by Neil H. Buchanan
Now that the renewed surge in COVID cases has put the health-care systems in many of the country's less-vaccinated areas (aka TrumpLand) into serious danger of collapse, and with health care workers walking away from their jobs in surprising numbers (leading to staffing shortages in hospitals nationwide), there is a growing sense that it is time to stop coddling the "vaccine hesitant" Americans who are directly causing this disaster.
It would take hours to collect citations to all of the times just in the last two weeks when politicians and pundits have said, in one way or another: "This has to stop. The vaccine refusers are making life for the rest of us worse, endangering not only themselves but also damaging the economy in which the rest of us would like to re-engage. No more free riding!"
Even the governor of uber-Trumpy Alabama castigated the people who refuse to be vaccinated, saying that "it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks. It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down." Yes, she did indeed say that people who are willing to get the vaccine are "regular folks," and the rest are thus deviant -- even though her state's vaccination rate among those 12 years of age or older is under forty percent.
To which I can only say: Finally! It is long past time to stop treating vaccine refusal as something to which we need to be sensitive -- other than among people with genuine health-related reasons not to be vaccinated, who are the very reason that herd immunity is so important. As someone who long ago noticed just how snowflaky 21st Century American conservatives have become, I find it hopeful that more and more people are calling them on their selfish "but I don't wanna" irresponsibility.
The question is, however, how to stop being passive and begin to take actions that will cause such people to do what they have thus far refused to do. Interestingly, the answers can be explored through the lens of another difficult issue in human behavior: getting people to stop (or at least reduce) their consumption of animal products. How does our experience with one type of antisocial behavior inform another type of antisocial behavior?
Last week, I used my annual "veganniversary" column to provide a short list of some very good recent articles that discuss veganism from various angles. (Note that I later added to the list a very interesting piece that explores the climate impact of reducing animal consumption, aka gratuitous torture and murder.) As I conceded in that column, this deviated from my usual practice of substantively analyzing a vegan-related topic each year. Shortly after publishing that piece, I found the article on which I would have focused if I had written my typical veganniversary column this time around.
In "How Do You Convince People to Eat Less Meat?" Jan Dutkiewicz (a visiting fellow at Harvard's Animal Law and Policy Program, and a postdoc at McGill) discusses the difficulties of convincing or inducing people to eat less meat. I highly recommend reading the piece in its entirety (only about 2200 words, or roughly the length of a typical Dorf or Buchanan Verdict column, and only a few hundred words more than this column), in part because it includes gems like this: "Steaks, in other words, are the SUVs of meat: expensive, unnecessary, environmentally noxious status symbols that do far more harm than good."
But because this is not my veganniversary post, and I am interested in drawing an analogy between refusing vaccination and refusing to change one's eating choices, I want to focus on Dutkiewicz's analysis of the methods by which people's behavior can be changed. Among other important points, he critically discusses "soft" interventions such as information campaigns and so-called nudges, concluding: "The problem with these interventions is that they are not all that effective."
The larger issue is that it is actually quite difficult literally to force large numbers of people to do things that they do not want to do. That is why, for example, tax administrators and scholars somewhat misleadingly describe tax systems as relying on "voluntary compliance." Notwithstanding what anti-tax zealots say, this obviously does not mean that paying taxes is voluntary. Taxes legally owed are, in fact, legally owed. Even so, the system would collapse without people complying voluntarily (if grudgingly), in the sense that they pay their taxes without having to be pursued by the legal system.
Taking every citizen through a trial in tax court would break the system, which is why a country's "tax morale" is such an important thing. People make it unnecessary for the government to become heavy-handed when they recognize that the government could be heavy-handed, so they do their legal duty without having to be arrested and prosecuted.
When we talk about forcing large numbers of people to do things that they do not like, then, we are almost always talking about something other than literally imposing something on them through the physical, coercive force of the state (or private actors, for that matter).
That means that we are necessarily looking at more restrained policy responses. As Dutkiewicz points out, however, "policymakers often self-edit" when proposing methods of inducing people to change their eating habits. He points out that even Pigouvian food taxes, which are far less intrusive into people's lives than other policy choices, create enormous political battles. And I would add that it is meaningful that, during the first fight over the Affordable Care Act's "mandate" to buy health insurance or pay a tax penalty, conservatives' go-to example of where the slippery slope will lead was that "if the government can do this, it will be able to force you to eat broccoli!!"
