Mises Wire

How Would “President Rothbard” Keep Out the Zika Virus?

Back in 2014 during the Ebola virus scare, advocates for stronger and more centralized government crowed over the idea that disease pandemics somehow prove that large and powerful state are the only thing that can stop the spread of disease. Who could possibly defend laissez faire in the face of disease pandemics?

These was even speculation as to how “President Murray Rothbard” would prevent the virus from spreading.

Contrary to the lazy idea that we can have “government solve the problem,” centralized states do not in fact do a competent job of preventing the spread of disease because they tend to rely on a single point of intervention which often fails. The day that the CDC is the only thing standing between us and highly contagious disease is the day we’re in big trouble.

As explainedhere and here, the real answer lies in polycentric political power manifested in decentralized borders, more private control over centers of transportation, and more private control of property in general. Only private and highly localized ownership has the potential to create the incentives to control the flow of contagious persons, and other threats to the local population.

Zika Is Not Like Ebola

In this case, though, the idea of controlling the movement of infected persons is irrelevant since Zika does not spread like Ebola. Clare Wenham at The Guardian notes:

Quite simply, Zika does not pose the same security concern to the global population that we saw during Ebola and it should not be considered a threat in the same way. This is despite the US Centers for Disease Control now placing the virus at alert level two. Zika spreads through mosquito bites in affected regions, producing mild flu-like symptoms that rarely require hospitalisation and a negligible mortality rate. The virus can be readily controlled through effective mosquito control procedures, such as destroying the infected insects and larvae, or insecticide use.

In other words, Zika is a disease that requires the presence of mosquitos, and is tied to specific geographic regions. “Moreover, it can be readily controlled through effective mosquito control procedures.”

So, yes, this is a completely different phenomenon from Ebola, and would actually require far fewer significant changes in the existing political and economic structure to allow for effective control of the disease. If Ebola exposed the problem of centralized disease control, the case of Zika demonstrates the useless of such an approach all the more so.

Indeed, one could approach the case of the Zika virus as a simple matter of environmental externalities.

In order to spread, the Zika virus requires mosquitos which require the presence of water that has not been treated or contained to prevent the spread of mosquitos.

First of all, we should mention that governments have often prevented the use of effective mosquito eradication techniques. Mises.org isn’t a science publication, so I’m not going to get into the details of which pesticides work best on which mosquitos. But, if there have been limitations on the use of pesticides by states that have contributed to the spread of mosquito-borne pathogens, then that is something to keep in mind.

And, in North America at least, the central government’s fondness for preserving “wetlands” (i.e., swamps and bogs) has further increased the potential for the spread of mosquito-borne diseases.

But let’s say we live in an unhampered market where each property owner (including joint-ownership organizations like homeowners’ and condo associations) can use any pesticide he or she wants, and can drain (or not drain) any swamp or bog he or she wants.

Well, at this point each property owner would be motivated (i.e., incentiveized) to avoid a situation in which he might be liable for either 1)excessive use of pesticides or 2) creation of breeding ground for disease-spreading mosquitos. Legally speaking then, both these scenarios could fall under Rothbard’s legal scheme for taking action against air polluters.

Some might say that taking inaction against mosquitos could not be considered causing “pollution” in the same way that dumping pollutants into the air or water might be, but that’s debatable. After all, if a property owner fails to maintain a dam that later leads to flooding of others’ property downstream, that, depending on the circumstances, could be viewed as causing harm in a manner similar to polluting the air.

So, creating conditions the lead to thriving populations of mosquitos could lead to legal liability, depending on the details of the matter. At the same time, the property owner must also avoid a situation in which he or she uses insecticides to the point that they poison the neighbors.

So, would a state capable of widespread and centralized regulatory regimes do a better job of controlling the spread of disease? At this point, claiming yes would be pure speculation, although we can say for sure that every time a property owner is prevented from draining a swamp or killing mosquitos, the owners is being made poorer by being deprived of the preferred use of his capital. Moreover, neighbors may be deprived of any positive externalities that may have occurred had the property owner been allowed control over his own property.

In any case, it’s a mistake to compare the Zika situation to the spread of Ebola because the former is largely a matter of controlling environmental factors, whle the latter involves controls on the movement of diseased persons. The two situations require far different responses, although governments have little to brag about in either case.

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