The local city "alternative" (right) paper solicited articles for new columnists. I tried. The guy at the paper couldn't open one attachment, then a different kind of attachment, or (apparently) didn't like the version I sent as an e-mail. Indeed, he never really even responded. So here was my audition, for what it is worth.
The debate over Swine Flu/AH1N1 brings with it what may well be three ideas essential to American political history. Oddly enough, it isn't entirely clear that those three ideas can be reconciled. But it is always fun to see people try.
First of all, Americans don't like to be pushed around. Americans especially don't like to get pushed around by their own government. From Christopher Gadsen's iconic "Don't Tread on Me" flag, all the way to Ron Paul's quixotic Presidential campaign, there is a strong libertarian streak running through American history. We don't want to be told what to do, where we can do it, or (with some exceptions) who we can do it with.
Second, there is the legitimate expectation that some things will be taken care of. We expect an ambulance to come when we need it, or someone to show up to help out if we discover that our house is on fire. Even most libertarians recognize that some kind of apparatus needs to be in place to ensure that contracts are enforced, citizens are protected against fraud and violence, and that national boundaries remain sacrosanct.
Third, we expect—or hope—that whatever decisions we feel comfortable with the government making, they will be made by experts. In short, important policy decisions should be made by those with the best training and the best information, coming to conclusions that lead to the best possible results for all involved.
So the government wants Americans to get themselves vaccinated against this current strain of flu. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has offered a number of policy recommendations, including increasing the availability of the supply of vaccine. They've also recommend people wash their hands more, and that employers adopt an approach to absenteeism that will make their workers more likely to stay home if they exhibit flu symptoms.
This hasn't prevented some of the teabaggers, and those who live in the alternate reality sometimes known as "GlennBeckistan," from warning of "Mandatory Swine Flu Vaccinations This Fall." Internationalists (Socialists), in league with the World Health Organization (Socialists), abetted by the Executive Branch (Socialists), are putting in place their program to force Americans to endure risky and untested vaccines, as part of a program either to control their minds, or bodies, or perhaps just to distract us from recognizing the imminent Socialist takeover. At least for those unable to distinguish between Kim Jong-Il and Barack (Hussein) Obama.
The government announcing, on the basis of "experts," a policy of mandatory vaccinations, would indeed be pushing us around. That this isn't the case might be a factor to consider. We also confront here an idea already mentioned: sometimes we do want government to take care of us. Minimizing the amount of rat excrement in our hamburger rarely evokes panicky cries of an impending Nanny State.
As usual in such debates, it often depends on who, or what, is being pushed. The state, determining that you may not marry your life partner, is for some being pushed around by an intrusive government, while for others it is the sacred duty of the state to maintain a specific "tradition" of marriage. The state, being able to identify, arrest, try, convict, and imprison or execute even its own citizens is for some a legitimate responsibility of the government, while others might make (ineffectual) gestures of the violations of both civil and common law involved.
Fundamentally, what we should expect of the government in its response to the flu pandemic (as declared by the WHO) is to determine the threat involved, and if the response is proportional. While some talk as if AH1N1 is indistinguishable from Ebola, others seem to regard it as no threat whatsoever; unsurprisingly, the truth seems to lie somewhere in between. As of September 5, there were 593 deaths attributed to H1N1 in the U.S., 2,837 in the world. Given its contagion vector, these numbers will go up, although how far seems to be a matter of conjecture. As one might expect, those at risk of succumbing to this virus are the very young, the very old, and those with compromised immune systems.
In Ohio, students are required to be inoculated against a variety of diseases, including diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, and the scary-sounding Haemophilus influenzae; exemptions based on religious or other grounds are available.
Rather than scurrying to find "experts" who confirm our hopes (or fears), perhaps it makes more sense to see what the threat is, and with the best information available, respond accordingly. AH1N1 isn't polio, but is a threat sufficient to recommend vigilance. Offering some degree of limited liability, encouraging practices that minimize its spread, and avoiding exaggerating or minimizing the dangers, is precisely the kind of sensible approach the Obama Administration is encouraging. But that's a difficult position around which to energize knee-jerk reactions.