It is, of course, idiotic to think that people's decisions about what to eat are somehow "individual choices" that were not affected by social cues, government subsidies for meat, and on and on. Similarly, the idea that people refuse vaccination after running a utility maximization problem through a function that is unaffected by outside-of-the-person factors is insane. People who are saying, for example, "I'm careful about what I put in my body," as a reason to refuse to vaccinate are simply justifying the result of a disinformation campaign -- and it is especially difficult not to laugh at such people, given that they almost all turn around and consume antibiotic-laced animal flesh, and many of them have surely taken hits off of joints passed around at parties.
Dutkiewicz makes an especially important point toward the end of the piece:
We also need to accept that any shift in the status quo is going to generate pushback. Eventually the culture war over meat is going to have to be fought. The politicians brave enough to fight it might just find that the public cares more about environmental and public health—and maybe even animal rights—than their right to meat. But one thing is clear: Backing down from proposing policies like a meat tax because of potential political fights is a losing strategy.
That last sentence is particularly relevant in the vaccine policy arena. President Biden and others have heeded warnings not to "hector" people or to "shame them," out of fear that people will dig in their heels if they feel pressured. (Again, why do we assume that everyone is a snowflake?) I do understand the logic of that concern, but clearly there is a limit to how much people should be indulged when they are doing things that harm other people. At some point, we have to accept that a political fight is necessary, and some people are going to have to face a real choice between two unpleasant alternatives.
In the COVID arena, what has changed -- per Governor Ivey's quote above -- is that the majority of the country has finally reached its limit when it comes to this anti-vax stuff. It is now absolutely clear that we have given the bad-faith peddlers of disinformation too much slack, and it is time to be more aggressive.
Obviously, however, we are not literally going to "force people to eat broccoli," or in this case, drag people off the street and hold them down while we give them the Johnson & Johnson shot. But the gradations of lesser force are fairly familiar.
Vaccine passports do not force anyone to do anything, instead simply changing the cost-benefit analysis: "How much do you really, really not want to get the vaccine? Well, you're free to remain unvaccinated, but as a result, you will not be able to travel, eat out, go drinking, or any of the fun stuff that would be made more dangerous for others if we were to allow you to continue to act as if you are not part of society."
It certainly makes all kinds of sense for health care systems to require vaccination for all workers, and for the military and police forces to do so as well. And although I am generally a strong supporter of labor unions, in particular teachers' unions, it is crazy that many unions have now come out against vaccine mandates for schools and universities. (My employer, which is the state-run higher education system in a state where the governor is loudly opposed to anything but consequence-free appeals to get people to do the right thing, is not permitted to require faculty and students to be vaccinated. What could go wrong?)
People are already "forced" to be vaccinated against all kinds of diseases (most of which, precisely because of this, are now truly rare), making opposition to COVID vaccines even more obviously performative politics. We now need to admit that we have tried too hard for too long to coax people gently into doing something that will save their lives and the lives of countless others. And again, this delay has prevented the economy from getting back to normal.
As Dutkiewicz points out, some political fights cannot be avoided forever. Some such fights will be lost, but we will not know which ones are too difficult until we try. Non-vegans often say, "Well, I'd like to reduce my animal intake, or even eliminate it," but then turn around and scream at even the slightest suggestion that the government is going to try to change eating patterns. Then, when Beyond Burgers show up on more restaurant menus, those same people sometimes eat them, anyway. Some non-vaccinated people say that they might get vaccinated but scream about being forced. When they are induced to get the shot(s), however, they will get over it and move on with their lives (which will no longer be threatened by a deadly pandemic).
It makes sense that vegans have to put enormous effort into thinking through the politics of behavioral change. Food is cultural, personal, and habitual. The consequences for human health, the planet, and the animals themselves are hidden. And vegans are a distinct minority.
It also made sense for the majority of people who were happily vaccinated to hold off on being aggressive about the laggards. But the health and social consequences are tragically obvious, and we are the majority. Changing the calculus of vaccine refusal is long overdue.