The ideological shift of the libertarian movement on pandemics

In the midst of his libertarian phase, Milton Friedman wrote:

As already noted, significant neighborhood effects justify substantial public health activities: maintaining the purity of water, assuring proper sewage disposal, controlling contagious diseases.

Yet today many libertarians shy away from the actual execution of this for Covid-19.

Here is a 2014 Reason magazine symposium on Ebola, by .  Of those four I know Bailey a wee bit (not well), but from the entries and bylines and the very title of the feature — “What Is the Libertarian Response to Ebola? How a free society should respond to a communicable disease outbreak” — they would indeed seem to be self-described libertarians.

All four, as I read them, are willing to accept the idea of forced quarantine of individuals.  Not just in extreme lifeboat comparisons, but in actual situations that plausibly might have arisen at that time.  If you don’t already know, Reason, while not mega-extreme, typically would be considered more libertarian in orientation than most of the libertarian-leaning think tanks.

Maybe I was napping at the time, but I don’t recall any mega-scandal resulting from those proclamations.

Here is my earlier Bloomberg column rejecting the notion of forced quarantine of individuals for Covid-19, mostly on rights grounds, though I add some consequentialist arguments.  I would not trade in the American performance for the Chinese anti-Covid performance if it meant we had to weld people inside their apartments without due process, for instance, as the Chinese (and Vietnamese and others) did regularly.

To be clear, Ebola and Covid-19 have very different properties, and you might favor forcible quarantine for one and not the other.  Whether those differences in properties should matter for a rights perspective is a complex question, but still I am surprised to see that quarantine was — not long ago — considered so acceptable from a libertarian point of view, given the current pushback against pandemic-related restrictions.

(Speaking of shifts, here is Will Wilkinson on GBD.  While I agree with many of his points, I am curious where Will stands on forcible quarantine of individuals on a non-trivial scale.  He does say he favors a “supported isolation program,” so maybe he favors coercive quarantine but he doesn’t quite commit to that view either?)

I am surprised most of all how little interest current libertarians seem to have in the following “line”:

“A unregulated Covid-19 response would have been much, much better. We would have had a good vaccine right away, and tested it rapidly with a Human Challenge Trial. It would be sold around the world at a profit, with much quicker distribution and pandemic resolution than what we are seeing today. This pandemic was awful, but the market would have kicked butt cleaning it up.”

I am not here claiming that view is correct, only that a strong libertarian ought to be amenable to it.  And yet I hear it remarkably infrequently, even though I think most committed libertarians would agree if you posed it to them as a direct question.

It is at least 20x more fashionable to obsess over the costs of lockdowns, combined with various denialist claims about the severity of the problem.

As for masks, how about this?:

“Masks? Masks are great, of course they are a public good.  Markets are great at producing and maintaining value-maximizing voluntary norms such as mask-wearing!”

I cannot help but think that the views above in quotation marks would have been the dominant libertarian response in the 1980s or 1990s, and that the various brews appearing today are yet another sign of our Douthatian decadence.


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