Contagious Diseases and the State


Editor’s note: I wrote this article in 2017, far before the Covid pandemic and the subsequent flailing about by state actors to attempt to control it. It was eerie to read it again today. 1/4/21

Disease, viruses, and other contagious medical disasters have been a major concern for humanity. Throughout history, we have experienced such terrifying events as the black plague wiping out 75 to 200 million people. We have experienced terrible illness such as polio and STDs being spread from person-to-person. Even though the West has generated an incredible amount of wealth to invest in developing and producing amazing products to protect us such as antibiotics, vaccines, and hygiene products or practices, we human beings still have an intense fear of being harmed through the spread of sickness.

This is seen throughout our entertainment media in movies such as “Outbreak” and in books such as Stephen King’s “The Stand” or in the recent surge in zombie media like “World War Z” or “The Walking Dead”. The news media recognizes this concern with their coverage of E. coli, H1N1, the bird flu and, most recently, Ebola. Fear is an incredible motivator of the human spirit, and those who wish to spur people to call for politicians to “do something” or to manipulate them into buying products to save themselves are quick to take note of the primal reaction people have when hearing about these and other potential dangers.

When this danger can be transferred from person-to-person, this fear becomes all the more intense. A coughing neighbor or someone with a fever at work quickly becomes an enemy and someone to avoid at all costs. People call out for the great leaders to avail them of this crisis! With the recent debate regarding a nurse in New Jersey being quarantined upon her return from Africa, people nod their heads in agreement that those who are sick must be cast out of society like the lepers of the Biblical years.

To those aware of the nature of the State, it should come as no surprise that governments would propose locking people in cages as a solution to contagious disease. Locking people in cages is the only real solution that states have. All of their laws imply the threat of prison, and those placed in cages are said to be put there “for their own good” or “so they do not harm others”. The logic would then follow that people with the potential to harm, such as disease carriers, should also be put in cages.

What is the libertarian response to such a charge? Surely, we cannot allow these diseased people to run amok in society. The nonaggression principle implies that no harm should be done to other people, and diseases are a form of harm whether or not the spreading of it is intentional. If someone walks into my business and infects me with a disease that cripples me, they are liable for the damages done to my person. Assuming they did not mean to harm me, the analogy would be similar to accidentally knocking over a ladder I was painting the ceiling with. The damage to me is done whether or not intent exists.

We who oppose state power and who also oppose the spreading of harm seem at first to be in a major quandary. How would a society deal with a virus as deadly as Ebola if not with mandatory, government imposed quarantines?

It is important to point out here that libertarians promote insurance companies as private, profit based organizations who would handle most services commonly ascribed to government institutions. People, in this case, would buy insurance that would protect them against infectious diseases. They would pay an agreed upon billing schedule and would then gain the capacity to file a claim with that insurance company if they became infected. This claim would pay for any medical or other expenditures they would incur from the disease.

If someone becomes diseased, their insurance company would have processes in place which were already agreed on by contract. Because the diseased person has become a major liability to this agency, and the insurance company would have to pay out additional damages if anyone else was harmed by their client, they would probably ask the person to stay home per their contract. If they violate contract and go outside anyways, the insurance company would likely hold them personally liable for damages done to other people. In more extreme cases, the contract may involve moving the contaminated person to a containment facility.

At first, this seems like the same thing. The State putting someone in a facility vs. a private company putting someone in a facility: what’s the difference? However, unlike the state with its abysmal prison and living conditions, for example where the nurse quarantined in New Jersey allegedly was left outside in a cold, unheated tent with no access to bathroom facilities, the insurance company would have every incentive to limit the time of this sanction, reduce uneasiness of the client, improve living conditions and care schedules, etc. The insurance company, being a voluntary arrangement, would also allow you to make your own choices in regards to where or which facility you wanted to stay in. You could transfer at any time. This is a stark contrast to the government’s one size fits all approach.

Other companies will be competing with this insurance agency to retain these customers, and any unnecessary detainment or annoyances could cause them to lose their customers. The reason for the current lackluster care given to medical patients in many facilities is due to a lack of this competition mechanism which has mostly been driven out by current government interventions into the economy. As a general economic rule, the less competitive and the more monopolistic an economy is, and the State is the biggest monopoly of them all, the less those agencies will care about their clients.

In what other ways would this scenario of private insurance differ from State implemented solutions? If a person is wrongly accused of carrying a disease when they don’t actually have any diseases, the company that accused them is liable for fraud. Unlike the government, who is totally unaccountable no matter how incorrect they are or how much damage they cause to an individual and their family, a negligent company can be sued. There’s a large incentive to take precautions in their testing here and to make sure that they are accurately assessing any threats given the potential for retaliation against false allegations.

