If everybody did


After they’ve greeted us at the front desk, many savvy patrons of the Edgartown Library head straight for the shelves we keep stocked with books, videos, and music disks newly added to the collection. One of the joys of libraries across the Island is that you can read a review of a movie just released on DVD, or a new book or music album, and find it on your next visit to the library.

Now, buying this wonderful new material costs money, and all the Island libraries do belong to CLAMS, the regional network of libraries whose total collection amounts to some two million items. So if one town were to hit a tight budgetary year, wouldn’t it be tempting to trim the acquisitions budget and just let townspeople borrow new materials from other libraries in the network?

Here’s why doing this is a bad idea: just think what would happen if everybody did.

And since 1890, the commonwealth has set standards for libraries to ensure that they play nicely together. To keep its certification, each town library must meet standards for the purchasing of new materials, for staffing and open hours, and for total operating budget. When the state decertifies a town library for, say, skimping on new materials, that library’s patrons lose the right to borrow materials from other libraries across Massachusetts.

The state’s library standards are a classic example of rules we need to keep the game fair and square. These rules are healthy for everyone for the same reasons we place a minimum size on harvested scallops and lobsters, the same reasons we restrict the pollution that factories can release into our air.

As a society, we agree on rules like these when the rational choices of one individual or enterprise might run contrary to the best interests of the group. In his seminal essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in the journal Science in 1968, the ecologist Garrett Hardin concluded that the only solution to this conflict between individual and group is what he called “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” In other words, rules — and consequences for breaking them.

I know this might seem an unlikely leap, but I’ve been thinking about Hardin’s essay and the rules of library certification since reading Nathaniel Horwitz’s excellent piece (April 16, “Martha’s Vineyard students lag in required vaccination”), published in this newspaper in April, on the disturbingly high numbers of children in our up-Island public schools whose parents have chosen not to have them vaccinated against such diseases as mumps, measles, and whooping cough.

In the three public schools up-Island (Chilmark, West Tisbury, and Charter), The Times found, the parents of 105 students signed and submitted papers declaring that the vaccination of their children conflicts with their “sincere religious beliefs.” In addition to being an abuse of the word “sincere,” I’d suggest that this also insults the people of faith across the Island who actually do try to live by a religious creed.

I’m afraid that no amount of scientific evidence — and it is already overwhelming — will persuade those parents who have decided vaccination poses some slight statistical danger to their children. This is a subject much like global warming, where deniers of the scientific consensus will always be able to find an anecdote to support their view, an outlier scientist or afringe group’s website whose work they can cite.

As with climate change, although the deniers will always be with us, the science is settled and the consensus is strong that vaccination is a cornerstone of sound public health. It’s time for our community to consider the alarming numbers of unvaccinated children attending our schools — as many as one-third of the enrollment in Chilmark — and to apply some mutual coercion here.

For a parent to weigh the small risks of vaccinations against the serious epidemiological consequences if everyone opted out, and to opt out anyway, is a gesture of selfishness that borders on the antisocial. It’s a sort of parasitism, really, taking advantage of the healthy practices of others.

Ironically, it’s the very success of vaccination as a public health practice that enables the exempters in our community to make these wrong-headed decisions. We’ve had such success suppressing diseases like measles and whooping cough that most parents haven’t seen them, and can fixate on the imagined risks of a vaccine rather than on the real dangers of the illness it helps to prevent.

A fisherman who illegally harvests short lobsters or undersized scallops is banking on the hope that everyone else doesn’t do the same and destroy the shared resource. A parent who doesn’t immunize a child had better hope that enough other people immunize their children so that nasty and sometimes fatal childhood diseases can’t attack their community.

Right now, too many up-Island families aren’t thinking this through properly, and a real public health threat is the result. It’s time for us to agree that while parents may have the right to refuse vaccinations for their children, the community has the right to tell them that if they do, they give up the right to enroll their children in our public schools.