We’re seeing the rate of “vaccination uptake” dropping in most states. Some of this is because a goodly portion of the most vulnerable, most eager, and easiest to reach population have been vaccinated. At the same time, we’re also witnessing the emergence of a lot of Free Riders.

Don’t Vax on Me!

Sure, vaccine refuseniks offer a lot of reasons for not getting the jabs. Many are too young. A lot have compromised immune systems they fear stressing further. Some have concerns about the safety of “emergency use” vaccines. A few believe messenger RNA will alter one’s DNA and make your hair turn grey and eyes get weird like in “The Omega Man.”

I added that last one because “The Omega Man” traumatized me when I was 12. As a result, I kinda had Mutation Anxiety for a minute or two myself.

However, there are a number of people much greater than zero who refuse COVID vaccination for more nefarious or downright dumb reasons. These center on the sadly unavoidable fact that COVID vaccines have become… virulently political. Like absolutely everything else in ‘Murica, including, inter alia, Dr. Seuss, hamburgers, and which way to hang the toilet paper. 

Too many Americans, fed by a constant stream of media talking heads’ and opportunistic politicians’ lies, half-truths, and total whoppers, believe that by not accepting vaccination they’re “owning the libs” and/or “making a stand for individual liberty” and/or “being very afraid of needles.” 

Here’s the thing. Many people have bona fide medical reasons for not getting vaccinated. Many millions of Americans fall in this category, currently including kids under 16. If you’re not one of these, you’re a Free Rider.  

Free Ridership Is a Thing

I’ve been surprised how little this venerable term has appeared in most media coverage and political discourse. Let me explain. Because it’s what I do.

Public health is a social good. It just is. I hope we can all at least agree it’s not a public bad. And it’s a good in the economic sense of the word, something with utility that satisfies a want or need. In the case of a social good, a lot of people’s wants or needs are satisfied at the same time.

(Alternatively, it’s called a public or collective good, but “social good” sounds like socialism. And I’m a brat who likes seeing conservative heads explode.)

To us economists—OK, I only minored in economics—social goods have two defining characteristics. First, they’re mostly non-excludable. This means it’s hard or impossible to keep out people who aren’t paying for it. Clean air is a good example. This is a social good, since everybody breathes. However, when it comes to ensuring clean air, it’s nigh onto impossible to keep people who aren’t paying for it from breathing it.

Second, social goods are mostly non-rivalrous. This is a fancy way of saying one person consuming the good doesn’t prevent others from consuming it, too. A rivalrous good is an ice cream cone. If there’s one King Cone left in the 7-11 freezer, when I buy it and eat it, no one else gets to eat one. 

By way of example, a national park is a social good. Yogi and Boo-Boo going into Jellystone to steal themselves some pic-a-nick baskets doesn’t preclude other smarter-than-the-average bears from enjoying the same park. At least until you exceed carrying capacity. See below.

Freedom Isn’t Free… Most of the Time

On the other hand, we’ve been deluged with another term—herd immunity. This is when we get enough people infected/recovered or vaccinated so that the ‘Rona stops getting passed around. Herd immunity ends community spread of an infectious disease. No one knows for sure with COVID-19, but herd immunity usually kicks in at around 70%-80% of the population having some immunity.

So “herd immunity” is itself a social good, being a subset of the grander social good of “public health.” Once we get HI, infections stop for everyone. This makes herd immunity a near-perfect social good. 

It’s non-excludable because we can’t discriminate between those who “paid the price” by getting vaccinated or infected/recovered and those who didn’t. In fact, we don’t want even to have to discriminate, right?

Herd immunity is also non-rivalrous, since my consuming being free from COVID infections doesn’t preclude anyone else from enjoying the same freedom. The herd is immune. Cool beans, huh?

 When Some of the Herd Say No

However, the “price” of everyone enjoying freedom from COVID infections is enough of the herd getting immunized. What we’re seeing now is our particular herd is chock-a-block full of would-be Free Riders. Too many of these and we’ll never grab the big brass ring of herd immunity. 

This is what keeps Doctor Fauci awake at night. It should scare the bejesus out of all the rest of us, too.

Let me come clean here. My own left-of-center politics are manifest to anyone who does regular penance reading my blog. (“Say ten Our Fathers and read three of that heathen Jeff Walker’s blogs. Go forth and sin no more.”) But this isn’t by any means a Lefty-Loosey, Righty-Tighty thing. 

As a matter of fact, some of the longest standing and most vociferous anti-vaxxers are wildly liberal in their politics. Witness the deep pockets of unvaccinated kiddies within the Left Coast regions of Eastern Washington-Oregon. Others are equally conservative, with a deep vein of anti-vaxxing within the Evangelical homeschool movement. Of course, Libertarians are anti-anything mandated by government. They’re often impossible to locate properly on the political spectrum—hate taxes, love legal weed!

Et voilà, just like that I’ve found bipartisanship! Senator Joe Manchin, I’ll await your call.

The problem is, what I’ve really found is a big gaggle of bipartisan Free Riders. And they seriously threaten our achieving that big beautiful social good, herd immunity.

Our Tragic Public Health Commons

We don’t yet know exactly how many Americans have chosen The Free Ride. People that say we should just let the virus burn through the population are Free Riders. If you refuse to get vaccinated and never get sick, you’ve just avoided any personal contribution to our obtaining a really important social good.

That we don’t know what the carrying capacity of our herd is compounds our problem. How many people can we allow either to skip vaccination for legitimate health reasons or to free ride on most other people getting vaccinated? This variation on the Free Rider problem is the Tragedy of the Commons.

You see, we’re creating a COVID-free public health commons through vaccinations. Think of this as a common pasture, like they used to have in every village and hamlet in Europe. This was, literally, the village commons. 

The people set aside some acreage that grows nice grass and everyone gets to graze their handful of sheep there. Everything is sunshine and rainbows—happy sheep munching abundant yummy grass, giving everyone some lamb, mutton, and sheep’s cheese. Mmmm… manchego.

Here Come the Free Riders

But what happens when Javier decides to go into the sheep’s cheese business and figures out he can get a serious advantage over other manchego producers by grazing a lot of additional ewes on the village commons. Meaning he has decided to consume more than his fair share of grass.

The predictable happens. As the earliest Free Rider, he enjoys a big advantage and makes a pile of pesetas from his expanded cheese production. Then Juan, Jorge, and Junipero, seeing the new split-level casa Javier just built, start putting lots of additional ewes on the commons, too.

As a result, we now have lots of hungry sheep competing for insufficient grass. This leads to overgrazing, degradation, and collapse of the commons in a big stinking pile of muerta sheep.

The pasture is our public health commons free of COVID transmission. But here’s how we sheep-people differ from sheep-sheep. Each one of us who gets vaccinated makes the commons a little bigger. For every seven or eight vaccinated sheep-peeps, the pasture can support an unvaccinated one. But if we keep putting unvaccinated sheeple on a commons that isn’t expanding, at some point it collapses in yet another outbreak of new infections. Possibly with a big new pile of muerta Americans.

So no, in this case your freedom to refuse vaccination isn’t free. Not even a little. We want to allow some limited amount of “free riding” by those truly at risk from taking vaccines.

Refusal for irrational, counterfactual, downright silly, or merely selfish reasons threatens not only these young or immune-compromised people. It threatens our entire public health commons. 

Don’t be a Free Rider. Get vaccinated. Now.

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