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Vaccine Hesitancy as Free-Riding

photograph of masked passengers on subway

As the pandemic rages on, attention is beginning to turn to the moral status of those who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine. Some of these individuals have succumbed to outlandish conspiracy theories concerning microchips and magnetic implants. But for most, vaccine hesitancy is instead the expression of a genuine concern regarding the safety of the vaccine. It was, after all, developed using a novel mRNA approach to vaccines, and approved in what seemed like an exceedingly short period of time. For these individuals, their hesitancy to receive the vaccine is not based on bad-faith conspiracies, but in a sincere — if scientifically unfounded — fear of the unknown.

There are many arguments we might make regarding those who are hesitant to take the vaccine. Some of these focus on the risk the unvaccinated pose to others who, for whatever medical reason, are unable to be vaccinated. Most of us agree that it is morally wrong of us to unnecessarily put others in harm’s way — particularly when that harm is as serious as hospitalization and death. Given this — and given the importance of ‘herd immunity’ to protecting the vulnerable — we might argue that it is morally wrong for those who can receive the vaccine to refrain.

But the argument I wish to consider here is different. It’s not based on the moral wrongness of failing to protect others, but instead on the unfairness of being a free-rider. What’s a free-rider? Put simply, it’s someone who affords themself a special privilege that they don’t allow for others. More specifically, free-riding occurs when someone receives a benefit without contributing towards the cost of its production. Suppose that my town runs a phenomenal public transport system. Suppose, further, that I frequently make use of this system — commuting to work via bus, and utilizing public transport to run all other kinds of errands. Because I’m particularly stingy, however, I refuse to ever pay a fare — instead sneaking onto buses and expertly avoiding those who would check my ticket. What I’m doing, it seems, is unfair on those who do pay their fare. Why? Because I’m carving out a special exception for myself; an exception that I don’t extend to others. I clearly value the public transport system, and therefore value the contributions of those who pay their fare (since, without those contributions, the system would cease to exist). At the same time, however, I refuse to make any contribution myself. This is deeply inconsistent. If I were asked why I can ride for free when others cannot, I would struggle to provide a good answer.

We might argue that the same is true of vaccine hesitancy. Mass vaccination is directed towards a clear public good — that is, the attainment of herd immunity. As such, we each must be willing to contribute towards the cost of its production. And that cost is receiving the vaccine.

But there’s one potential problem with this argument. As we’ve seen, someone is only a free-rider if they refuse to contribute to the cost of something from which they will benefit. In the case of mass vaccination, the benefit is the protection of those who are unvaccinated. But there’s the problem. As soon as someone contributes to this project by receiving the vaccine, they are no longer eligible to receive the benefit. Herd immunity doesn’t help those who are already vaccinated.

But this is to take an unnecessarily narrow view of the benefits of mass vaccination. Even if I am vaccinated, herd immunity might benefit me by protecting those who I care about — such as loved ones who are unable to receive the vaccine. Further, mass vaccination limits the opportunities for the virus to mutate into newer, more virulent strains (such as the Delta variant that has seen renewed breakouts around the world). And the benefits of mass vaccination extend even further than this. As a result of the pandemic, many of us have been — and continue to be — unable to work, unable to attend classes, unable to travel, and unable to reunite with loved ones. Our ability to do these things will continue to be limited to varying degrees until we find a way to end this pandemic.

All of  us can agree that the world returning to normal is an unequivocal good, and the scientific data suggests that mass vaccination (around 80-90% of the population) is the most effective way of doing this. Of course, more conspiratorially-minded individuals will disagree with this assertion. But this argument isn’t for those people. It’s for those who recognize that vaccination is required, but who — contrary to the evidence — still harbor concerns about its safety.

Essentially, it boils down to this: If a vaccine hesitant individual both (1) wants the world returned to normal, and (2) accepts that mass vaccination is the most effective way of doing this, then they must be willing to contribute to the cost of its production — namely, by receiving the vaccine. If not, then they need to provide a convincing reason as to why they get to be among the 10-20% of individuals who needn’t pay the cost of getting vaccinated. Some — like those who cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons — will have good reason. But those who are merely hesitant will not. Many of us would love to “wait and see” what happens with the vaccine rollout, or avoid the inherent unpleasantness of an injection altogether. But we don’t have that luxury. The vulnerable must be protected, and the world must return to normal. By failing to contribute to this project, we are free-riding, and — like the fare-dodging bus passenger — treating those around us in a way that’s grossly unfair.

A Strange Moral Disgruntlement with Giving

photograph of donation jar stuffed with large bills

I tend to get annoyed when people donate money in ways I think are silly. I was recently reminded of this when I saw the staggering amount of money spent first on the Presidential campaigns and second on the Georgia runoff. This annoyed me, because everything I have read suggests that money makes little to no difference to federal or state wide election outcomes (note that there is a correlation between the amount of money raised and the number of votes gotten, but that is because popular candidates receive more donations, not because donations help make candidates popular). I was not only annoyed that people were donating money to political campaigns rather than to causes that could make a difference, but I was extra annoyed that people mostly donated to the political campaigns where money had the least chance of effecting the outcome (for example, democrats across the country donated to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election fund even though her chance of losing was minuscule).

