In Defense of Andrew Speaker

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Now that the initial shock and outrage over the case of Andrew Speaker — who flew to Europe and back despite having a drug-resistant strain of TB — have died down, we’re hearing the predictable cries for more government power and money. Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the CDC, told lawmakers in early June, "If we believe the patient has a strong intent to put others at risk, we need to have confidence we can take action absent documentation of intent to cause harm." And just this Sunday, a typical editorial in The Republican concludes:

Speaker is now in medical isolation in Denver. His close call must serve as a wake-up call.

Specialists have been sounding the alarm. They want more federal money for research, education and outreach. And they want the authority to forcibly quarantine someone with a drug-resistant form of tuberculosis.

They should get all of that — and soon.

Cases of medical quarantine are classic examples of situations where the rights of the individual are supposedly trumped by the safety of the community. After all, when people’s decisions have consequences beyond their private lives, the government should and must intervene.

In contrast to this conventional wisdom, permit me to make a case for the exact opposite conclusion. I claim that the Andrew Speaker case beautifully illustrates the incompetence of government programs, and proves that the free market is the best system to referee complicated situations like this.

First some background that may change your opinion of Speaker: Based on what you’ve heard, he must be a very selfish guy, right? Well maybe, but one theory is that Speaker might have contracted TB when he was doing charity work for sick people in Vietnam.

Speaker has said time and again that health officials told him he wasn’t a threat to anybody. Before he left for Europe, he was walking around freely, practicing law, interacting with his fiancée and her young daughter, and so forth. Anyone who’s planned a wedding knows it’s a logistical nightmare. Is it so shocking that Speaker decided to go ahead with his travel plans, rather than canceling his international tickets and other arrangements, so that he could stay in the US and continue to walk around freely with his TB that wasn’t contagious?

When the scandal first broke, various health officials pooh-poohed Speaker’s claims that he had been repeatedly told that he posed no threat to anyone. Yet Speaker’s father surreptitiously taped one of the conversations, in which Dr. Eric Benning, medical director of the Fulton County health department, clearly tells Speaker "because of the fact that you actually are not contagious, there’s no reason for you to be sequestered," and "As far as we can tell, you are not a threat to anybody right now."

Further proof that Speaker honestly believed he wasn’t putting anyone in danger: Both sets of parents were present at the wedding, and he kissed his new bride on the mouth! And it’s not just that these were six woefully ignorant people. In an ironic twist, Speaker’s new father-in-law has a Ph.D. in microbiology and is a CDC expert in…drumroll please…tuberculosis! (You couldn’t have made this stuff up.)

Now at this point in the saga, the CDC got a hold of Speaker and told him his strain of TB was more drug resistant than previously thought, and that he needed to either book a $100,000 private jet home (at his expense) or check himself into an Italian facility "indefinitely." Again, he wasn’t told he was contagious; they advised him to take a walk and go to dinner before turning himself in.

Yes, at this point Speaker and his new bride definitely flouted their orders, and booked a flight to Canada (to avoid the US "no-fly" list), and then drove a rental car through border security without (they claim) lying about their identities. Before his trip, Speaker had been told that treatment in Denver was his one shot for survival, and he was afraid being detained in Italy would be a death sentence.

Now I ask, how in the world does this sordid tale justify more money and power for the CDC and other health officials? Suppose things had gone the opposite way, and that the feds had successfully coordinated with the airlines to prevent Speaker from flying to or from Europe. Surely newspaper editorialists would’ve congratulated the government on a job well done, and thanked their lucky stars that our society places limits on people’s individual liberties.

So then why is it that when the government botches the job, again the conclusion is the same — to wit, we need the government to take away more liberties? If the government is so incompetent that it didn’t even catch the newlyweds as they crossed the border from Canada through a regular checkpoint, why should we trust it to protect us from future outbreaks of contagious diseases?

Make no mistake, if the government didn’t arrogate to itself the right to handle these life-or-death issues, the free market would fill the void. In a purely capitalist setup, it would be horrible for business if an airline allowed infectious passengers to fly internationally. Yet in today’s world, airlines won’t be punished for this carelessness, since travelers will assume "the government takes care of that type of thing." How many readers even know which airline Andrew Speaker used?

Some readers might object and say, "Wait a minute! Yes, the government fumbled the ball on this one, but so did the private airline. Neither agency prevented Speaker from putting people in danger."

But this isn’t true. Suppose airline carriers instituted their own passenger rating system, and declined service to those it deemed infectious (or terrorist risks, for that matter). If these people were A-OK according to the government’s list, then they could easily sue for baseless discrimination. So we see, the way the system works right now, if the government gets involved in something, it doesn’t just supplement — it takes over.

The government botches just about everything it touches, whether it’s schools, housing projects, reconstructing Iraq, or keeping the public safe from TB. Maybe it’s time we quarantined the CDC and let the free market take a shot.

Bob Murphy [send him mail] has a PhD in economics from New York University, and is the author of Minerva. See his personal website at BobMurphy.net.

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