by Michael Sean Winters

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I do not recall, when I was growing up or as a young adult, ever thinking that the issue of vaccinations was a political issue. Now, thanks to the infusion of libertarian sensibilities into the body politic, and a culture in which “choice” is always the ace of trumps, vaccinations are a political football. It is to weep.

First, there was Gov. Chris Christie on a trip to the United Kingdom. He was trying to demonstrate his foreign policy bona fides I suppose, and certainly the issue of vaccines was not on the top of his list of things to be prepared to discuss while taking questions in the streets of London. But, the sudden outburst of measles stateside, which unlike Ebola is highly contagious, led to the question and, in his answer, Christie gave an unnecessary nod to “parental choice.” Somewhere, deep in the recesses of his intellect, there was a default switch that clicked on: When discussing family issues, do not forget to mention parental choice. And so he did. And so he looked very foolish.

Gov. Christie is not a libertarian in any meaningful sense of the word. But, Sen. Rand Paul swims in those waters, indeed we could say he was baptized politically in those waters. As if on cue, and ignoring the fact that for vaccines to achieve their medical benefit, we all have to take them, Sen. Paul turned to his binary view of the world in which the state is Leviathan, eager to devour first your rights and then, apparently, your children. “The state doesn’t own your children,” he said eagerly. “Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom and public health.” The choice of the verb “own” to describe the relationship between children and parents is a little frightening. And, he does not square “freedom” and “public health,” which may make separate conclusions, on this issue, just leaves them out there like exclamation marks in search of a sentence.

The episode shows everything that is deplorable about libertarianism. First, and I invite my conservative Catholic friends to take special note of this, in Sen. Paul’s binary vision of “the state” versus “individual freedom” there is as little room for civil society, and the Church, as there is in your worst collectivist nightmare. If it is all one or the other, there is no role for mediating institutions or, at least, they will quickly be relegated to the sidelines of political and intellectual discourse. Before the god “freedom,” all libertarians bow and grovel.

Second, as was pointed out by E.J. Dionne on one of the talk shows last night, the episode highlights another problem with libertarianism. While it can provide a certain cast of mind with a neat, tidy intellectual framework for explaining the world, once libertarianism gets applied to reality, it tends not to bear up very well. The real world exhibits nuance and conflicting values that must be weighed, it has exceptions to be sure, but more than exceptions it has an uncanny knack for requiring similar ideals to be applied differently in different situations. As an ideological construct, I am not much of a fan of libertarianism, but even if you are, you need to recognize, as Sen. Paul never really does, that in the application of those ideas, libertarianism tends to become either too rigid or too brittle to work.

When Pope Francis says that “reality is superior to ideas,” he is telling us Catholics something very important about the very heart of our faith. Our incarnational faith certainly recognizes the importance and value of reason, but it tethers reason to both faith on the one hand and real-lived experience on the other. Pope Benedict XVI emphasized this as well, stating in the opening sentences of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est: “We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John's Gospel describes that event in these words: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should ... have eternal life’ (3:16).” The historic vocation of the Catholic Church in civil society is to provide a bulwark against any ideology that denies the human person’s transcendence. And, in our day, the principle method of denying such transcendence is “choice” and “freedom” understood as ideological constructs and political tools.

Let us be clear: This cuts against both the left and the right. It always makes me laugh when I watch MSNBC and they are discussing abortion and they warn against the dangers of having “the government in the examining room” and then you flip to Fox, and they are discussing the Affordable Care Act and they, too, frighten everyone with the prospect of “the government in the examining room.” Neither side seems to even recognize the irony because their fear of government intrusion is not principled in the least.

Libertarians, at least, get high marks for consistency. But, in a culture in which “choice” is the preeminent value, there are many, many things that culture cannot accomplish because they require everyone to buy in, if I may be permitted a commercial metaphor. Vaccines are ones such issue. They don’t work if only half the population gets them. To work, the compliance rate has to be above 97%. Of course, in Europe, where medical care actually is “socialized,” very few countries require vaccinations but they have an almost 100% compliance rate nonetheless. Sen. Paul can put that sociological datum into his libertarian pipe and smoke it.

Which leads to one other aspect of libertarianism today: I do not know what they have been smoking, but they have a penchant for embracing some really bizarre ideas. In an interview yesterday, Sen. Paul did his best imitation of former Cong. Michelle Bachmann. She once said that she knew a woman whose child was vaccinated and the vaccine caused mental retardation. Yesterday, Sen. Paul noted there were “many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” Really? This is the medical equivalent of the Gold Standard, which many libertarians also embrace, or the idea that mammoth new trees can be genetically created to deal with climate change. Libertarianism seems almost uniquely to be the part of American politics where conspiracy theories and other idiocies find fertile soil.

That said, both parties suffer from the libertarian impulse, but the danger for the Republican Party is the more imminent in part because their whole party has indulged libertarian sensibilities on economic issues which tend to dominate politics these days. The problems our nation faces will not be solved by making “choice” more available – we have plenty of choices. The problems our nation faces can only be addressed if we delineate, carefully and with a view towards real world consequences, what obligations we owe to each other and to future generations, always defending man’s freedom to be sure, but balancing that freedom with a recognition that the transcendence of the human person is evidenced not primarily in an exercise of choice, but in the exercise of love. The experience of transcendence begins with transcending the individual with the family, then the community, and latterly, the society and beyond. Invoking “choice” and “freedom” as a battering ram is only half the equation and there is no society that can long stand on one leg.

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