. Or, as a wise Vulcan once said: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

It’s a fine balance. Take for example same-sex marriage. Does allowing gay marriage somehow hurt more people than it helps? Do – as opponents have stated time and again – two dudes getting married somehow make your marriage to your opposite-sex spouse less important? Do married straight people suffer because of gay marriage? The link between happy gay people and the resulting miserable straight people is similar to the link between vaccines and autism: non-existent but hyped by a deranged few.

But not allowing gay marriage creates a segregated society, one in which a certain group of people get preferential treatment over another. And that causes harm. Just ask a black man who was told that he couldn’t sit at a lunch counter. So while a few straight people might be mildly uncomfortable with gay marriage, far more gay people would be harmed by not allowing it, which is basically what courts have been stating over the past few years. That is the spirit of the social contract.

The Supreme Court just heard arguments regarding the Affordable Care Act and whether for profit secular companies have to provide insurance coverage for birth control if the people who run that company have religious objections to it. (Note: the Court has previously ruled that corporations are people, and as such I am not sure if a company itself believes in God, or even if it can believe in God.)  Of course, if the Court rules that a company does not have to pay for contraception because of religious objections, I have a feeling there will be plenty more companies who suddenly gain religion.

The real question, of course, is whether a private company can refuse to play by the rules of society just because it has a difference of opinion, even if that difference of opinion is – to them, at least – part of their core beliefs. Can a company opt out of providing insurance that provides contraception to women even though that is the law? Can a baker who does not believe in gay marriage refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding? Can a hotelier who believes that strict interpretation of the bible proves that black people are inferior refuse to rent a room to a black person? Yes, it actually is a slippery slope.

Of course not all laws are morally correct, and a case can be made – as it has in the past – that one must break unjust laws in order to change them. That was the spirit of what Martin Luther King was trying to accomplish when he advocated for non-violent resistance. His approach worked because those on the sidelines – northern whites mainly – who may have been anti-segregation but were not necessarily vocal advocates for desegregation were able to sympathize with those marching and protesting.

But there is a big difference between laws that are morally evil and those that some people just don’t like very much. I don’t like paying taxes. But NOBODY likes paying taxes. No one likes a sizeable chunk of their paychecks going bye bye. But most of us do not actually complain about taxes because we are not idiots and we realize that our tax dollars do provide for a better world. (Yes, I know plenty of tax dollars are misspent, shat away through a Mobius Strip of bureaucracy, or stolen by some amoral county clerk, but that’s for another post.)

The point of a democracy and the social contract is not that everyone gets something that they like, it’s that we all have to stomach something we object to. The social contract is a study in compromise. We all have to give up something individually – part of our salaries, our right to park our cars in front of our very own house on street cleaning day, our names to a jury pool – for the common good – school lunches for kids who can’t afford them, clean streets, and fair trials.

I don’t like that my tax money goes to killing people half way around the world. So I vote for the guy who may – just may – change that policy. You don’t like that your tax dollars go to godless things like poor people and women. Fine, vote for the asshole who will change it. But we can’t all line item veto the things we object to. We cannot opt out of society.

We are all born as individuals within a state. We are all citizens of some nation, whether we like it or not. It is not our choice. We do not have complete freedom of choice. That would be anarchy. We cannot, as individuals, completely secede from the world at large. There are not enough desert islands for everyone to while away their lives completely cut off from their fellow citizens of the world. We are not isolates. We are inexorably intertwined one to another, whether we like it or not, so best make the most of it and not kill your kid’s best friend with your idiot theories. 

So, Jay, give your kids their medicine. Go Bears!!

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