“Muh Ebola outbreak!”

When those who steadfastly believe in the ideal of a free society (i.e. no state) try to convince their brainwashed brethren to imagine a world free of institutionalized violence they are invariably assailed not with counter-arguments but rather with emotionalism or questions. “But without the state, how would X be accomplished?” This typical smug response betrays the interlocutor’s belief in the false choice promoted by the state, namely, that without the state it is not possible to accomplish X, Y, or Z. But a question is not an argument. A question proves nothing other than the questioner’s inability to understand the argument. A lack of understanding does not invalidate an argument any more than understanding it proves its validity. There is no more telling example of this truth than the obvious invalidity of the rejoinder “but who will pick the cotton?” from those that opposed the end of slavery. Apropos the similarity between statism and slavery: this method of argumentation, assaulting your opponent with questions believed to have no answer, is the most common tact against those proposing the end of statism. Without the state: who will build the roads? Who will teach the children? Who will stop the criminals? Who will stop the Ebola outbreaks?

It is this last point that I’d like to address since (a) the first three are absurdly easy to refute and (b) even some libertarians have a hard time answering this one. Let me begin by stating the guiding principle behind any of these thought experiments: if apparently the only way to accomplish something is by initiating violence against a fellow human being then you’re either not very imaginative or it is something that truly should not be done. Incentives and persuasion always trump coercion and violence. So, without further ado, how does one stop the spread of highly infectious diseases in a free society? To find the answer we need look no further than what the state does, albeit rather poorly, today. The answer lies within the principal of private property and the absolute control and discretion of private property owners over the use of their property. The state takes on the presumptive role of being the property owner of all within its borders. Under this presumption of ownership it then exercises its putative rights as property owner, namely control of ingress and egress and movement in that property. The irony of such state control is that the state actually has an incentive to do a poor job when it comes to control of infectious disease. Why is that? Because crises are the perennial excuse for expansion of state power, power that when the crises is over, is never relinquished. That is not to say those in power deliberately try to make it worse, but merely that failure of the state in its stated goals always results in the people rewarding it with more, not less, power.

Within a free society that had full private property rights the property owner (hospital) carries liability insurance and that insurance requires it do everything in its power to not release infected people. If an infected person wanted to leave anyway, they could, but only to the extent surrounding property owners permitted it. In other words, they wouldn’t get very far owing to highly secure fences and private roads. A private road owner would have a mutual contract with the hospital (for their own insurance reasons) to not permit sick individuals to leave without a clean bill of health. Because the state shields hospitals from this type of liability and the state owns all the roads and the state itself has no liability many people like this fall through the cracks today. In a private system there are many more people involved (insurance, hospital, road company, surrounding property owners) and this ensures a more granular level of control that minimizes “crack fall through”.

What we have today is a total structural problem in how society is organized. This is why there is no simple “what liberty says we should do” answer when we consider how we should handle quarantines within the current system. It is insufficient to say “we must respect the right of the individual who is infected” while ignoring the systemic problem of monopolistic state ownership that both crowds out competitors that would do a better job and that eliminates liability for its own mistakes.