Libertarianism and the Non Aggression Principle (NAP)

This is a fascinating, if I say so myself, ten part correspondence between me and a European high school student. A very bright one.

Letter 1

From: Diego de Lagarde

Sent: Monday, August 24, 2020 12:27 PM

To: wblock@loyno.edu

Subject: Ethics of imposed quarantine

Dear Professor Block,

First of all, I truly hope that during these tough times you and your loved ones are doing well. This pandemic is certainly an unprecedented event and I would not want to bother you with a useless personal reflection. Nonetheless, if you were able to provide any kind of a response, I would be deeply grateful.

I am a sixteen-year-old French high school student currently living in Spain. This year, I have progressively found myself in agreement with the perspective the Austrian School offers on economics as well as the principals of libertarian political philosophy. I am finishing Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom (of which I believe you are not a big fan) and have planned on reading your critic once I have finished the book.

In these past few weeks, I have been trying to prepare my college essays in order to apply for university in France, the UK or Canada, but it has been quite challenging as I get distracted with your online lectures organized by the Mises Institute. In other words: thank you for your entertaining and astute way of presenting and defending Austrian economics.

Nevertheless, I came across a video where you deliberate with Professor Bagus on the ethics of quarantine and had a couple of questions. I understand that your opinions on this topic might have changed, so I would appreciate it if you could update me on any change of opinions you have had.

In the video, you make a reference to the Nuremberg trial and Professor Bagus says he would put you in jail up for locking up (or kidnapping) infected people so that they cannot spread the virus. I think having a trial is fair, as long as it takes into account (as you mentioned) that the authority who forced confinement had good intentions. But what if it had not imposed quarantine? It could then be prosecuted for endangering the population through negligence. Who would be held accountable? The authority (may it be a politician or a private defense company) or each individual who contaminates? By analogy with a private highway that contaminates too much where you would sue the highway company, I would deduce that the authority would be sued. All in all, if the authority forces quarantine on people it can be sued for kidnapping and if it does not it can be sued for murder (although involuntary). It is similar to your antitrust joke where no matter the action that is taken, the concerned party is in deep legal trouble. So what should the authority do?

Anyway, if you have read up until here, I hope that I have not wasted your time with these few interrogations. Enjoy your week.

Sincerely,

Diego de Lagarde

Letter 2

Le lun. 24 août 2020 à 23:31, Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu> a écrit :

Dear Diego:

Ok. Here are your questions, comments:

In the video, you make a reference to the Nuremberg trial and Professor Bagus says he would put you in jail up for locking up (or kidnapping) infected people so that they cannot spread the virus. I think having a trial is fair, as long as it takes into account (as you mentioned) that the authority who forced confinement had good intentions. But what if it had not imposed quarantine? It could then be prosecuted for endangering the population through negligence. Who would be held accountable? The authority (may it be a politician or a private defense company) or each individual who contaminates? By analogy with a private highway that contaminates too much where you would sue the highway company, I would deduce that the authority would be sued. All in all, if the authority forces quarantine on people it can be sued for kidnapping and if it does not it can be sued for murder (although involuntary). It is similar to your antitrust joke where no matter the action that is taken, the concerned party is in deep legal trouble. So what should the authority do?

In my view, Philipp is wrong when he says that a quarantine is NEVER justified. Surely, it was justified in the case of typhoid Mary. But, whether it is justified in any other particular case, such as covid 19, is an empirical question. Does the person to be quarantined pose a threat or not. This is a very difficult question to answer.

I wrestle with it here:

Block, Walter E. and William Barnett II. 2008. “Continuums” Journal Etica e Politica / Ethics & Politics, Vol. 1, pp. 151-166, June; http://www2.units.it/~etica/http://www2.units.it/~etica/2008_1/BLOCKBARNETT.pdf

Forget about covid for a moment. I go out onto the street a start flailing my arms in all directions. Or, I drive at 100 miles per hour on the highway. Am I a threat? I think the best way to resolve that question is to privatize all roads and streets, and allow each owner to make that determination. Then, allow competition to determine which street, road owner made the best decision. No one need sue anyone, since if you go out onto the road or street, you are tied by a contract to do what the owner wants.

