If stop signs work, why should my refusal to stop hurt you?

Stop Traffic Sign On Country Road

If vaccines work, why should my refusal to vaccinate my children hurt your children?

In the world of anti-vax, this is supposed to be an incisive, penetrating question. Of course, in the world of anti-vax, there’s not a whole lot of thinking going on. To understand the foolishness of the question, it helps to think about a similar issue.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Joe has done his research and decided that stop signs don’t work.[/pullquote]

If stop signs work, why should my refusal to stop hurt you?

There’s a plethora of stop signs at intersections everywhere. The theory behind stop signs is that if you stop before entering an intersection, there’s less chance of being hit by another driver traveling through the intersection. If stop signs work, then every time you stop, you avoid a potential accident.

But suppose Joe doesn’t believe that stop signs work; or perhaps Joe believes that there are too many stop signs. Joe has done his research and made his own decision. As Joe points out he’s not blind. It is entirely possible to tell when another car is coming and stop only then. If the intersection is clear and Joe doesn’t believe that stop signs work, isn’t it his right to refuse to stop? And if Joe is wrong and he’s T-boned at an intersection, what’s the problem if he’s willing to accept the responsibility?

If stop signs work, how could Joe’s decision to ignore stop signs at his discretion harm you? If you stop at every stop sign, how could you possibly be hurt by Joe?

It doesn’t take deep thinking to recognize that stop signs work best when everyone stops at them. Indeed, they work in large part because everyone stops at them.

Sure, if there’s great visibility at an intersection you can avoid other cars because you can see them coming. If Joe is barreling through the intersection, you can wait however long it takes for him to get through the intersection before you move into it.

But what if visibility is poor and you can only see cars that are very close to the intersection? In that case, simply stopping at the stop sign before entering the intersection is not enough to protect you. You could be T-boned by Joe because you didn’t see him coming, and he was too far away to see you entering the intersection in time to stop. In other words, you could be injured or killed even though you stopped at the stop sign.

How can that happen if stop signs work? Doesn’t the mere fact that accidents like these can and do happen prove that stop signs don’t work?

No and no.

Stop signs do protect people who heed them even when others do not. But stop signs work best when everyone heeds them. Even if only one person ignores a stop sign, multiple people can be killed. Indeed, it happens nearly every day when people ignore stop signs because they are drunk or they are in a rush.

Vaccines are like stop signs in that regard. They work to protect those who receive them, just as stopping at a stop sign protects those who do. But they work best when everyone receives them, just as stop signs work best when everyone can be counted on to stop.

But what about Joe who has done his research and concludes that the fact that stop signs don’t always protect people means that they don’t work? Does he have the right to refuse to stop because he believes that stop signs are ineffective or harmful? I suspect that most people, even the most ardent libertarians, believe that Joe’s rights don’t cover refusing to stop at stop signs. Why not? Because stopping at stop signs is a public good and the burden of stopping even if Joe does’t want to do so — and even if Joe believes it doesn’t benefit him to do so — is outweighed by the tremendous harm that is prevented.

Vaccines are like that, too. The extensive rights enjoyed by people in a free society don’t extend to the ethical right to refuse vaccination. Having everyone vaccinated is a public good that prevents tremendous harm to others. Refusing vaccines is immoral. That’s not an admission that vaccines don’t work anymore than forcing everyone to stop at stop signs is an admission that stop signs don’t work.

Some things only work best when everyone does them. That’s not an admission of failure; it’s reality.