Tuesday, November 01, 2005

When Economics is Wrong

Yglesias et al are paying attention to the hysteria regarding the HPV vaccine – a newish vaccine shot to stop women from getting cervical cancer, and men from transmitting it. I’m not sure why it’s come up today, but it’s the topic du jour.

In particular, lots of conservatives are furious at the idea of mandatory child vaccination. And lots of liberals are sad that a need to insist their kids will always be chaste means we can’t take the proper measures to wipe out a debilitating condition, whether people remain chaste or not. There’s even cynical references to conservatives who are pro-STD because they feel it enforces their worldview about promiscuous sex.

There does seem to be a lack of historical awareness here: vaccines are always opposed. There is just some element about injecting a virus into you in order to prevent a distant and improbable event that people really don’t like. At the founding of this country there were great arguments over the morality and viability of the flu vaccine (Ben Franklin had particularly moving stories regarding this). To this day the flu vaccine is focused on by Austism victims as a leading cause, disproportionate to the evidence.

One is tempted to say there’s a conservative drive to believe “the other” is “dirty” and the problems they suffer are entirely their moral responsibility. Meaning it could never happen to us clean people, and making ourselves more like the dirty ones is offensive. This is a very appealing narrative for an anthropologist, but I don’t know the data to back it up.

What’s interesting is that this rhetoric is rather the opposite of what you’d expect given the economic incentives involved. Assuming there is some downside to being vaccinated (I don’t know, .01% risk of the virus mutating, the shot hurts, etc.), a person should be incentivized to tell everyone else to get the shot, thereby halting the spread of the disease, and lessening your risk even if you aren’t immunized. A society of rational agents would avoid any stigma for the shots, and in fact do everything you can to encourage other people’s children to get shots.

Of course, we’re not a society of rational agents, and we have many cultural inefficiencies. They just usually lead to fuzziness and falling a little short of the desired economic outcomes – not the exact opposite.


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