It is not just political donations. I remember in middle school being annoyed with my sister for raising money to rescue endangered species like tigers. I thought this was a silly use of money since a) humans are qualitatively more important than animals and b) the best environmental protection does not focus on the preservation of certain culturally-salient species. Likewise, a few years ago I was annoyed with people at my church who, as it seemed to me, were frivolously donating money to help build a new building and purchase a new pipe organ.

Hopefully at least some of you readers can identify with this annoyance (if not, this whole post is just self-indulgent moral navel-gazing). I bring it up because there is something odd about this annoyance — I seem more annoyed by people donating money ineffectively than I am by people just spending money selfishly.

Let’s make this oddity concrete. I am peeved when friends donate money to Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s political campaign rather than donating that money to charitable causes that will likely create practical, tangible change. And yet I am not peeved when friends go out to dinner rather than donate that money to charitable causes that will likely make a real difference.

I grumble about how donating money for a new church building was a terrible witness for Christian love, but don’t similarly grumble anytime a Christian renovates their own home or buys a car nicer than they absolutely need. I openly criticized my sister for raising money for animal conservation rather than for anti-malaria efforts, but of course I was not bothering to raise money for either!

So why am I more annoyed by ineffective selflessness than I am by simple selfishness. Whatever the explanation, it concerns me. The reason I should care that people donate to the Against Malaria Foundation rather than a political campaign is because I care about people dying from malaria! But people spending money selfishly are failing to help those dying of malaria at least as much as those donating to political campaigns.

So what is going on here, why do I get so annoyed by ineffective selflessness?

I’m not sure, but I have a theory I want to toss out there. The reason I am bothered by ineffective selflessness is because I’m annoyed at the thought of people feeling unjustified pride in their own goodness. In other words, if someone spends money eating out or spends money donating to a political campaign both are, in some sense, wasting their money. However, the person who donates to the political campaign is wasting their money and feels an inner glow of self-approval that they are ‘doing their part’ and ‘participating in the process.’ In other words, what bothers me about ineffective charity is the thought that people will unfairly get to feel good about themselves when they don’t deserve it.

This explanation fits well with some other things we know about human psychology. In particular, it fits with our natural concern that rewards be proportional to dessert. As Jonathan Haidt puts it in The Righteous Mind:

“When people work together on a task, they generally want to see the hardest workers get the largest gains. People often want equality of outcomes, but that is because it is so often the case that people’s inputs were equal. When people divide up money, or any other kind of reward, equality is just a special case of the broader principle of proportionality. When a few members of a group contributed far more than the others—or, even more powerfully, when a few contributed nothing—most adults do not want to see the benefits distributed equally.”

Some evidence for this comes from our willingness to pay to punish cheaters and free riders, even when no future benefit is secured by that punishment. In cooperation games where players can keep money for themselves or add it to a group pot to be grown and then distributed, the vast majority of players will pay money they won to take away money from those who did not contribute to the overall pot. People would rather make less money themselves if they can at least decrease the amount won by those who were freeriding. This is also why there is so much political pressure to root out cheating in the welfare system. It often costs more to find welfare fraud than we save in finding it. Yet people are still willing to pay to enforce standards because we are so bothered by the thought of someone benefiting unjustly.

All of this also makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective. Suppose there are two people, one of whom will spend resources punishing you whenever you cheat them, and the other who will only punish you when it makes financial sense to do so. Who are you more likely to cheat? Having a strong commitment to punish cheaters, even when it seems counterproductive, plays a vital role in maintaining social trust and cooperation.

My theory then, is that the reason I am bothered by ineffective selflessness more than selfishness, is because my concern with ‘wasted donations’ is not actually a concern for the global poor, instead it is a concern about fairness. Just as it bothers me when cheaters do not get punished (because they end up better off than they deserve), so too am I bothered when those contributing little to others feel good about themselves for helping (because they end up better off than they deserve). It is upsetting when someone does not feel guilt over doing something wrong, and it is similarly upsetting when someone feels pride over doing something neutral. In both cases the ‘moral order’ of the world seems off, and I am willing to invest considerable mental energy in trying to set the things right.

It is useful to notice this motivation because it goes some way to tempering my criticism. It is hard to feel good about my own disgruntlement when I realize it is motivated not by a love for the poor but by a concern that others not feel better about themselves than I do. After all, the people trying to help, even if they do so poorly, probably do deserve to feel better about themselves than those who are not trying to help at all (though of course, we should all spend time making sure we are using money where it can really help those who need it).

The Moral Question of Ad-Blocking

Image similar to adblock's logo

A large proportion of websites and web content providers that do not charge a subscription fee or sell their content directly rely on advertising. Yet an increasingly large proportion of internet users are employing filtering software which is now able to block nearly all ad formats. Thus those using this software can access free content while blocking all advertising. Continue reading “The Moral Question of Ad-Blocking”

Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions

A low-angle shot of the U.S. Supreme Court

An upcoming case in the United States Supreme Court could have significant effects on the state of the American Labor Movement: Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31. At stake is whether public sector unions can require employees who have not joined the union to pay agency fees—fees that go to exclusively cover the costs of negotiating the labor contract that covers all workers at a workplace, union members and non-members alike. If the court were to rule against the legality of required agency fees, this would overturn a previous Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which held that agency fees were allowable, just so long as those fees were not used for the political or ideological activities of the union.

Continue reading “Free Riders, Agency Fees, and the Fairness of Public Sector Unions”