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Does a minimal government have a role in infectious disease prevention? How do free markets play a role?

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series The Pandemic Bites

Some minarchist libertarians have argued that a minimal government could have a public health role to play. They suggest that the government’s purpose is to ensure that natural rights are not violated within its borders, which is why it would be empowered to prevent individuals from entering who are known to be violent, rights-offending criminals. In a similar manner, one could argue that an infectious disease carrier could be grounds for prevention of entry into their territory as well. Harmful microorganisms, after all, are a kind of “foreign invader” to a body. To fulfill this role of guarding general public health, it would stand to reason that there would be a scientific department to monitor infectious disease outbreaks from abroad, advise departments dealing with border entry, and maintaining a base of knowledge for how to deal with emergency situations. This might include isolating those conclusively identified with a highly infectious disease so as to prevent further spread with due process. However, one could further surmise that even these functions could be accomplished without a state.

Markets are highly adaptable to changing situations because the people who make them up are nearly infinitely adaptable. Consider how the COVID-19 pandemic in many respects brought out the best of free market activity, when things were not outright shut down. Doctors worked relentlessly to help people, scientists researched how to prevent and cure COVID-19 with treatments and vaccines, brick-and-mortar businesses came up with solutions to deliver customers groceries, durable goods, and more, and online businesses thrived by doing more than they ever had before. Yes, much was lost in the process and many businesses closed entirely, and that was indeed awful. But this was more due to the state’s orders to shut down and not do any business in the first place rather than the pandemic itself. By not allowing “non-essential” businesses to follow the incentives of the marketplace and supply market demand, the central institution itself ensured that they would be far less likely to survive.

Despite the incessant protestations and hysterical reporting from the mainstream media day in and day out, and notwithstanding the very real suffering people endured from contracting COVID-19, life did not just come to a standstill. Artists created art. Ministers ministered. Engineers engineered new products and services. When individuals resolve to live on in spite of troubles, they can find ways around problems while respecting the need for extra precautions needed to combat a pandemic. When governments patronize people’s intelligence, demoralize them from action, and constantly suppress their freedom in the name of temporary safety, there you have the recipe for disastrous results.

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