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What Would Rothbard Say About the COVID-19 Panic?

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03/30/2020

Murray Newton Rothbard died on the January 7, 1995. What would “Mr. Libertarian” say today about the government measures against the corona epidemic?

As a response to the epidemic, Western governments have infringed upon private property rights to an unprecedented degree in peace times. They have expropriated and confiscated medical equipment and material, they have taken control of private health companies and hospitals, they have decreed the forced closure of private businesses, such as private kindergartens, schools, universities, or retail stores. They have even ordered the closure of private parks and gardens. Moreover, they have severely restricted the freedom of movement.

What can be said about these measures from a libertarian point of view? Can they be justified?

Regarding the freedom of movement, it could be argued that most streets are government property and that the government has the right to restrict freedom of movement on its streets in order to protect the health of its citizens. Indeed, the public ownership of streets is a problem from a libertarian perspective. Streets should be private. If streets were private, the owners would decide who could use them and under what conditions. As Rothbard puts it in The Ethics of Liberty (1982, p. 119):

In the libertarian society…streets would all be privately owned, the entire conflict could be resolved without violating anyone’s property rights: for then the owners of the streets would have the right to decide who shall have access to those streets, and they could then keep out “undesirables” [in our case people suspected of being infected with viruses] if they so wished.

In other words, in a libertarian world private street owners would decide which streets would remain open, to whom, and under what conditions.

Yet we live in a world where the majority of streets are public. However, even with public streets Rothbard´s verdict is clear. Discussing the case of a McDonald’s restaurant opening and residents protesting the gathering of its customers on the streets, Rothbard writes:

as taxpayers and citizens, these “undesirables” [the customers] surely have the “right” to walk on the streets, and of course they could gather on the spot, if they so desired, without the attraction of McDonald’s.” (1982, p. 119)

In Rothbard’s view, citizens and taxpayers have the right to use public streets. Governments are not justified in restricting movement on their streets, because in fact the street is not even the just property of the state:

as a criminal organization with all of its income and assets derived from the crime of taxation, the State cannot possess any just property. (1982, p. 183) 

In short, the state has no right to determine who can use public streets and who cannot. A curfew is a blatant violation of private property rights and cannot be justified.

In a libertarian world with private streets and private businesses, the owners impose the rules. In the case of an epidemic, they may close their property completely to the public. Or they could invite people conditionally to their property. For instance, they could limit the number of people who can access it. They could require tests before entering the property or declare that entering is at their own risk. They could also impose certain conditions, such as an age restriction or the required wearing of masks and gloves.

Let us discuss the other restrictions that have been implemented in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, such as the required closing of bars, hotels, and other shops. Politicians’ argument in favor of the closures is the following: out of solidarity with the rest of the population, especially with the elderly, people should help bring the rate of infection down, because otherwise many people will die due to the limited capacities of the public health systems and the lack of provision for such an epidemic. People staying at home, confined to their houses, would save lives. They would thereby help others. And as people cannot be expected to help others and stay at home voluntarily, the state has the right to enforce a confinement that saves lives.

Now, the essential ethical question is the following: is anyone allowed to use violence in order to ensure that people will help their fellow men? Can the use of coercion to make people help others be justified?

Rothbard´s answer to this question in The Ethics of Liberty is unequivocal:

it is impermissible to interpret the term “right to life,” to give one an enforceable claim to the action of someone else to sustain that life. In our terminology, such a claim would be an impermissible violation of the other person’s right of self-ownership. (1982, p. 99)

Note that for Rothbard and libertarians in general, the concept of “rights” is purely negative. Rights protect the radius of a person’s action that no one else can interfere with using aggressive violence. Property rights demarcate the area in which an individual can act freely.

Rothbard continues:

No man can therefore have a “right” to compel someone to do a positive act, for in that case the compulsion violates the right of person or property of the individual being coerced….As a corollary, this means that, in the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights; the only legal obligation one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights. (1982, p. 99)

If that is not enough evidence, Rothbard gives two examples to argue that no one may use violence to make someone help another person. First, he discusses an example provided by Friedrich A. von Hayek. In this example there exists a “monopolist” owner of water in an oasis. Rothbard points out that the owner has the right not to sell the water to customers. The owner is within his rights in reserving the water for himself and cannot be forced to help thirsty people by selling the water:

The situation may well be unfortunate for the customers, as are many situations in life, but the supplier of a particularly scarce and vital service is hardly being ´coercive´ by either refusing to sell or by setting a price that the buyers are willing to pay. Both actions are within his rights as a free man and as a just property owner. The owner of the oasis is responsible only for the existence of his own actions and his own property; he is not accountable for the existence of the desert or for the fact that the other springs have dried up. (1982, p. 221)

Let us apply this reasoning to the current situation: the owner of a business has the right to open it. The owner of a garden has the right to use it and the pedestrian has the right to walk on the street. They are only responsible for their own actions and their own property and not for the existence of the coronavirus or for the fact that government hospitals are mismanaged.

Of course, it is a different case if someone knows that he is infected and opens his business with the intention of infecting and doing harm to the customers. This would be criminal behavior and defensive violence, such as closing down the business by the threat of force, would be justified. But how do we know that the opening of the business is really an act of aggression on part of an infected owner?

