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Quick Take Response to Tyler Cowen Re: Libertarian Response to Quarantine
Meta-note: I wrote this in a bit of a hurry at midnight, so some grammar/spelling errors might exist - I promise to fix them later.
Meta-meta note: A shorter and perhaps better version of these same basic objections exists here.
Over Marginal Revolution, Tyler posts this to express confusion over the response of Libertarians to Covid quarantines:
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 George Annas, Ronald Bailey, Declan McCullagh, and Jeffrey A. Singer. 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.
He goes on to express confusion that what they said then is not what he reads as the common libertarian stance now and that this seems inconsistent, even considering the differences between what we feared from Ebola and what we now know of Covid-19.
Specifically, Tyler wonders why there is such widespread Libertarian outcry now over quarantines when there was no Libertarian outcry over these stances when this symposium was published. While I think that this inconsistency as presented by Tyler would imply some sort of perhaps hypocritical stance change, I think that there are angles Tyler doesn’t consider that render the apparent lack of principal explicable:
Tyler is oversimplifying the positions of the symposium members as simply “pro-quarantine” without going into the nuance of their positions. Annas supported a quarantine only of those known to be exposed to Ebola, and only then once they developed a fever. Bailey wanted monitoring of those exposed, and monitoring (not quarantine) even of health workers working with Ebola patients.
Singer thought it reasonable to screen those “people reasonably considered potential carriers”, in that context healthcare workers specifically exposed to Ebola carriers, family members, and groups of that sort (presumably Singer supports quarantine for those the screening identifies as specific threats). McCullagh’s section seems to potentially approve of wide-spread mandatory quarantine in a situation like ours, but he begs off for lack of data so it’s hard to know where he draws his line.
The first reasonable explanation as to why quarantine acceptance of the sort in the symposium and the quarantine calls of today cause different reactions is potentially explained by the fact that the quarantines spoken of in each case were different animals altogether - one a focused quarantine for actively identified threats, and one a quarantine aimed indiscriminately at the teeming masses. Unless you deny Libertarians any nuance at all, this should be enough to cut them some slack in the context of Tyler’s argument.
Tyler partially answers his own question by bringing up the differences between the two diseases, bit still expresses surprise that “quarantine was — not long ago — considered so acceptable from a libertarian point of view, given the current pushback against pandemic-related restrictions.“. I think this might be too quick of a dismissal, even without considering the nuance section 1. above provides.
If you ask me if I favor quarantine for a deadly, horrifying disease that will kill a quarter of the US population if unchecked, then I probably do; if you ask me if I favor it for a disease that will kill 10,000 people, then I likely don’t. The same pattern applies to quarantines I think might be effective and those I don’t believe will be or have been.
Whether or not Tyler agrees that quarantines have been ineffective or that Covid-19 isn’t horrifying once you factor out all the harvesting effects, he certainly probably understands that there are people that take this stance. And while they may be mistaken about the ineffectiveness of quarantine or the life-years-lost deadliness of Covid, within the context of that mistake a stance that the response is inappropriate would represent an error in information and opinion, not necessarily one of character, consistency or philosophy.
Tyler’s objection rests a bit on the idea that this article’s alleged calls for quarantine caused no widespread outcry, but widespread outcry exists among Libertarians in response to today’s actual restrictions. This isn’t necessarily surprising for a few reasons.
First, the authors themselves do not a monolith make. They themselves seem to be consistent on their previous stances judging by their body of work within the pages of Reason; no inconsistency among the authors is apparent at least from a cursory review of their work (I can be corrected on this if I’ve missed something).
Even factoring out points 1. and 2., we can imagine that some small ideological diversity exists in this population; from what I can tell, the Libertarians objecting to quarantine now are different individuals than those who wrote an article approving (limited) quarantine then.
Tyler implies that those who read the article then should have spoken up if they disagreed with it so harshly (and thus maybe implies that they didn’t disagree with quarantines until they had skin in the game), but it’s not clear that this would have happened even if a substantial disagreement existed. A lack of outcry might sometimes signal agreement but just as often it signals, well, crickets. It’s hard for me to tell five years later how much of a splash that article made, but if it failed to make a huge impact a lack of impassioned response pieces might only indicate a lack of substantial attention.
Note that any of those rationales might be wrong - these quarantine objectors could very well could be hypocrites who are fine with quarantines right up until it costs them personally. But with that said, there are still a number of ways to explain the difference that don’t involve inconsistency so much as different personalities, different information, and imperfect readership of Reason.