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Will the State Save Us From Ebola?


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ebolaThe Drudge Report and other media outlets have  done their best to create a panic over the spread of Ebola in western Africa. It's a safe bet that, if it hasn't happened already, some devoted interventionists will point to disease epidemics as proof of the indispensable role of states in halting the spread of the disease.  While television and movies have trained people to believe that one person on an airplane can start off a virulent epidemic, the reality appears to be rather different. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with blood and bodily fluids. Moreover, debilitating Ebola symptoms show up quickly, before the infected can unknowingly  infect large numbers of others, and the conditions in western Africa, where Ebola is most successful, could hardly be more unlike those in Europe and North America where, thanks to relatively free markets, there is easy access to clean water and health care services. Not surprisingly, we also find that the governments of region where Ebola thrives have paved the way themselves for the spread of the disease, with endless wars and the destruction of capital:

As Dionne notes, all three countries have poor health infrastructure, due in part to years of civil war in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Liberia has just .014 doctors per 1,000 people, and a common joke is that JFK Medical Center, Monrovia’s main hospital, has long had the unflattering nickname “Just For Killing.”

In addition, we can be sure that if any political stability is achieved in Liberia or Sierra Leone, that the local regime would loot any moderately successful private health-care operation. The lack of restrained political systems and private property all but ensure a lack of access to the very things that making disease prevention successful. Global epidemics have occurred before and the track record of states have not been exemplary. Perhaps the textbook illustration of this  is the influenza epidemic of 1918. Not only did the First World War generate conditions more favorable to the spread of the disease (by destroying the infrastructure of hygiene, quality food, and good health in general) but the governments of the time ensured worldwide transmission by crowding infected WWI troops with the uninfected, and then shipping them on boats to various cities. Government incompetence is most certainly not confined to the days of yore, of course. In recent years, there's been news of another flu epidemic every few years. Predictably, the federal plans for mass inoculations go awry, and the feds then intervene to hamper the production of resources for flu avoidance and treatment. Christopher Westley describes the usual scenario:

This is how it goes. The government bungles its distribution scheme for flu vaccines, causing an unanticipated supply shock, and suppliers face an upward pressure on prices. If the high price is charged, then your anal neighbor, who regularly receives flu shots even though he is in a low-risk category for catching the flu, decides to forego the shot this year, leaving a shot for someone who needs it more. The high price also signals to suppliers to get into the vaccine or vaccine substitute business, which they most certainly would in a less regulated environment. But the government then threatens to throw suppliers in jail for responding to the upward price pressure, so they don’t. People like your anal neighbor (who also showers twice a day) still get them. The government, assuming the task that otherwise would have been performed by the price system, tries to allocate flu doses to parties that value them most, on the margin, with the same success that the Soviets enjoyed. Meanwhile, it bemoans the evil of gouging, a few weeks before election day. It’s an old story, and one that is guaranteed to persist, until a free market in medicine is demanded.

In other words, states tend to intervene to ensure centralized decision-making continues and so that people are unable to respond in the most rational way given their risk level, while making the production of more vaccines unprofitable by restricting the price. Meanwhile, the CDC  apparently has no idea of where and in what way deadly samples of avian flu are being sent around, all the while exposing workers to anthrax.  The CDC has now confirmed these are not isolated incidents.  The actual record on disease control notwithstanding, it is assumed by many that the feds are our last chance against infection, and the press conference will go something like this scenario from the Bush administration's anti-avian flu program, complete with a plan to mobilize the military, which as well all know from the peace that now reigns in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq, has an unbroken track record of success:

...the Bush administration has a role for the military to do for the flu what it did for terrorism in Iraq: "Determine the spectrum of public health, medical and veterinary surge capacity activities that the U.S. military and other government entities may be able to support during a pandemic." Remarkable what the military can do, from spreading democracy to liberating the oppressed to curing the sick — that is, when it is not making people sick or killing them for their own good. Just to show that this isn't merely a perfunctory line, Bush went out of his way to defend the role of the military in his press conference. "One option is the use of a military that's able to plan and move," he said. "So that's why I put it on the table. I think it's an important debate for Congress to have." Now, should this mass-death come about, our future would be rife with many uncertainties. But one thing we can know for sure: any attempt by government to manage the crisis will add calamity to disaster. It will be 9-11 plus New Orleans plus a few other amazing failures all rolled into one. And the worst part of government failure will present itself: rather than make a mess of its own responsibilities, the government acts to prevent people from doing what they should be doing to deal with the crisis. "Stop in the name of the law" isn't just a slogan from cop shows; it is the sum total of everything the government does. The Bush administration, however — which is supposedly staffed by people learned in the wisdom of classical- conservative thought and informed by revelation from America's traditional religious heritage — is just darn sure that the government is the best and only means to handle a crisis such as this. A dazzling display of absurdity and chutzpah — that's what the Bush press conference on the flu was. Even if the flu does come, and taxpayers have coughed up, the government will surely have a ball imposing travel restrictions, shutting down schools and businesses, quarantining cities, and banning public gatherings. It's a bureaucrat's dream! Whether it will make us well again is another matter. And why should individuals on their own have no incentive to deal with disease? Why should the private sector have no reason to make cures available if they exist? Why are we to believe that the government would somehow do a better job at this level of crisis management than the private sector? None of these questions have been asked much less answered.


Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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