Friday 13 March 2020

Are there any libertarians in a pandemic?

The kind of people who say ‘if you like freedom so much, why don’t you move to Somalia?’ think that libertarians have been “owned” by the coronavirus. If you oppose the nanny state but want to contain the epidemic, you are apparently some kind of hypocrite. How can libertarians ever support mandatory quarantine and nationwide lockdowns?

Quite easily, as it happens. I can’t speak for all libertarians (who can?) but I see libertarianism as applied economics. The government should leave businesses alone unless there are demonstrable market failures and it should leave people alone unless they are doing direct harm to others.
In case it is not obvious, infecting somebody with a potentially fatal virus counts as direct harm to others.

Let us assume that Coronavirus is far more dangerous than seasonal flu and has the potential to kill millions. If so, it is a classic public health problem. It carries serious negative externalities and can only be dealt with by collective action. There are things you can do as an individual to reduce your risk - wash your hands, cancel non-urgent appointments, etc. - but you will still be at risk.

Libertarians want to keep coercion to the minimum. We would prefer mass vaccination, but there is no vaccine yet. We would prefer voluntary self-isolation, but we cannot rely on people doing this even if they are aware that they have the virus. Lock-downs and quarantines are economically damaging and illiberal. They might be a last resort, but they should not be off the table. They do not fall under the umbrella of ‘nanny state’ because they are designed to protect other people from you and you from other people, not you from yourself.

Most of what passes for ‘public health’ policy these days has nothing to do with public health in its true sense. Factories pumping smoke into a congested city and travellers arriving at Heathrow with Coronavirus pose a clear risk of harm to others that can justify some degree of coercion. It is not the scale of the risk nor the number of people affected that turns a health problem into a public health problem. It is the lack of consent from those who are at risk and their inability to escape danger without other people taking action.

By contrast, if I eat too much, it won’t make you fat. If I smoke or drink too much, it might create a private health problem for me, but it doesn’t create a public health problem for society. These are not issues for the collective and they do not require collective action to address them, led alone coercion from the state. My body, my rules.

Personal lifestyle habits have been redefined as ‘public health’ issues in recent decades because it gives the impression that government action is appropriate when it is not. It is a rhetorical trick. But, as we are seeing now, genuine public health crises can still arise, even in rich countries. When they do, our response should be proportionate. We want to keep restrictions on liberty to a minimum and we do not want to damage the economy, but we may have to accept a bit of both - temporarily - if we are to protect ourselves. This is not the nanny state. It is the prevention of harm from an external threat.

[Reposted from the Telegraph]

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