An article by legal scholar Richard Epstein published in the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas defends George Mason University professor Todd Zywicki who is challenging his university’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate (“The Uneasy Case for Universal Vaccinations,” July 27, 2021). Epstein presents economic and constitutional arguments against this sort of mandate, at least those imposed by a public institution. Epstein explains the gist of the economic case, based on individual incentives:

A final consideration is that it might be wise not to impose any mandate at all. This view argues that the social case for vaccine mandates is not there. Most individuals will probably get the vaccine because it is in their self-interest to do so. Free riding is not an enticing option, given that it is highly unlikely that everyone else will get the vaccine. At the same time, high-risk individuals have every incentive to make the right choice for themselves, undercutting the need for paternalism. And anyone else who fears exposure will also provide implicit protection to others if they get a vaccine to protect themselves. …

In close cases like this one, there is much to be said for respecting the presumption of liberty.

I defended similar arguments in my Reason Foundation paper “Public Health Models and Related Government Interventions: A Primer” (March 2021). It is highly plausible that individual incentives produce the level of protection that individuals want more efficiently than coercive mandates from governments or public institutions.

The presumption of liberty invoked by Epstein is more a moral or political-legal argument than an economic one. Ultimately, however, any government intervention rests on value judgments, even if the latter must be influenced by the ways the social world works (as analyzed with the tools of economics). In my Reason Foundation paper, I also review the history and ideology of the public health movement. On the presumption of liberty, I write:

Translating these ideas in practical policy proposals starts with a general presumption for individual liberty, which should be corrected by government intervention only in the presence of clear market failures and when government failures are not likely to be worse. Expressed differently, coercion should be minimized. This approach is not as radical as it may look. It is related to the idea of economic freedom that led to the Industrial Revolution and the unprecedented explosion of prosperity that followed. From a moral-philosophical viewpoint, it can be thought as implementing John Stuart Mill’s principle that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”