02/17/2015 03:54 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2015

What the Anti-vax Movement Tells Us About Corruption

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One of the arguments that people who don't believe reforming the way our candidates raise money for elections -- and indeed, one of the arguments in the majority opinion of Citizens United -- was that "money doesn't corrupt elections, even if it appears to."

But the anti-vax movement does show that even when the government isn't corrupt, when it appears to be, it has dire consequences.

Let's make one thing clear: Not vaccinating your kid puts other kids at risk -- let alone your own. Vaccines are safe, and the study that said that they were linked to autism was later found to be "pants-on-fire" fraudulent, and the doctor who published it had his medical licence revoked. Plus, even if it wasn't a falsified study, there's something personally insulting about parents who would rather their kids die of a preventable disease than live with an autistic spectrum condition. (Or as I prefer to see my Aspergers': superpowers with drawbacks.)

But that's not really relevant -- what is relevant is understanding why the anti-vaccination movement has grown so far and so fast. Why now?

Well, there are the usual suspects when science says: "it'd be good to do the thing," and members of society say "we won't do the thing." Fringe religious beliefs, ignorance, etc. But I don't think that entirely explains why anti-vaccination has taken such a foothold.

I think that one of the main reasons why anti-vaccination is given any credibility at all is that the idea that pharmaceutical and health care companies want to make your kids sick, or don't care if they're making your kids sick, in order to secure a profit is, in fact, a plausible (but in this case, incorrect) theory, as Shannon Barber at Addicting Info has explained:

When you turn something as necessary as basic healthcare into a hugely profitable business, the motives change. It is no longer about public health. It is about money, and how to make as much of it as possible, people being hurt in the process be damned.

And Barber explains the stance of anti-vaxxers in that wonderful article. Why wouldn't the pharmaceutical companies be pushing something on you that makes you sick, when they make more money from it? Why wouldn't there be a massive conspiracy among the FDA to approve drugs when the FDA is a toothless rubber stamp when it comes to regulating food and drugs, and the administrators risk running afoul of Congress - who depends on contributions from Big Ag and Big PhRMA?

It just so happens that in this case, vaccinations work, they're safe, and they don't increase the risk of autism.

But I'd like to go a step further. I don't know how many of you have read Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig. I did because I'm a major Lessig fanboy, but the thing reads like it was prepared by a Harvard Law professor, so I won't blame you for skipping it.

At any rate, much of the first half of the book is explaining how the perception of corruption is bad whether or not there is actual quid-pro-quo, and that reform is needed so long as that perception exists, even if you can't strictly prove that specific legislation is tied to specific remuneration.

The case of anti-vaccination is a startling example of a case where it's not corruption that is doing the harm but a perception of corruption. The Anti-vax movement is large and growing, because of the perception, whether or not it's real, of the FDA and Congress, as too corrupt to keep our kids safe. Parents know they cannot blindly trust their doctors or their government. But when the doctors and government happen to be right, as in the case of vaccination, they don't have the credibility.

So whether or not you believe Congress is corrupt (the balance of evidence suggests you should), reform is needed simply to eliminate this perception of corruption. We shouldn't blindly trust our government, but we shouldn't have to live in a world where Occam's razor suggests that not trusting our government is the way to go.


This was originally posted on Brian Boyko's Tumblr blog.