HAWORTH: What ‘Herd Immunity’ Teaches Us About Freedom

The lesson of herd immunity is a key to conservatism's future success

Man Wearing Mask With American Flag For Protection Of Corona Virus Covid-19 Sars-Cov-2
Haris Mulaosmanovic/EyeEm/Getty Images

Sometimes it feels like there are too many COVID-19 catchphrases swirling around these days. While some are unique to these unprecedented times, such as “flatten the curve,” or are being used uniquely, like “the new normal,” there is one term that most are at least tangentially aware of: “herd immunity.” In recent times, “herd immunity” has become the latest milestone we must strive for in order to “return to normal,” if there is such a thing.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. As a result, the whole community becomes protected — not just those who are immune.” If a sufficient number of people are “immune,” then the chain of disease transmission is interrupted, drastically reducing its prevalence. The percentage of a community required to provide herd immunity varies based on how contagious the disease is, with a highly contagious virus such as the measles requiring an estimated 94% coverage for “herd immunity” to be achieved.

When it comes to COVID-19, scientists have yet to determine the percentage required to reach “herd immunity,” or even if such an objective is even possible. Stepping back from this specific illness, however, there is cause for concern when it comes to communal protections against other more familiar diseases. In 2000, the measles was declared eliminated in the United States, but due to reduced vaccine coverage, we are now seeing a resurgence of this previously eradicated and potentially deadly disease. As the percentage of immune individuals decreases, the risk of transmission and infection is increased for those we are unvaccinated for valid or invalid reasons, as well as those left vulnerable by a vaccine that is not 100% effective.

Much of this vaccine skepticism is driven by the anti-vaccine movement, known colloquially as “anti-vaxxers.” In addition to arguments disputing the medical consensus that vaccines are both safe and effective, the prevailing argument in favor of the rejection of vaccines is based on the principle of individual freedom. The same reasoning is applied to other related debates, such as the refusal to wear masks in public spaces. What we must realize is that this attitude of pertinacious individualism reaches far beyond such specific debates over vaccines or COVID-19, having a deeper impact on our society at large.

In fact, the general concept of herd immunity applies to every collective aspect of our lives. When we boil down the mathematical structure of herd immunity, we reach the concept of communal protection. Beyond “safety in numbers,” we have multiple societal structures in place where some form of majority protects a more vulnerable minority. If enough people are willing to act in the interests of both themselves and their neighbors, then the community as a whole is acting in the interests of its members. However, just as with herd immunity, this means a line exists that defines the tipping point between enough people and too few people.

The analogy that best describes this societal concept is the recognizable image of military “log drills,” where the full weight of a large log is distributed among multiple team members. Naturally, some members will be stronger or taller than others, meaning that the evenly distributed weight may be supported unevenly. Despite natural inequalities, this inherent unfairness is ignored in favor of achieving a common goal. Now, what happens if one recruit chooses to quit, or collapses from physical exhaustion? In all likelihood, those remaining will be able to burden the additional weight. However, what if multiple recruits buckle? Unless the log is absurdly light, or one recruit is abnormally strong, there is a point where too few recruits remain, leaving an unfortunate few to be crushed beneath its weight.

On a simple level, this not only describes herd immunity in the context of fighting disease, but also the notion of herd immunity regarding societal issues and concerns. Whether we imagine the log as a government entitlement program, vaccine requirement for schools, or speed limit legislation, the logic remains the same: a tipping point exists where society can no longer support the weight of its burden. Taking government entitlements as an example, it is mathematically impossible to shoulder the financial load of any program if the supply of its benefactors is overwhelmed by the demand of its beneficiaries.

While this ideological flaw exists on both sides of the aisle, the justifications are quite opposite in nature. The Left generally places more value in collectivism than individualism, and so the notion of individual liberty goes unacknowledged in the supposed quest for societal perfection. As a result, their failure is rooted in the conflation of “negative rights” with “positive rights,” and the dismissal of the finiteness of resources. This intellectual dishonesty is what allows proposals such as the “Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All”, or student debt “forgiveness” to be taken seriously.

In the context of our “log drill” analogy, the Left sees no problem with simultaneously increasing the weight of the log by encouraging recruits to cease holding it aloft and instead mount the log in honor of their human right to comfortable seating. The Right reaches the same conclusion through the logic of individualism. Regardless of what the “log” represents, every recruit has the unalienable right to exert their freedom and decide not to bear its weight. Ultimately, whether through individualism or collectivism, the log will eventually crush the few who are left to support it.

In order for conservatives to combat this issue, we must understand two important factors that have been ignored. The first is the failure to acknowledge that responsibility is a necessary partner to freedom. The second is the failure to acknowledge that individual freedom must be protected while accepting that the rights of others are equally (and in some cases, more) valid. As individuals, freedom without responsibility results in anarchy. As individuals, the complete disregard for the rights of others results in the cyclic destruction of individual rights. Our duty is to find balance, and the debate over vaccine mandates presents an example of such a struggle. While individuals are within their rights to refuse vaccines for themselves or their children, does this right include forcing others to be exposed to the consequences of their decisions? The answer, if you value the individual freedoms of others as well as yourself, is no.

Like most philosophical and ideological debates, the devil is in the details. Where does this line between individual freedom and its impact on other individuals exist? For example, where does this line exist between legislating against all “uncomfortable” or “problematic” language and enabling the direct incitement of violence against individuals or groups? Where does this line exist between the destruction of the Second Amendment with the forceful confiscation of every firearm and the legalization of privately owned weapons of mass destruction? Where does this line exist between the celebration of abortion at any gestational age and the refusal to provide chemotherapy or radiotherapy to pregnant mothers with cancer?

It is important that conservatives acknowledge and embrace the lesson provided by analyzing the concept of herd immunity on a societal level, and appreciate that freedom and responsibility are the two pillars needed to uphold our ideology. With that in mind, some must change course from an increasingly relentless libertarianism that embraces one individual over another. Instead, we should accept this intellectual challenge and see every issue in the context of herd immunity by working to define the “line” that divides the freedom of one and the freedom of another.

Through that lens, conservatism can grow. Through the lens of selfish, stubborn, and uncompromising individualism, it will collapse.

More from Ian Haworth: How We Can Push Back On The Left’s ‘Virtue’ Of American Self-Hatred

Ian G. Haworth is a conservative commentator who provides an honest, principled, and hard-hitting insight into our politics and culture from his unique perspective as a British immigrant to the United States. Ian hosts “The Ian Haworth Show” and “The Truth in 60 Seconds.” He is a regular columnist for Townhall.com, and his work has appeared in other outlets including The American Mind, The Washington Examiner, and The Federalist. Ian graduated from Oxford University, and now lives in California. Follow him on Twitter @ighaworth

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