August 10, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Anti-vaxxers are covering up their bad choices with ‘freedom of choice.’ Don’t let them

They discredit themselves when they cite "reasons" for refusing to get vaccinated. Yet we keep on trusting them. That's dangerous.

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Regular readers know of my long-standing opinion about the meaning of freedom. For most Americans, it’s about “freedom of choice”–the narrowest, brittlest and dumbest meaning of freedom. Even so, this meaning of freedom aligns perfectly with our consumerist culture. Freedom has come to mean doing what I want, when and where I want. It’s now hard to tell the difference between liberty and toxic greed.

This narrowest, brittlest and dumbest meaning is the baseline to our debate over vaccines. Why? Because even those of us who are full-throated champions of vaccines, even those of us who are calling for a national mandate, are still capable of accepting as valid the ludicrous reasons irresponsible people give for refusing to get vaccinated. 

We can go point-by-point, knocking down each and every lie and falsehood that goes into rejecting what the Editorial Board’s Lindsay Beyerstein has called “the welfare state’s crowning achievement.” In doing so, we can see for ourselves the anti-vaxxer, in the process of citing “reasons,” is discrediting himself in real time. He’s proving that he can’t be trusted. Yet we keep on trusting. This deep-seated faith in freedom of choice–that individuals know what’s best for them–allows us to accept “reasons.” We need to stop doing that.

The social nature of the pandemic means we live or die together.

This baseline faith in “freedom of choice” is so ubiquitous as to be invisible. CNBC ran a story today about an FAA rule requiring airplane passengers to be vaccinated. “Vaccines are being required for travel,” the report said. “Here’s how unvaccinated people feel about that.” Not only does this center the interests of irresponsible people who discredit themselves in real time. It centers the widespread belief that laws, rules and norms governing and regulating individual behavior equally somehow profane the sacred “freedom of choice.” If I can’t do what I want, when and where I want, there must be something wrong, which is the narrowest, brittlest and dumbest meaning of freedom.

Fact is, individuals often don’t know or want to know what’s best for them. They make terrible choices. If nothing else, the covid pandemic, which should have ended by now, should make that fact plain. Florida, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana are seeing huge spikes in infections and hospitalizations, because the culture of those states, and the political leaders of those states, privilege “freedom of choice” above all other considerations. Legislators have infringed on individual liberty in the name of protecting it by outlawing mask and vaccine mandates by schools, businesses and civil society. To be sure, this is an authoritarian bid for greater social control on the Republicans’ part, but many, many liberals still accept uncritically the premise of “freedom of choice.” They still think Texas, for instance, is making choices that are good for Texas.

This is partly a consequence of liberalism’s traditional focus on society over the individuals who constitute society. For instance, while conservatives focus on punishing criminals for breaking the law, especially if they are part of marginalized communities, liberals tend to focus on the social conditions that give rise to criminal behavior. Fix the social conditions, liberals say, and fix the social ills like crime. 

In the context of a pandemic, this tendency has resulted in greater focus on healthcare and information systems that influence individual choices, less on the individuals and their choices. The healthcare system really is racist in many respects. (The Editorial Board’s Magdi Semrau has covered the barbarism of this reality.) Some Black Americans and Americans of color are, therefore, suspicious of vaccines. Facebook and other social media are swimming with lies and falsehoods. Some liberals believe the anti-vax attitude that is prolonging the covid pandemic isn’t the fault of individuals. It’s the fault of corrupt social conditions. Let’s not alienate them, these liberals say. Let’s persuade them with facts and compassion. 

The healthcare system is trying to save these people’s lives. That should be apparent to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear or some other means of cohering the world. Even if some people do not trust that system, liberals should not encourage it with their compassion. They should be urging them to see what’s right in front of them–that the healthcare system is trying to save their lives and that the healthcare system will again fail them without their cooperation. There are plenty of reasons for refusing vaccines. None good. We should say so.

As for misinformation, one of my followers on Twitter pointed out something I wish I had pointed out. (It’s just so brilliant.) The follower said that blaming misinformation for low vaccination rates presumes that people understand the misinformation. They don’t, though. They don’t understand the misinformation about vaccines any more than they understand legitimate information about vaccines. The takeaway: these people are not misinformed. They are making bad choices that the misinformation helps rationalize so they don’t look like bad choices.

Which brings me back to freedom of choice.

The social nature of the covid pandemic means that we really are all in this together and that no individual can afford to allow the principle of “freedom of choice” to be used to cover up greed, selfishness and decisions deadly to every one of us. The more states like Texas privilege freedom of choice to rationalize bad individual choices, the more opportunity the coronavirus has to mutate, thus changing in ways that may cause vaccinated people to be vulnerable again. Individual choice is important. But individual choice does not necessarily mean individual freedom. Bad individual choices can lead to collective serfdom.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Bennett Graff on August 10, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    New format…neat.

    Not sure if I do entirely hold with the idea that liberals are giving anti-vaxxers a pass by blaming conditions rather than individual choice (a notably conservative take that assigns the full freedom to choose your path–and suffer the consequences–entirely to individuals).

    Non-vaccination has come in many forms: vehement refusal fed by a steady diet of willful (often grift-driven) misinformation; hesitancy that has nibbled at this spate of misinformation, aided and abetted by a kind of torpor endemic to populations (think how many citizens just don’t vote: “What difference will my vote make?” isn’t too far from “What difference will my getting vaccinated make?”); clear reluctance by marginalized communities that have suffered at the hands of the medical establishment or just simply lack easy access.

    Sadly, vaccination really needs to be treated more like taxes than voting: there should be tangible consequences to refusing them. A very liberal idea, if you ask me.

  2. Thornton Prayer on August 10, 2021 at 9:01 pm

    Lots of these anti-vaxxers think of themselves as the embodiment of rugged individualism when it’s really a case of rampant narcissism and immaturity. It’s like the neighborhood that’s a fire zone where everybody diligently cuts back the brush around their houses except for the one hardhead who refuses to do so, tells everybody to f*ck off, then jeopardizes the whole development when his house catches fire.

    These people deserve no pity, understanding, or compassion. Instead, they’ve earned their full measure of scorn and rejection. If they experience societal disdain and stupidity-based unemployment, so be it.

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