Disease pandemics are a dream come true for central planners. Hysterical over possible contagion, citizens clamor for government action, government quarantines, government coercion, and government planning. In these cases, large numbers of people want government to do what government does best: seize people and property, coerce, issue orders, and spend lots of money.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control presents itself as the answer to every pandemic. Nevermind the fact that the Federal government is an organization that mishandles live anthrax, has cross-contaminated benign bird flu with deadly bird flu, and then sends contaminated samples across the country. And of course, the Feds, who apparently can’t keep disease samples contained, spend enormous amounts of money on making deadly diseases more deadly so as to weaponize them.
This organization, the same one that did such a stellar job with FEMA and the Hurricane Katrina “relief,” is the organization that will apparently save us from Ebola.
So, good luck to us all in surviving the US government’s war on pandemics.
Moreover, a more long-term view of the history of disease prevention does not present much of an impeachable case for government intervention. Indeed, governments excel at creating the conditions that enhance the spread of disease, as they did with the Spanish flu in the aftermath of World War I.
We also know that government interventions in the marketplace for medications (including price controls for vaccines and other treatments) used by states tend to create shortages where they are needed most.
But what about forced quarantines and border closings? Don’t we need the state for that? Well, the idea of a closed national border remains as much a fantasy today as it was 100 years ago when my ancestors stepped off the train from Mexico. Given the success rate in closing borders today, ending the flow of people across national borders appears about about as likely as ending the flow of drugs across those same borders.
On the matter of quarantines, there is precious little reason to believe that a top-down FEMA-like approach would be at all effective except in detaining large numbers of people who don’t actually have the disease. Whether or not such efforts will be effective at anything other that hobbling the economy will be anyone’s guess Indeed, we know from the FEMA-Katrina experience, that FEMA will intervene to prevent and/or punish effective localized efforts to improve the situation.
It is far more likely that a decentralized and private-property-based approach would be more manageable, effective, and adaptable to local conditions. In fact, NPR is today circulating the story of successful Ebola prevention in the private company town of Harbel, Liberia (pop. 80,000). Harbel is mostly run by the Firestone Corporation which owns rubber plantations there. When threatened with the spread of Ebola, Harbel officials went into action and have adopted measures that have severely limited the spread of the disease. If we compare this private-localized effort with the “success” of the efforts by national-government officials in Africa, let’s just say we can conclude they are dissimilar. We should also note that Harbel’s efforts were made in a place where they were surrounded by regions without access to modern hospitals, little modern communications infrastructure, and few resources compared to the developed world. The resources available in the developed world would make small-localized responses all the more effective in a place with advanced medical facilities.
Now, while we do know that quarantines were used in the Harbel case, it is unclear to what extent involuntary quarantines were used. Are they necessary, and do we need a state to do them? Fortunately, Robert Murphy has already written on this:
In a free society where pieces of property are all assigned ownership to specific individuals, there would be no such thing as a person having his “right to walk around” revoked — because there’s no such thing as a “right to walk around” in the first place. Rather, what could happen is that someone is considered so dangerous that all of the reputable health agencies place him at the top of their lists, and they hold news conferences, send out emails and faxes, etc. to alert the relevant owners to look out for this person. Major property owners would probably have prearranged agreements on how to deal with cases like this, so that the response could be coordinated.
Private businesses aren’t stupid; they don’t need the government to order them to keep lepers away. [Needless to say, along these same lines, airlines are already highly incentivized to not transport people with contagious diseases.] And if a particular church, say, wants to open its doors to such a person, that’s perfectly within their rights. (As a matter of courtesy, we would hope this policy would be announced to others who might not want to visit the same building.) Indeed, the final repository for such people would be buildings where the owners thought they could safely contain the disease. And the common name people would use for these buildings is “hospital.” In a free society, to be “quarantined” would simply mean that most owners (of roads, sidewalks, malls, hotels, factories, etc.) would refuse access, and so a contagious person would have few choices outside of treatment facilities.
Pure privatization is what we might call maximum decentralization, but it is not necessary to attain some sort of perfect libertarianism to benefit from a decentralist scenario. Even partial decentralization with a healthy dose of respect for private property would be better than the centralized Federal-FEMA approach. A lack of price controls on treatments would prevent shortages, while decentralization in “border” crossings would lead to more localized and this better-informed management of local situations. As with security from live shooters, decentralized and localized knowledge, and thus an improved ability to assess threats, is best. Hayekian observations about knowledge and planning are not rendered moot just because a disease is involved.
This is a tough sell because we have been conditioned by popular culture to think that disease pandemics come down to the efforts of global elite geniuses, like Brad Pitt in World War Z, solving our problems for us. Indeed, the CDC itself has used the zombie apocalypse as proof of the need to submit to CDC diktats.