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Government and the Flu: A Short History

Mises Daily: Friday, January 02, 2004 by

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Last month, my wife decided to get flu shot for our children, but when she saw the long lines that stretched around whole city blocks, she decided that even if a flu shot were important, nothing could justify subjecting young children to waiting for hours. We may try later – or we may not try at all and just hope we remain healthy this winter. Given the U.S. Government’s track record on infectious diseases, perhaps my wife and children were the lucky ones.

As readers of this page are certainly aware, the long line accompanying the government’s "free" flu shots, as well as the vast supply shortfalls that are visiting the vaccination centers, as whole communities have run out of the medicine. That long lines and shortages would accompany something that the government gives away at a zero money price (let’s cut out the talk that this is "free" medicine) is hardly a shock, except to journalists and politicians, who cannot seem to understand why we are facing such a state of affairs. Indeed, the fiasco that is the government’s current flu program is nothing more than a small picture of the larger fiasco that is government health care in general.

The threat of influenza each year is real; about 36,000 people on average die yearly from the flu – and being that it is a disease, no one in the government has figured a way to ban it or make the flu illegal (at least without being an even bigger laughing stock than Washington, D.C., already has become). However, that alone does not justify what the government has done in the name of "protecting" individuals from the flu, as it is almost certain that if flu shots can save lives, then people will die because the government made it nearly impossible for them to receiving the necessary vaccines.

The rhetoric from some government officials (broadcast by an adoring media, of course) aside, it is instructive to see what has been done and why the government is creating yet another health disaster. However, before examining the present and sorry state of affairs, perhaps we need to take a longer look at the government’s track record here, starting with the very real flu pandemic of 1918-1919.

During the fall and winter of those years, an estimated 500,000 Americans died of Spanish Influenza (as a percentage of today’s U.S. population, that number would be about 1.4 million), and millions more died overseas. The flu outbreak coincided with the last days and the immediate post-armistice days of World War I, with government actions guaranteeing that the flu would spread rapidly.

During an epidemic, one of the most important things is for those who are ill to come into as little contact with others as possible. However, the U.S. Government was crowding thousands of soldiers onto troop ships--many soldiers already being ill--and shipped them back to the USA, which meant that upon landing on U.S. shores, large numbers of soldiers had contracted the flu, and then those soldiers went back to their homes and communities to infect others.

As if that were not enough, the government also was sponsoring large rallies to sell war bonds, which meant that huge crowds of people would gather to hear celebrities like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford urge people to purchase bonds to support the U.S. military effort. Of course, that also meant that people would be infecting others and the crowded conditions did the rest.

Fast forward to the winter of 1975-76, when the government decided that a possible pandemic of swine flu lay ahead. Anxious to find a possible campaign issue – and the Center for Disease Control equally desirous of being a band of heroes – the Gerald Ford Administration jumped feet first into calling for mass inoculation. Thus, the stage was set for one of the greatest public health fiascoes ever.

CDC director David Sencer managed to convince Ford and the press (which always likes a good story, true or not) that an epidemic to match the 1918 and 1957 flu pandemics was in the making. Congress signed on to the fiasco and Ford called for every person in the USA to receive flu shots.

Alas, government emergency medicine proved to be as bad as government education. Not only did an epidemic of swine flu (or any other flu) fail to materialize, but the vaccine proved to be worse than the disease, and thousands of people who received flu shots had serious side effects, with nearly 100 people dying. Sencer lost his job and Ford lost the 1976 election – but the toxic combination of government and medicine apparently was lost on the political classes and their allies.

Nearly 27 years later, the government still has not given up on its goal of mass inoculation, and once again we have what can only charitably called a mess. At best, this program will prevent perhaps a few deaths from the flu (if one can be sure that these flu shots actually will keep someone from contracting the illness); at worst, it will result in unnecessary deaths and illnesses as people’s immune systems react negatively to the vaccines – and people standing in long lines and crowds contract the flu from others in close quarters.

While it is tempting to write off this debacle to bureaucratic incompetence, one must remember that the "goals" of those in "public health" are much different than the individual goals of people who seek medical care. "Public health" officials like David Sencer think in collective, broad-brush terms of "saving" society (with the Sencers of the world being feted as the "great heroes"). When such collective goals conflict with the personal goals of individuals, "society" must always prevail, according to the advocates of "public health."

Furthermore, actual results are secondary to "public health" officials; they want to be seen as heroes who are "saving the nation" from pandemics, and there is always an adoring press waiting to record and praise their every move. (When these health crusades blow up to such an extent that they cannot be covered up, then there are resignations and public humiliation. However, such pitfalls are quite rare.)

About a decade ago, as the voting public began to sour on the excesses of the welfare state, the political classes repackaged welfare as "aid to children."  A few years after Congress turned away legislative packages proposed by Janet Reno’s Department of Justice that would have vastly expanded the federal criminal code and broken down the last walls of constitutional protection (then-Sen. John Ashcroft labeled Reno’s demands as "smacking of Big Brother"); in the months following the infamous 9/11 attacks, suddenly Congress could not give the DOJ enough power, and Ashcroft declared that anyone who opposed the Patriot Act and other such legislation was "giving aid and comfort" to "terrorists."

For many years, U.S. jurors refused to award monetary judgments to plaintiffs in lawsuits against tobacco companies, viewing those individuals as responsible and moral creatures who willingly chose to use tobacco. In the name of "public health," however, legislators across the country systematically have stripped tobacco companies of their rights to defend themselves – and in the process have, in effect, ended common law defenses by any individual or firm. (Since the U.S. Constitution forbids the imposition of "bills of attainder," then if tobacco companies are denied the right of common law defenses, then in order to be "constitutional," the destruction of such defenses must necessarily be applied to everyone else.)

Thus, the latest flu vaccination debacle is not about good health, preventative medicine, or protecting people from communicable diseases. It is about the aggrandizement of the state, period, and the threat of an influenza outbreak is simply the hook that government officials use to expand the powers of the political classes. All else is irrelevant.

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William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University. Send him MAIL. See his Mises.org Articles Archive.