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On stoplights, bee hives and vaccinations

Society has drifted so far into individualism, the idea of a common good is alien to many Americans

UK-ILLUSTRATION-BEE Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images

Think about traffic lights.

They hang at intersections in every city and town, endlessly cycling through green to yellow to red, then back to green again, telling drivers when to stop and go.

Silent sentinels, automatically observed and unquestioningly obeyed. Like idols really.

Like gods.

Let’s say this situation genuinely offends my understanding of my faith, which commands “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” and warns against the worship of false idols. Let’s further say that I take to setting up a ladder at stoplights in the middle of the night and painting the lenses black.

God, in His infinite wisdom, will direct traffic safely through the intersections.

How will society react to this sincere expression of my religious faith? Will it respect me? Or will it throw me in jail?

Jail, and rightly so. Because my ability to practice a particular personal belief stops when it harms other people and tears down social order.

The above, metaphorically, is the exact situation regarding vaccines — well, maybe not the painting-over part. So let’s say I drive heedlessly through red lights, aghast at the imposition society would inflict upon my personal freedom.

A growing number of Americans, for reasons from religious fundamentalism to scientific illiteracy to rigid naturalism, have stopped allowing their children to be vaccinated, causing an outbreak of once-banished childhood illnesses, like measles.

It’s particularly bad in New York state, due to enclaves of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who shun practices not found in Galicia in 1740, not to mention bastions of lifestyle nuttiness that reject anything contrary to what Gwyneth Paltrow decided this morning is good for you.

”We’re taught to live in the present,” one parent explained, citing her Buddhist beliefs for inspiring her to not inoculate her kids. “Right now my children are healthy.”

The New York State legislature narrowly voted Thursday to ban religious exemptions to vaccines, joining a handful of states that have done so: California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine. Calling the situation a medical emergency, Gov. Andrew Cuomo immediately signed the bill into law.

Angry parents fumed. One assemblyman called it “an attack on people’s First Amendment rights.”

Were I an optimistic sort, I might call this a sign that the wave of individualism surging for half a century has finally broken and begun to roll back.

But it’s too easy to interpret any motion in a direction you prefer as a general trend, when it might be a fluke.

This is a good moment to observe that people expressing a particular value often pretend there are no others, no conflicting considerations. That is never the case. Values are always in tension; nowhere is that better seen than in the conflict between the individual and society.

Imagine a sliding scale. At one end are bee hives — successful mass collaborations where the wishes of the individual are worth nothing. And on the other lighthouses — solitary outposts whose effectiveness depends on their uniqueness. The keeper can do whatever he likes and nobody cares as long as the light keeps shining.

I usually err on the side of the lighthouse keeper. Embrace whatever nonsense you find joy in, raise your kids however you please, have sex with whomever you fancy.

But that individualism has a cost, and limits. An atomized society can be lonely, inefficient and harmful. When the expression of individualism begins to hurt others — when not only are your kids getting sick because of your cherished beliefs, but others, as well, because your unvaccinated children spread disease — then it is time for the government to step in, clap its hands, and announce that playtime is over.

The government has the right. Much has been accomplished by recognizing the dignity of the individual, but something has been lost, too: a sense of community, of obligation to fellow citizens. Religion was stronger in the past, yet resistance to vaccination not so prevalent; people remembered the illnesses that vaccines eradicate, and were grateful for relief. Now time and ignorance have done their work, and people forget, putting their own quirks ahead of the common good — raging at the very idea of there being a common good or the suggestion they must yield a little before it. It’s a problem, and vaccines are an excellent point to begin dealing with it.