On street privatization:

Block, Walter E. 2009. The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Human and Economic Factors; Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute; https://store.mises.org/Privatization-of-Roads-and-Highways-Human-and-Economic-Factors-The-P581.aspxhttp://www.amazon.com/Privatization-Roads-And-Highways-Factors/dp/1279887303/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336605800&sr=1-1; available for free here: http://mises.org/books/roads_web.pdfhttp://mises.org/daily/3416http://www.walterblock.com/wp-content/uploads/publications/radical_privatization.pdf; audio: http://store.mises.org/Privatization-of-Roads-and-Highways-Audiobook-P11005.aspxhttp://www.audible.com/pd/Business/The-Privatization-of-Roads-and-Highways-Audiobook/B0167IT18K?tag=misesinsti-20http://us1.campaign-archive1.com/?u=bf16b152ccc444bdbbcc229e4&id=6cbc90577b&e=54244ea97d;

http://www.sanfranciscoreviewofbooks.com/2017/09/book-review-privatization-of-roads-and.html

Now, return to covid. I offer the same analysis. Let the owner of the property in question make this determination. In the free society, all property would be privately owned.

No, that really doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s my initial try. Why not? Because the covid germ can hop from one property to another. I guess what I’m saying is that this depends upon the facts of the case, and we libertarians have no comparative advantage in uncovering these facts. Therefore, we ought not to take strong stances on it.

Best regards,

Walter

Letter 3

From: Diego de Lagarde <diegodelagarde@gmail.com>

Sent: Tuesday, August 25, 2020 6:38 AM

To: Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu>

Subject: Re: Ethics of imposed quarantine

Professor Block,

The issue, I think, Austrian economics has with the COVID-19 epidemic is that it is transmitted through involuntary actions. From what I know, the Austrian School is fundamentally praxeological whereas the virus is mostly spread through reflexive behaviour (i.e. sneezing). So the way I see it, in this case, we should try to bring the behaviour to an action we can control: self-confinement.

The problem I have with letting the owners of the streets make a decision is that no one will feel a personal responsibility, they will just do what the owner of their street decides. The only difference between a State-run country and an anarchist one would then be that the authority wouldn’t be a government but a company. At least in an anarchist country/community, individuals would sign a real contract with the company (not an “implicit” one with the government). But is this delegation of responsibility to a company truly libertarian? Wouldn’t it be better if each individual were to assume their own personal responsibility?

Let’s assume for a moment that we know exactly who is contaminating who (I’ll come back to this assumption in the next paragraph). In that case, the choice could go to each individual and he/she would have to choose between self-confining or a number of other sanitary measures. But if he/she contaminates anyone, he/she would have to pay compensation to the person he/she infected. I think the compensation should be a standard monetary one, it would be too complex and time-consuming to determine a specific amount for each individual. In this case, if you get infected, you would get paid and could then use that money in case you infect one person, kind of as a “joker card”. Obviously this compensation could be waived for family or doctors (since it is their job). Moreover, patient 0 would also receive compensation from the company (scientific laboratory, the person who owns the bat that carried the disease…) responsible for the outbreak.

Coming back to my initial assumption: we know who contaminates who. Maybe if this system were to be set in place since the very beginning, it would be easier to clarify who infects who with a tree diagram. Also, I think infected people would probably think twice before going out on the street. In any case, if governments have been able to track down in numerous cases who the infected individuals have gotten in contact with, private agencies could do that instead.

I don’t know, these are just some spontaneous thoughts… maybe my assumption is too big of an “if”. Please do correct me if you feel like I have misunderstood or misinterpreted anything.

Sincerely,

Diego de Lagarde

Letter 4

Le mar. 25 août 2020 à 16:37, Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu> a écrit :

Dear Diego:

Austrian economics is a value free science, devoted to positive economics. Libertarianism is not value free, and is prescriptive, not descriptive. It is a normative discipline. The covid challenge lies entirely with the latter, not the former.

In my view as a libertarian, not an Austrian economist, the typhoid Mary case is definitive. It establishes that sometimes, it is justified to use violence (compel a quarantine) against an innocent contagious person. Whether or not this applies in the present case is an empirical issue, and, I contend, we libertarians have no comparative advantage in answering it.

Best regards,

Walter

Letter 5

From: Diego de Lagarde <diegodelagarde@gmail.com>

Sent: Wednesday, August 26, 2020 9:05 AM

To: Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu>

Subject: Re: Ethics of imposed quarantine

Dear Professor Block,

Thank you for making clear the misconceptions and confusion I had between Austrian economics and libertarianism. I still have a lot to read and many things to learn.

