Needless to say, this is utterly bogus. What Paul should have noted was that this question has been studied exhaustively, and there is no evidence whatsoever that vaccines cause autism or any other “mental disorder.”
But if you thought that every GOP candidate would be rushing to pander to people’s fears about big government forcing them to stick needles in their kids, you’d be wrong. In fact, the ones we’ve heard from so far have been clearly pro-vaccine. And this shows just where the limits of libertarianism within the Republican Party are.
As the New York Times noted this morning, Mike Huckabee has in the past advocated that vaccines be widely used, and specifically dismissed the debunked connection to autism, while Rick Perry has also touted his administration’s efforts to increase vaccination. You’ll recall that Perry was criticized by his Republican opponents in 2012 for mandating that girls in Texas public schools receive the HPV vaccine (though he eventually reversed himself when he was convinced by other Texas conservatives that giving a 10-year-old girl a shot to prevent her from getting cervical cancer after she becomes an adult would obviously turn her into a sex maniac). Ben Carson also made clear that mandatory vaccination is critical to preventing disease, no matter what religious or philosophical objections people might have. John Boehner too said that every child should be vaccinated.
While there are a few candidates we haven’t yet heard from, it may be surprising that Paul isn’t getting more company; indeed, he’s probably surprised, given how much Republicans have talked about individual liberty in the last few years. Paul doesn’t deny that there are risks to not vaccinating children, but he says that it’s a matter of personal freedom: parents, not the government, should make the choice. However, it turns out that other Republicans don’t agree. In this case they believe that the welfare of the community trumps the individual’s right to decide.
What that tells us is that the broader Republican commitment to libertarian principles is highly situational. Libertarians laud themselves for their philosophical consistency (though Rand Paul is a quasi-libertarian at most), but ordinary conservatives are picking and choosing based on who’s getting what and who’s paying what. In the case of something like guns, where there’s an analogous situation (individuals want to make a choice that potentially endangers others), conservatives see the gun owner getting a benefit, and one many of them enjoy. When they say that companies should be released from environmental regulations, they’re thinking about people and organizations they admire getting the benefit of unconstrained market freedom, and the cost (environmental degradation) is something they’re only marginally concerned about.
But in the case of vaccines, the beneficiaries are a bunch of wackos and conspiracy theorists who are gaining nothing more than the ability to endanger their own children, at the cost of endangering everybody else’s children. And I’m guessing it also matters that a lot of the vaccine truthers who get attention are liberals, the Marin County types who think that because they feed their children organic food that the kids will have super-charged immune systems and therefore can’t become sick. (It should be noted that vaccine trutherism is a non-partisan affliction: liberals are no more likely than conservatives to think vaccines cause autism.)
What’s more, while it’s also true that advocating for vaccines requires conservatives to agree with Science, this issue isn’t like climate change, where many on the right think the entire scientific community is engaged in a vast conspiracy of deception. On climate, people fear that they’ll lose something (like their SUVs) and have to change their lifestyle in order to address the problem; the issue also threatens their traditional allies in the energy industry. There are few such considerations in the vaccine issue.
So the vaccine issue demonstrates that while nearly every Republican agrees with libertarian ideas on some issues, this doesn’t necessarily reflect just an inviolable philosophical commitment to individual liberty. When being a libertarian means getting something they want without having to give up anything they like, they’re happy to wave the anti-government flag. But if it means their kids might get sick because some people are dumb enough to take their medical advice from Jenny McCarthy, the needs of the many begin to look much more pressing than the delusions of the few.