Thankfully, the recent vaccination controversy that dominated headlines and muddled the 2016 Republican presidential primary is mostly over. Surely we have bigger issues as a nation to confront.
But political flare-ups of this sort provide a gentle — and for some, unwelcome — reminder about the interconnected nature of modern American life. Libertarians on both the left and right can agitate for greater autonomy as a bulwark against what they see as a too-intrusive government, but the fact is that the era when individual decisions can be made in a complete vacuum has long since passed.
For those who long for some lost era where individuals could do as they pleased without worrying about the social consequences of their actions, I suggest a trip to Charleston, S.C.
Three decades ago, my sister and I took a trip to visit one of our uncles, an Air Force recruiter then stationed near Charleston. Along with Boston, New York and Philadelphia, Charleston was one of the most colonial American cities.
Two tour guide anecdotes from a carriage ride through historic downtown Charleston still stick in my head.
The first involved certain colonial-era Charleston buildings. Because solid waste removal in the 18th and 19th centuries typically meant throwing refuse into the streets and periodically covering it with fresh layers of dirt, there are buildings in Charleston where the street entrance today used to be the second floor and the "basement" was once street level. In other words, beneath some of the city's paved roads are two centuries' and a full story's worth of compacted trash.
Although that makes for a quaint tourism tale, garbage piled atop dirt piled atop more garbage is a not-so-sanitary waste management policy. Who knows how many Charlestonians or visitors got sick or even died from contracted illness or disease?
The second anecdote involves the fire mark plates installed on the outside of some of Charleston's oldest mansions.
In colonial Charleston, firefighting was privatized and wealthy homeowners had their choice of several fire companies from whom they could buy insurance. Companies installed fire plates with their unique insignias on the side of their clients' homes.
Local legend has it that whenever a fire broke out, the town alarm would sound and every company would race to the site. All except the one with the designated insignia would watch as the contracted company fought the fire. If homeowners hadn't contracted for insurance in advance, their house would burn.
This legend remains in dispute: Apparently, the first arriving company would put the fire out even if it weren't under contract, and then be rewarded by the city. But even if true, the inefficiencies and risks to homeowners but also their neighbors of a voluntary system such as this are obvious. Which is why the public provision of fire response paid for by mandatory taxes is, like prohibitions on throwing garbage into the street, a necessity of modern life.
And so it is — or should be — with public vaccination laws.
I empathize with those who, as a matter of principle, oppose forced vaccinations for their kids or may want to buy unregulated raw milk. As a general rule, Americans should be able to decide what to put or not put in their bodies or those of their children.
Rules have important exceptions, however, and individual actions that potentially threaten public health and the safety of others are exceptional.
According to the 1880 Census, 71 percent of Americans lived in "rural" areas, defined towns with populations of 2,500 or fewer people. As of 2010, only 19 percent of Americans live in communities smaller than 2,500 persons, and 71 percent live in what the Census Bureau classifies as "urbanized areas" of at least 50,000 people.
Although some Americans apparently would like to hop in a time machine and transport themselves to a simpler time a century or two ago, that's a fantasy. In our modern, mobile and population-dense society, private actions too often have significant, even dire public consequences. Our lives are simply too interconnected to allow a few of us to infect the remainder.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC; his most recent book is "The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House." His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is email@example.com. Twitter: @schaller67.