If You Want A Glimpse At The Issues Of Tomorrow, Listen To A High School Debate Today: Revisiting Two 2018 Debates About Vaccine Mandates

One of my favorite things about being a long-time debate coach is the exposure it has given me to a wide range of public policy controversies. Jim Fleissner delivered a speech about this at the Barkley Forum Coaches Luncheon in 1995 that that I really like; I republished it here in 2010.

One of Fleissner’s points is that “an often neglected facet of [debate coaches’] teaching” is “the substantial body of knowledge acquired by your students.” As part of that argument, he makes this observation:

How many times have you heard a news report about some startling new development, only to realize that you heard about it years ago in debate? For example, the first time I encountered the notion that there were forces that might cause the collapse of the Soviet Union resulting in dangerous regional instability was in a high school debate over a decade ago. Silly academic dream-world arguments? I say if you want a glimpse at the issues of 2005, listen to a high school debate today.

For me, watching the ongoing fights over COVID-19 vaccine mandates has been the latest example of this feeling that debate anticipated the news. This can sometimes be unsettling or confounding, but it can also be inspirational and rewarding. In a sense, it can confirm that what we’re learning matters and that our research is successfully grappling with difficult controversies. I’ve been thinking a lot about two rounds in particular, and I thought others might find this reflection interesting.

On the 2017-2018 education topic, a team from Glenbrook North read an affirmative case that called for a substantial reduction in exemptions to elementary school vaccine mandates. They claimed two advantages: Herd Immunity (arguing that vaccine refusers would cause otherwise-vaccine-preventable pandemics to emerge and escalate, directly risking millions of deaths and undermining the U.S.’s ability to successfully respond to pandemics abroad) and RFRA (an acronym for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that stricter vaccine mandates would prevent an anti-religious backlash prompted by vaccine refusers, ensuring the U.S.’s continued global leadership on religious freedom issues).

In the octafinals of that season’s MBA tournament (in early January 2018), GBN debated a Woodward team that I coached. A few weeks later, the two teams debated again in round three of Emory University’s Barkley Forum for High Schools.

In both debates — along with several other off-case positions — Woodward presented a counterplan to incentivize vaccination without strengthening vaccine mandates. They argued that voluntary incentive-based approaches would be more successful and that mandates were a coercive violation of individual freedom.

I compiled the speech documents from the MBA round into a single document. It is embedded below.

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Revisiting the back-and-forth about the incentives counterplan is kind of eerie. The 1NC counterplan evidence describes the proposed incentive-based strategy for achieving herd immunity as follows:

We prefer that incentives and nudges be used to achieve herd immunity to avoid compulsion. … Examples for incentives could be financial: incentive payments for immunization, lower (health) insurance premiums, or tax exemptions. Among the possible ‘nudges’ could be a choice architecture that makes measles immunization the default option (eg, in the pediatrician or family practitioner’s consultations). These incentives and nudges could also focus on nonimmunized adults. Although this might entail substantial financial investment, it is certainly affordable for the society.

The net-benefit card objects to vaccine mandates on liberty grounds:

A free society demands adherence to the non-aggression principle. No person should initiate force against another, and should only use force in retaliation or self-defense. Forcibly injecting substances—attenuated microbes or otherwise—into someone else’s body cannot be justified as an act of self-defense, because there is no way to determine with certainty that the person will ever be responsible for disease transmission. … As a medical doctor I am a strong advocate of vaccination against communicable and infectious diseases. I am irritated by the hysteria and pseudo-science behind much of the anti-vaccination literature and rhetoric. In my perfect world, everyone would agree with me and voluntarily get vaccinated against the gamut of nasty diseases for which we have vaccines. … But free societies are sometimes messy. To live in a free society, one must be willing to tolerate people who make bad decisions and bad choices, as long as they don’t directly infringe on the rights of others. … Any mass immunization program that uses compulsion rather than persuasion will, on balance, do more harm to the well being of a free people than any good it was intended to convey.

Both cards (and the 2NC’s backline cards) anticipated arguments that have been prominent for the last year as the COVID-19 vaccines have become highly politicized.

In response, the affirmative argued (among other things) that incentive-based approaches to vaccination are futile. GBN’s 2AC card was, in retrospect, correct:

The rise of the anti-vaccination movement and the subsequent return of deadly and debilitating diseases like measles, whooping cough, and meningitis, is old news. The questions that have been raised about vaccine safety, efficacy, and necessity have already been asked and answered. The science is sound, and the immense benefits, accompanied by minimal and well-described risks, have been demonstrated. As scientists, the medical community has tried valiantly to understand through research what underlies vaccine hesitancy and refusal, and to design evidence-based interventions and strategies to resolve it. This has only yielded meek guidelines with unmemorable acronyms and mnemonics on how to discuss the topic with parents. We have tried campaigns designed to incite fear. We have disseminated cold hard numbers and frightening, real statistics on infant death. We have tried fun, relatable analogies, like the fact that there are more antigens—the foreign triggers that stimulate the body to make protective antibodies—on a single doorknob than there are in today’s entire childhood vaccine series combined.

