The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. on Tuesday, in Dallas, Texas. This presents both epidemiological and political questions. Libertarianism is a major political force in Texas, and Libertarianism generally advocates against government involvement in healthcare — so if the 135 Libertarians running for office in the Lone Star State this November were elected, would they want the government to fight the disease?
The answer is more nuanced than one might expect: Most Libertarians interviewed by Newsweek agreed government should intervene to protect public health in exceptional circumstances, but said intervention would have to be very careful and limited—and, perhaps, that it is better executed by the private sector.
Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at Reason Foundation, the Libertarian think tank that publishes Reason magazine, explains to Newsweek the starting point of most Libertarian belief is a limited government that provides “essential” functions, such as national defense. But in certain circumstances—if a person had a deadly communicable disease and refused to isolate himself, for example—governmental intervention could be considered essential.
“When there is a clear, clear threat to public health, it is appropriate for the government to do something,” she says, but “in a country like America, where healthcare is so abundantly available, I cannot imagine that anybody that has Ebola would not just voluntarily go and get help and get quarantined.”
And if a person sought isolation and treatment but couldn’t pay for it, and no private entity stepped forward to foot the bill, Dalmia says: “In those cases, I would be OK with the government taking it upon itself to provide free care to the person.”
Lauren Daugherty, Libertarian Party of Texas Executive Director, has similar sentiments. “I’ve been thinking about this as I watch the news. The government is mandating these folks stay home, and yet how many people can afford that?” she says.“Somebody needs to help them, and if the government is mandating that people stay home, in isolation, then I think they have a moral obligation to assist with these practical aspects of it.”
Kathie Glass, a Libertarian candidate for Texas governor, says that forced isolation is OK if it’s absolutely necessary. “If you are a threat to other innocent people, that’s an act of aggression,” she says. “When someone has fatal disease, a deadly communicable disease, that’s an act of aggression to go around and expose other people to it.” But, she adds, we should be careful that we are not just wantonly violating someone’s liberty.
With regard to a governmental public health infrastructure, there doesn’t seem to be active Libertarian opposition to entities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — “I don’t think any Libertarian loves the CDC, but there are just bigger fish to fry,” explains Dalmia — but they generally favor the private sector’s handling of healthcare.
Carla Howell, National Libertarian Party Political Director, says “governmental bureaucracies” involved with epidemic control are ineffective compared to private and voluntary efforts, in addition to costing too much money and violating individual rights.
"The sole purpose of government is to protect our life, liberty and property from harm caused by others in those few instances where the private sector cannot do a better job," Howell writes in an e-mail to Newsweek. “Containing Ebola in Africa is best left to private charities such as Doctors Without Borders rather than the NIH [National Institutes of Health] or the CDC. Screening is better handled by airlines and private hospitals that are both liable for damages and fully free of government red tape. (Sadly no such hospitals exist today in the United States).”