Opinion

The limits of personal liberty

In a libertarian paradise, you could smoke in a restaurant or office, drive without putting on a seat belt, and refuse to get your children vaccinated

"I am the master of my own fate — and no one, including the government, can tell me what to do." That's libertarianism in a nutshell, and in the abstract, it's a seductively appealing philosophy. Embrace it, and it leads you to a natural corollary: Parents should not be forced to vaccinate their kids against childhood diseases. "The state doesn't own your children," as sometimes-libertarian Sen. Rand Paul explained this week. "Parents own their children, and it is an issue of freedom." In California and 13 other states caught up in a measles outbreak, we are now seeing a demonstration that one person's freedom can inflict painful and potentially fatal consequences on an entire community. Childhood diseases that medicine defeated decades ago are making a comeback, thanks to parents who seek "philosophical" exemptions from vaccinating their kids.

Libertarians are absolutely right that personal freedom is important — and easily eroded. Left unchecked, government does indeed presume too much control over our decisions, our money, and our privacy. But in a country of 320 million souls, what we do affects each other — sometimes profoundly. In a libertarian paradise, Americans would still be free to smoke in enclosed offices and restaurants, and 50 percent of the population would still be lighting up — sticking society with their health-care costs. No one would be required to wear a seat belt in the car. And yes, vaccinations would be strictly optional, and the nation's "herd immunity" would disappear. As an old adage points out, your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of another person's nose. So go ahead, swing your fist — but good luck finding a space that doesn't have a nose in it.

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