The most striking finding from a review of the past decade of pro-vaccination efforts is that nothing has been proven to be more than marginally effective. These well-meaning studies and initiatives have remained too far removed from the issues at the core of this public health crisis, and as a result, have produced little actionable insight. We simply do not know how to make people who are against vaccinations come around to trust and accept the science behind them. …

And yet, our current system asks physicians to accept vaccine refusal with impunity because it is a matter of personal belief. As doctors, we are asked to abandon both our duty to our individual patients, and our collective responsibility to protect and promote the health of all children irrespective of their parents’ beliefs, skin color, or bank accounts. It is time to acknowledge that we do not know how to bridge the gap between doctors and vaccine-hesitant parents. Instead of spinning our wheels producing ineffectual research, the time has come to call vaccine refusal by another name that more accurately sums it up: medical neglect. We can continue our scholarly inquiry to find more effective ways for convincing parents that vaccines are worthwhile, but it is time to declare, unequivocally, that vaccination is a human right no child should be denied. …

By continuing to allow exceptions, we are fueling the misconception that vaccinations are an option, a choice, a subjective topic about which people can have different opinions that ought to be respected, when in fact all of the data proves they are not. Enacting a policy that is consistent with the science would provide clarity for the parents—the majority of whom are loving caretakers trying to do the right thing. We are failing our society by creating unequal standards of parenting, and worse, we are failing our children by not protecting their right to be vaccinated against deadly, preventable diseases. Competent parenting must include fully immunizing all children according to the medical standard of care.

From today’s vantage point, reading through the evidence from this part of the debate is fascinating. So many concepts and controversies that have dominated our lives since March 2020 were previewed by this single high school debate from two years earlier: the science of herd immunity, the psychology and sociology of vaccine resistance and refusal, the legal foundation for vaccine mandates, the religious freedom issues implicated by vaccine policies, the relative significance of child- vs. adult-based vaccination strategies, and competing moral philosophies about public health were all explored in impressive depth.

At MBA, GBN won the debate on a 2-1 decision; they proved that the incentives counterplan also linked to the coercion disadvantage.

Both teams used the feedback from that post-round discussion to improve their arguments, and they got the chance to repeat the debate again a few weeks later at the Emory tournament. The documents from that second debate are compiled below.

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GBN was again victorious in the rematch. This time, they proved that the public health advantage of a vaccine mandate outweighs its cost to individual liberty.

A new 1AR card (from Heather Widdows’s 2013 book The Connected Self: The Ethics and Governance of the Genetic Individual) summarized the pro-mandate position well:

[U]ltimately all will suffer if herd immunity fails … Such common goods are supremely valuable in terms of human survival. Accordingly, they should be regarded as priorities on any ethical framework. In such instances, individuals’ actual ethical goods are aligned with communal and common goods. The assumption of the choice model that individuals must always be protected from the collective is out of place. The truth is the opposite. Unless collective goods are protected, all individuals will be harmed and indeed, if current predictions are to be believed, the very survival of the human species will be threatened. Yet, despite the fact that all individuals will suffer, and suffer dramatically, if communal goods are not protected the strength of the individual model is such that even here where the stakes are so high individual choice often trumps the protection of such communal goods. The power of the individual choice model is such that worries about curtailing individual choice, and the fear of paternalism, remain. For instance, … individuals are allowed to refuse vaccination for themselves or their children… The erosion of such important goods is difficult to explain unless one takes into account the power of the individual choice model, and the effectiveness of criticisms of paternalism. The exaggerated fear of paternalism created by the individual model is extremely dangerous as it threatens the ability to recognise and protect common goods. … Here, concern about threats to the individual from the collective have expanded so far beyond the harms in question that it is hard not to regard it as absurd. Worries about curtailing relatively unimportant elements of individual choice are in danger of undermining the survival and flourishing of all. If individuals are to be protected, public goods must also be protected.

Widdows published this argument almost a decade before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it provides a startlingly accurate assessment of the socio-cultural and political dynamics surrounding the COVID vaccines as they have played out in 2021.

That this back-and-forth between high school students could so accurately simulate the debates that happened in the U.S. and around the world just two years later is remarkable. Where else were high school students and teachers learning about these issues in 2018? In what other class or activity would students be challenged to deeply learn about such complicated public policy controversies? And not just read about them, but actually attempt to lay out and critically analyze the best arguments on both sides? And not just once, but repeatedly — and with in-depth feedback from educators who were exploring these issues along with the students?

As it does for so many students and about so many topics, high school policy debate exposed the participants in these 2018 debates to policies and ideas that would soon have a dramatic impact on their lives and communities. The coaches that helped these students research and prepare their arguments and the judges who evaluated them also benefited greatly from this exchange.

Together, these members of what Fleissner calls “The Academy of Debate” helped one another learn far more about vaccine policies and ethics than they ever could have or would have learned on their own. This supports two of Fleissner’s conclusions: (1) that “if ideas are the currency of our political system, [debate] students leave high school with hefty savings accounts,” and (2) that “being a [debate] coach is to be enrolled in a continuing graduate course in public policy.”

For all its flaws, high school policy debate has an enormous educational impact on its participants — and not just the students, but coaches and judges as well.

And sometimes, like with these 2018 debates about vaccine mandates, debate also seems like it can predict the future. Echoing Fleissner, if you had listened to these high school debates in 2018, you would have gotten a preview of the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine controversies of 2021.

For those of us who have gotten used to this after many years in debate, it can be easy to forget how remarkable it is. I hope this was a worthwhile reminder.