Moreover, any spread of the disease signals a failure of the insurance company which will cause customers to lose respect for the company or even cancel their insurance policies. In stark contrast, as it is with any and all crisis, the government gets more money and more power when a disease spreads throughout their population. They can demand more tax money to pay for the medical workers and mandatory quarantine, and the ability to quarantine in particular gives the government the pretense to lock anyone in cages they accuse of having a disease without access to recourse through any legal or court proceedings, regardless of whether that accusation is objectively true or not.

A decentralized solution also generates dispersed knowledge that central bureaucracies cannot accumulate. Insurance companies have a financial incentive to reduce or eliminate harm to their clients, and they will therefore respond very quickly to their client’s and medical worker’s reports about the disease and it’s scope of impact. Prices and their fluctuation give us feedback signals to see where capital is best invested in the service of people, and disease is no exception. As a disease hits a certain area of the population, prices for insurance there will rise. As the incentive for profit increases, because of the higher prices due to increased risk of spreading the disease to others, more and more companies will move in with different and better solutions to attempt to bid for the customer’s dollars.

Let’s work through an example of this. Let’s say that Jane lives in Hartford, Connecticut. If several cases of Ebola break out in Hartford, the price for her disease insurance would rise. She might call up the company and ask what she can do to reduce her risk and thereby reduce the price for her insurance. They might suggest staying out of congested areas or not taking buses or transportation where many other people will be sharing a small, enclosed space. They might suggest that she stay home from work. They may suggest special, protective clothing. Maybe the company has accumulated specific knowledge of where those cases are breaking out, and they could advise Jane to avoid those particular sections of the city. If Jane decides to implement these suggestions, her insurance premium rate would decline. Other companies may also approach Jane to offer her alternative solutions and, of course, lower billing premiums. Jane can certainly decide not to take the insurance company’s advice, as well.

How would Jane know what best solutions to implement especially if conditions are changing rapidly if not for the individual advisement by her insurance company? Prices have the capacity to fluctuate very quickly, and insurance companies know how many resources to allocate towards her needs because of this price and profit system. The best solution that states can offer are broad, general statements or actions which most likely do not apply to each individual specifically in their own, unique situation. An insurance company knows a great deal about each individual and their living circumstances and medical history due to relationships built up over time with their clients and can offer much more prudent and useful information on a case by case basis. Moreover, they have a personal economic stake in the livelihood and well-being of their clients given their economic incentive to reduce the number of claims paid out to those clients.

What influence would a price system have over business? Low-risk businesses, like those who have very specific clientele not exposed to the virus, might see only nominally higher premiums and opt to do nothing. High-risk businesses like transportation companies, e.g. airports or bus companies, would likely see their insurance premiums skyrocket given the risk they bear due to the nature of their business. Insurance companies again could advise them on ways to reduce this risk. Maybe they could reduce these high insurance rates if they implement a screening process, or implement a customer identification system tied into a database with known disease carriers and those who came in contact with them, or maybe they could offer safety equipment and protective clothing to all travelers. The rates and risk might be so high for this type of business, however, that these companies may have to cease taking customers until the disease is contained. This action would reallocate resources to other parts of the market for transportation demanded that was safer and less prone to spread the disease.

The most important difference between the state and the market solution for dealing with infectious diseases is this: if you don’t like the way a company is dealing with disease, you simply stop paying them. You can hire a different company more in line with your ideal solution. There are no one size fits all solutions in freedom. The state, on the other hand, will implement it’s solution unilaterally by force even if it is incredibly costly, ineffective, or worse.

As a final note, without governments we wouldn’t have constant bio warfare research happening all over the place where States experiment with crazy viruses and bacteria hoping to weaponize them. We would be less prone to outbreaks if they stopped trying to make all of these genocidal, mass murdering weapons. There is a reason why many fictional entertainment media blame governments for the initial outbreak of the disease in their story. Governments have become so belligerent in their desire to consolidate power that they have amassed weapons capable of destroying all life on earth many times over. It is therefore easy to imagine scenarios in which governments misplace or mishandle viral weapons that proceed to wreak havoc throughout the world.

The solution to contagious diseases is, as with all problems which mankind faces, freedom. The state cannot provide freedom as it automatically negates choice and free will. This is most blatantly seen in it’s constant threats to lock people in cages, and mandatory quarantines are no exception.

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