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An Economics Lesson from Law and Order SVU

(Photo: finn)

I watched a Law and Order SVU re-run last night, remarkably one that I hadn’t seen before. In the episode, an infant dies of measles contracted from another child whose parents refuse to vaccinate her.  (Infants are not vaccinated against measles.)  This is a classic case of whether concerns about potential negative externalities outweigh the desire to keep the government from dictating private behavior (vaccination). We already permit both approaches: we mandate vaccines for children to enter public school, and allow parents (as in this TV show) the choice of not vaccinating pre-schoolers.

I would go one step further:  If you want to ignore the negative externalities resulting from your choice (of not vaccinating your kid), you should be liable for the damages that result.  This is essentially what we do about the negative externalities produced by drivers who choose to drink, so why not extend it to parents who refuse to vaccinate their kid?