How Would a Free Society Handle Quarantines?

By Robert P. MurphyLibertyChat.com Contributor –

The Ebola outbreak shows the standard pattern: Whenever there is a major social problem, the deep thinkers in the major ebolamedia report it as a lack of sufficiently powerful government. With regard to Ebola, I’ve heard people lament that the West African governments do not possess the resources to (a) maintain adequate infrastructure, (b) enforce a quarantine, and (c) provide medical care to the infected. If only their governments were as powerful as those of Europe and the U.S., the implicit argument goes, then this tragedy never would have occurred.

On the face of it, this perspective has things backwards. The affected African nations suffer from a lack of private property rights. The Fraser Institute maintains an “Economic Freedom of the World” index. According to the latest issue, out of 153 total jurisdictions ranked, Guinea ranked 109th while Sierra Leone ranked 72nd. (Liberia wasn’t listed.) Nigeria, which is also reportedly in danger from the Ebola outbreak, ranks 98th. So say what you will about these areas and why they were vulnerable to the outbreak, but it’s not accurate to claim that they have relatively weak governments. You can claim that the regions are poor, and that therefore their governments don’t have the resources to do what other, richer governments would do in their position–but a major reason they’re poor is that they have relatively intrusive governments.

(To avoid a possible counterargument: The Fraser EFW rankings aren’t a mere tautology; they look at criteria such as “sound money,” “size of government,” and “freedom to trade internationally,” when ranking a jurisdiction. They don’t simply look at wealthy countries and then conclude, “Hmm let’s give them high marks on economic freedom.”)

Yet moving away from the individual case of our current Ebola outbreak, what about the more general question: In a truly free society, where the vast majority embrace voluntarism and there are no institutional violations of property rights, how would people respond in case of a highly contagious disease? Would there be mandatory vaccinations? Would there be the free-market equivalent of quarantines?

In my view, the answer here is not to try to “deduce” the blanket answer from first principles, and declare that in a free society, we would necessarily see either outcome X or outcome Y. Instead, I think we should be humble and acknowledge that one of the supreme virtues of freedom is that its outcomes derive from the contributions and expertise of the millions or billions of people composing the society. We don’t know exactly how a free society would handle a hypothetical outbreak, just like we don’t know how a free society would handle food distribution, education, or transportation.

We can come up with some general thoughts, but the specific circumstances would influence how many kids went to group schooling versus stayed home to learn, how many restaurants and grocery stores there would be, whether there would be train service at 6am on a Sunday morning, etc. You can’t give blanket answers to such particular questions, because their answers depends on economic considerations. Instead, you embrace a free market economy in which people voluntarily trade property titles, so that “the market”–which is just shorthand for the totality of voluntary trades–can produce the outcomes.

Within this context, then, we can speculate about a free society responding to an outbreak of a highly contagious disease. The first thing to remember is that individual property owners could set their own rules. For example, the owners of schools and factories could insist that any students and employees first show proof that they had been vaccinated (if a vaccine existed for the pathogen in question) before allowing them entry onto the property. In a free society, individuals don’t possess some abstract “right to go wherever I want without people checking my papers.” No, in a free society, people own property and nobody else can violate their ownership rights. If the owner of a building wants to keep it closed on Sundays, he can do that, and if the owner of a building will only let people in who prove to his satisfaction (perhaps because they are listed in the database of a reputable medical clinic) that they’ve been vaccinated against the contagious disease ravaging the community, then he can do that, too.

As in other areas of social life, here too the existence of competing agencies would check potential abuses. For example, suppose a particular medical clinic keeps very poor records; its database lists some people as “Vaccinated” who haven’t been, and/or lists some people “Not Vaccinated” even though they have been. Well, unlike the government’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC), any such medical clinic would enjoy no special support from a large institution with all of the tanks and missiles. People who had gone to the clinic to get vaccinated, and then weren’t listed on their database, would raise hell and take their business elsewhere. If there were multiple examples of this, the shoddy clinic would soon go out of business. And if anybody who was actually contagious ended up infecting others because the medical clinic said “Vaccinated,” then that news would quickly spread to the owners of large buildings in the community and they would no longer trust that particular clinic’s database. Thus, the whole point of getting vaccinated by that clinic would evaporate, such that–again–it would quickly fold as people took their business elsewhere.

On the other hand, if there really were a very miniscule risk of infection–perhaps because the outbreak occurred in a distant region–then paranoid property owners would lose business. For example, if a particular mall required entrants to prove their health at the door, while the other malls in the area had no such checkpoint, then the first mall would lose many potential shoppers. Here, as elsewhere, there are tradeoffs, and the best way to find the “optimal” balance on a spectrum is to give people the freedom to use their property in voluntary ways as they see fit.

For a more comprehensive treatment, you should first read my pamphlet Chaos Theory, which discusses the possible role of insurance companies in a free society.  Then you will have the framework to imagine how, say, a free society would handle the “choke points” of airports and land borders, if there were a contagious outbreak in a nearby region. For example, the owners of the airport might have contractual relationships with contiguous landowners, in which they promise monetary compensation in the event that planes crash into their homes, or if someone with Ebola infects them because they entered the community through that particular airport. In this context, large insurance companies could handle this legal liability for the airport, but in exchange the insurance companies might insist on safety precautions and have procedures in place for handling an Ebola outbreak. (See my article dealing with the TSA and the false tradeoff between liberty and security.)

For the thorny issue of quarantines, I think a free society would handle this type of case just as it would handle serial killers; either read my discussion in Chaos Theory or listen to this lecture excerpt on “Would There Be Prisons in a Free Society?”

In conclusion, let me admit that a free society would not be paradise: People would still get sick and die, and there might even be outbreaks of contagious diseases. It’s true, the mechanisms I sketched above would not be perfect. Yet the question is always a relative comparison: Our current world, filled with monopoly governments, hasn’t eliminated contagious diseases, either. For a given group of people, letting them either (a) solve problems voluntarily or (b) create a State, which outcome is more likely to lead to sensible, effective solutions to genuine social problems?

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