Would a libertarian force you into COVID quarantine?
What should be the libertarian position on whether to impose quarantines to reduce the incidence of the coronavirus?
One argument is that we should do no such thing since a quarantine is equivalent to house arrest. It is a violation of our rights to bodily integrity, and in this case, it is imposed upon people who have not committed any crime whatsoever.
On the other hand, we cannot allow the "Typhoid Marys" of the day to spread their diseases, even if they lack any vestige of mens rea. We have to protect ourselves in any case, and forced quarantine seems to be the only means to do so.
No, carriers of the coronavirus have not committed any crime. However, harboring the disease and mixing among the general population can be said to constitute a threat, and the law should not be limited to prohibiting only actual invasions or trespass. It should also proscribe threats thereof.
Suppose a libertarian in otherwise good standing were to support forced quarantines for the coronavirus. Or to make this an actual competitive horse race, let us posit, God forbid, a much more serious contagious threat that will take place a hundred years from now. Would such a theorist be misunderstanding libertarian theory?
Murray Rothbard ("Mr. Libertarian") never wrote about COVID. But we can extrapolate from his publications and interpret him as taking a different position on this issue. He states:
It is important to insist, however, that the threat of aggression be palpable, immediate, and direct, in short, that it be embodied in the initiation of an overt act. Any remote or indirect criterion — any "risk" or "threat" — is simply an excuse for invasive action by the supposed "defender" against the alleged "threat."
Once one can use force against someone because of his "risky" activities, the sky is the limit, and there is virtually no limit to aggression against the rights of others. Once [one] permit[s] someone's "fear" of the "risky" activities of others to lead to coercive action, then any tyranny becomes justified.
Lew Rockwell, another leading libertarian theorist, agrees with Rothbard:
When we apply what Murray says to the coronavirus situation, we can answer our question about forced quarantines. People are not threatening others with immediate death by contagion. Rather, if you have the disease, you might pass it on to others. Or you might not. What happens if someone gets the disease is also uncertain.
Where our "lock 'em up" libertarian theorist departs from these two leaders of the libertarian movement is on the precise meaning of "palpable, immediate, and direct." All Austrian economists adhere to subjectivity, one of the foundations of the entire praxeological school. Hayek goes so far as to write: "And it is probably no exaggeration to say that every important advance in economic theory during the last hundred years was a further step in the consistent application of subjectivism."
Thus, I think, there is room for disagreement, while agreeing fully on the non-aggression principle of libertarianism. That is why libertarians can start from the same principles, all deducing from them in an entirely logical, rational, and reasonable manner, yet come to radically different conclusions.
It is as if Rothbard and Rockwell were maintaining that the statutory rape age ought to be X, and some other libertarian maintains it ought to be Y, where both X and Y lie somewhere in between 16 and 21. Principles alone cannot settle issues of this sort.
In similar manner, posit that A is running at B with a knife, yelling he's "gonna kill" B. B has a gun and can shoot A. But how close does A have to be to B before the latter is justified in shooting the former in self-defense? Five miles? One mile? 200 yards? 50 feet? What is the precise point at which B may properly shoot A and claim self-defense? I don't know. I think we need (private!) courts to make such determinations. All I am saying is that legal principles alone cannot determine the precise spot at which offense becomes defense. We need prudential judgment, and competent libertarians may properly disagree in cases of this sort.
On the other hand, Chuck Schumer made threats against two Supreme Court judges. Schumer's threat of physical violence against them was not "palpable, immediate, and direct," nor was it embodied in the initiation of an overt act. I conclude that these Supreme Court judges are not entitled to shoot the senator. However, in a free society, Schumer should pay a lesser penalty for this act of his (I'm now abstracting from all other issues, such as abortion rights, the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, etc.). Threats, too, are proscribed by the NAP. A, even when 10 miles away from B, should also pay a lesser penalty for this threat of his.
The bottom line here is that whether a quarantine is justified depends upon an empirical issue, one that cannot be solved by pure adherence to libertarian theory. Namely, exactly how much of a threat is COVID or any other such disease to innocent people? If the threat is very serious, then a quarantine is justified; if not, then not. The point is that quarantines cannot be ruled out of court per se, at least not by libertarian theory.
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