Here’s a real-life trade-off I want you to ponder. Say you’re a policymaker and, like me, a classical liberal — that is, somebody who generally puts a premium on individual freedom. You’re now dealing with another wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections and looking at scenarios your advisors have placed before you. 

In one, you’re keeping vaccinations against Covid-19 strictly voluntary, to safeguard the freedom of people to make their own decisions, sound or unsound. But the statistical models say that this path leads to insufficient uptake and a spike in hospitalizations that would overwhelm clinics and require doctors to make brutal triage decisions. 

Hospitals would have to choose whom to treat among Covid patients and also between them and patients suffering from all other conditions. They would have to postpone care for cancer sufferers, for example, because there just isn’t enough space or staff. Your statistics tell you that many of those people will die preventable deaths, through no decision of their own.

To avoid that scenario you could override your liberal instincts and mandate vaccinating either certain professions or the whole population, except those people who for certifiable medical reasons are unable to get shots. That would ultimately mean coercion, which you hate. It could also lead to demonstrations and social turmoil, which is the last thing you want. 

Still, you’re the decider. And you must weigh the freedoms and rights of everyone in your society. Not in some philosophy textbook, but here and now.

This is the choice now confronting policymakers in Austria, Slovakia, Germany and other countries experiencing their worst Covid outbreaks yet. Austria this month decided at first to impose another lockdown just for unvaccinated people, then expanded it to the whole population. In February, it’ll become the first country to make shots mandatory. Slovakia is mulling the same step, as are parts of Germany, and other countries in the region. Unsurprisingly, Europeans are protesting in the streets again, from Vienna to Brussels and Rotterdam.  

Would you and I, as freedom lovers, have taken this Austrian step? When I pondered this question in June I said that, while there’s a strong moral and legal case to say yes, it was wiser to keep vaccination voluntary. My head still tells me that this is the better way. But my heart now says something else. 

My internal conflict was best described by the German sociologist Max Weber in a speech he gave at a Munich bookstore in 1919, as Germany threatened to descend into post-war revolutionary chaos. In it, Weber described two approaches to politics, translated somewhat awkwardly as the “ethic of conviction” and the “ethic of responsibility.” 

Policymakers in the conviction camp, Weber observed, care above all about their own ideological or moral purity. They want to be right, no matter what consequences their decisions have in the real world. In Weber’s words, “If an action of good intent leads to bad results, then, in the actor’s eyes, not he but the world, or the stupidity of other men, or God’s will who made them thus, is responsible for the evil.” 

Those with the responsibility mindset, by contrast, take “account of precisely the average deficiencies of people,” Weber went on. The responsible types don’t even have “the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection.” Instead they understand that they must answer for all consequences of their decisions, including unintended and unpredictable ones.

In today’s circumstances, those average deficiencies include the susceptibility of so many people to conspiracy theories and disinformation. And the consequences can be expressed in cold, hard trade-offs, like the scenario I sketched above. 

There are lots of other trade-offs to consider. For example, mandating vaccination, if it slows hospitalizations to a manageable pace, can also prevent renewed school closures. Remember that, throughout the pandemic, nobody ever asked the children before suspending their rights. And they’ve been suffering. Many, especially those from poor households, have fallen far behind academically and face worse prospects in their careers and lives. Some, for whom school may have been an escape from dysfunctional families, have been abused. Globally, depression and anxiety among kids has doubled during the pandemic, to an estimated 25.2% and 20.5% respectively.

Mandating vaccination  can’t be the final word. Such a difficult decision must be embedded in thousands of other steps, from weighing how to enforce the requirement to building out hospital capacity and communicating the fast-changing science of inoculation. 

And yet, it appears that there’s no way around vaccine mandates in some parts of the world if we ever want to defeat this virus. Our convictions may recoil from that step, but our sense of responsibility must prevail. I’m sure Max Weber would agree.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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