As Rothbard point out, the burden of proof is on the people using violence:

the burden of proof that the aggression has really begun must be on the person who employs the defensive violence. (1982, p. 78)

We only know if someone is a criminal when he is convicted. Until people are convicted they must enjoy all the rights of innocents, such as being allowed to leave their houses or open their stores. As Rothbard (1982, p. 82) reminds us, “they are innocent until proven guilty.”

Rothbard provides a second example for his claim that no one can be forced to help others. This example is about an epidemic and, therefore, is worth quoting in full:

Suppose that there is only one physician in a community, and an epidemic breaks out; only he can save the lives of numerous fellow-citizens—an action surely crucial to their existence. Is he “coercing” them if (a) he refuses to do anything, or leave town; or (b) if he charges a very high price for his curative services? Certainly not. There is, for one thing, nothing wrong with a man charging the value of his services to his customers, i.e., what they are willing to pay. He further has every right to refuse to do anything. While he may perhaps be criticized morally or aesthetically, as a self-owner of his own body he has every right to refuse to cure or to do so at a high price; to say that he is being “coercive” is furthermore to imply that it is proper and not coercive for his customers or their agents to force the physician to treat them: in short, to justify his enslavement. But surely enslavement, compulsory labor, must be considered “coercive” in any sensible meaning of the term.

If the physician cannot be forced to help during an epidemic, then a fortiori a normal citizen cannot be forced to help either. It is certainly possible that one could help others in these times by staying home, by closing businesses, or by donating medical equipment. Yet forcing people to stay at home, closing their businesses, and expropriating medical equipment are violations of property rights. They are crimes, plain and simple. No one has the right to confine another (innocent) person to his house or oblige him to close his business.

The argument that central planning through confinement or other forms of violence would save lives is also highly problematic, because it ignores the problem of economic calculation. These infringements of private property involve (subjective) costs that cannot be calculated and compared to the benefits in a nonarbitrary way.

For instance, being confined to one’s own four walls, with the corresponding lack of physical exercise, will lead to increased cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, strokes, and thromboses, among other things. Moreover, the psychological burden of being locked up is immense. The psychological strain can cause divorces and break up families; traumatization and depression are created. Domestic violence and child abuse are expected to surge. In sum, some people may die due to these infringements of private property; others may be saved.

Moreover, the economic havoc created by these measures is potentially devastating. It is true that there would have been an economic crisis anyway due to the distortions created by monetary policy. The epidemic is only the trigger of the crisis. Nevertheless, the crisis is made  harsher by the government infringements on private property rights. If people are not allowed to produce, because they cannot leave their homes or open their businesses, production falls.

Business owners who see their lifetime achievement destroyed by the political reaction to the virus could suffer heart attacks, fall into depression, commit suicide, or become alcoholics. Similar consequences may await workers who become unemployed due to the political measures.

Furthermore, the standard of living will fall as economic activity is suffocated by the confinement. There will be less goods and services available to maintain, let alone improve, quality of life, because these goods will simply not be produced. And if the economy of the Western world collapses, the West will buy less goods and services from poor countries. The living standard will therefore also fall in the third world, where it may mean the difference between life and death for many. In general, poverty means reduced longevity. Rich people tend to live longer than poor people.

But that is not all. Governments all over the world are advancing on the road to serfdom, controlling their populations and increasing their power relative to the private sector via increased public spending and new regulations. According to the “ratchet effect,” defined by Robert Higgs, government power usually increases in crisis times. However, when the crisis recedes, government power is not reduced to its initial position. Thus, the long-term victim of the government intrusion may be liberty. More socialist regimes may be instituted. And in these regimes life expectancy is shorter. The greater the power of government, the lower will be the quantity and quality of life ceteris paribus. For instance, the capitalist West Germans had a life expectancy that was about three years longer than that of their East German counterparts.

It is, of course, true that government coercion may increase the life expectancy of some people in the short run. Enforcing confinement in an epidemic is only one example. There are other possibilities. The government may prohibit smoking, or subsidize fruits, vegetables or sports classes. It may use tax revenue to improve the medical treatments of the population, thereby increasing life expectancy.

Yet, how much artificially increasing of public health is enough? For instance, how much of GDP should be spent on healthcare? Five percent, 10 percent, 50 percent, or 90 percent of GDP? Certainly spending more might increase life expectancy. But how can the government official know the correct percentage?

Similarly, how much of GDP shall be sacrificed in an epidemic by more or less drastic confinement measures? Shall 5 percent, 10 percent, 50 percent, or 90 percent of productive activities stop in order to slow down the propagation of the virus? There is no nonarbitrary way for a central planner to decide these matters. All government measures come with costs that cannot be quantified.

There is only one alternative to the arbitrary central planning of government, with its violation of private property rights. This alternative is the libertarianism, the alternative that Murray Rothbard always staunchly defended: the voluntary decisions of private property owners.

Author:

Contact Philipp Bagus

Philipp Bagus is professor at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. He is a Fellow of the Mises Institute, an IREF scholar, and the author of numerous books including In Defense of Deflation and The Tragedy of the Euro, and is coauthor of Blind Robbery!, Small States. Big Possibilities.: Small States Are Simply Better!, and Deep Freeze: Iceland's Economic Collapse.

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