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Libertarianism and Coronavirus

Summary:
What should libertarians think about responding to COVID-19? Many libertarians believe in a “Non-Aggression Principle” (NAP), which forbids initiating physical force against others. Libertarians who reject the NAP nevertheless still believe that individuals have a moral right not to be interfered with or harmed in most circumstances. Punching someone in the face is a paradigm case of aggression. But there are other, more subtle ways in which people can physically harm each other. If I blow toxic smoke into your lungs, that probably ought to count as aggression too. And thus libertarianism seems like it ought to take a pretty strong stance against at least certain forms of environmental pollution, an issue that I have written about here. What about spreading a disease?

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What should libertarians think about responding to COVID-19?

Many libertarians believe in a “Non-Aggression Principle” (NAP), which forbids initiating physical force against others. Libertarians who reject the NAP nevertheless still believe that individuals have a moral right not to be interfered with or harmed in most circumstances.

Punching someone in the face is a paradigm case of aggression. But there are other, more subtle ways in which people can physically harm each other. If I blow toxic smoke into your lungs, that probably ought to count as aggression too. And thus libertarianism seems like it ought to take a pretty strong stance against at least certain forms of environmental pollution, an issue that I have written about here.

What about spreading a disease? If I’m sick, and I cough on you and get you sick, is that aggression? Is that a violation of your libertarian rights? Does it matter if I do it intentionally? What if I only act in ways that create a risk of you getting sick? Does it matter how reasonable that risk is?

If spreading disease at least sometimes counts as aggression, what are the proper responses to it? Can mandatory quarantines be justified on libertarian grounds? Can mandatory vaccines?

Libertarians have struggled with these issues too. Here’s a small sample.

  • Here’s fellow BHL-er Jason Brennan on “A Libertarian Case for Mandatory Vaccines
  • Another BHLer, Jessica Flanigan, has also made the case for compulsory vaccination.
  • Here’s a Reason Magazine symposium from back in 2014 on what to do about Ebola, featuring George Annas, Ronald Bailey, Declan McCullagh, and Jeffrey Singer
  • And just so you know that this issue isn’t a new one, here’s a 1906 book from the British libertarian J.H. Levy on Politics and Disease, which sets out an early (and in my opinion not terribly strong) libertarian argument against compulsory vaccination

I’m currently editing a new companion to libertarian thought for Routledge. Jessica Flanigan is writing an entry for the book on libertarianism and public health. I’m sure she’ll have lots more to say there.

UPDATE: It’s worth noting that the questions here are mainly a challenge for libertarians who operate within the deontological / natural law framework. For libertarians of a more consequentialist stripe, or even for non-absolutist deontologists, the issues are much less pointed.

Matt Zwolinski
Hi. I’m an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, a co-director of USD’s Institute for Law and Philosophy, and the founder of and frequent contributor to the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. My research interests are generally in the intersection of ethics, law, and economics, with two specific areas of focus.

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