I am sorry if I am missing your point, I guess I would tend to think that every person has to assume their actions and therefore it is Mary’s responsibility to self-confine. This is why I do not believe any company or authority has the right to confine her “for the common good”. However, that is what happens in a minarchist state, I would assume. What if we waited for her the contaminate someone and then confine her for that reason? This would justify violence against her and would avoid using violence against people who have a virus but do not spread it.

I guess that would be the only case in which I think the use of violence against a contagious person is justified. Forgetting about COVID for a moment, what if we imagine we had a test that could determine potential killers. Would it be justified to lock up all of these people up because they might kill someone?

Anyway, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to answer my e-mails. I am sure I must be making many mistakes and unreasonable assumptions, so thank you again for all your patience.

Sincerely,

Diego de Lagarde

Letter 6

On 26 Aug 2020, at 22:40, Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu> wrote:

Dear Diego:

Yes, it is Mary’s responsibility to self-confine and not spread the typhoid disease. But suppose she does not? Then, she constitutes a threat of physical violence against others.

It is the responsibility of all of us to refrain from rape, murder, theft, etc. But suppose that some of us do not. That is some of us engage in these evil crimes. Are not the rest of us entitled to use violence against them, to stop them.

Same for typhoid Mary

Best regards,

Walter

Letter 7

From: Diego de Lagarde <diegodelagarde@gmail.com>

Sent: Wednesday, August 26, 2020 6:14 PM

To: Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu>

Subject: Re: Ethics of imposed quarantine

Dear Professor Block,

So I guess I do agree we can use violence, only in the context of self-defense. Nonetheless, I still think that we should only use it once typhoid Mary has proved she is a threat, id est by contaminating someone. Wouldn’t you agree?

We should not imprison people because a test dictates they are likely to rape, murder or commit theft (assuming such test would exist). We should only put them in prison once they have committed the harmful act. By analogy, we should only confine people once they have actually infected another individual.

Sincerely,

Diego de Lagarde

 

Letter 8

 

Le jeu. 27 août 2020 à 01:36, Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu> a écrit :

Dear Diego:

I disagree with this: “We should only put them in prison once they have committed the harmful act.”

Suppose someone is running at me with a knife yelling he’s going to kill me. Do I really have to wait until the knife pierces my body to take violent defensive action against him? Surely not.

How close to me does he have to get before I may properly shoot him in self defense?

Read this article on that:

Block, Walter E. and William Barnett II. 2008. “Continuums” Journal Etica e Politica / Ethics & Politics, Vol. 1, pp. 151-166, June; http://www2.units.it/~etica/http://www2.units.it/~etica/2008_1/BLOCKBARNETT.pdf

I hope and trust you don’t mind that I copy on this conversation my co author on that paper.

Best regards,

Walter

Letter 9

From: Diego de Lagarde <diegodelagarde@gmail.com>

Sent: Thursday, August 27, 2020 5:22 AM

To: Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu>

Cc: William Barnett <wbarnett@loyno.edu>

Subject: Re: Ethics of imposed quarantine

Dear Professor Block,

I have read your article Continuums, co-authored by Professor Barnett, whom I also thank for these reflections. I find two relevant sections to the COVID situation in your article: Part II Physical invasions as well as Part III International Relations.

In Physical invasions you describe the impossibility of determining a geographical limit to determine if self-defense is justified. You arrive at the conclusion that aggression can only be determined by the context and that no single factor (such as proximity) can be used to establish a “standard” juridical response to these cases. I do agree with you.

In International Relations you use the Viet Nam war to debate whether or not the US has the right to act as a “policeman of the world”. I would conclude, as you did, that since it is not mentioned in the Constitution (and for other reasons, but that is another debate), they do not have any right to do so.

Going back to the pandemic situation, I would not illustrate it as someone chasing you down a dark alley with a knife. I believe it is much more comparable to a person walking next to you and you are not sure if what that person has in their pocket is a knife or any other object. I think this is comparable to someone coughing (during the COVID situation) next to you: in both cases, you will try to walk away, but I trust you will not shoot that person. Consequently, I think you cannot determine at the moment when or if that person is going to infect you, and, therefore have no justification to confine a contaminated person before they might infect someone.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Diego de Lagarde

Letter 10

Dear Diego:

You make very good points. Perhaps the situation is somewhere between these two:

1.            someone chasing you down a dark alley with a knife

2.            a person walking next to you and you are not sure if what that person has in their pocket is a knife or any other object

Best regards,

Walter

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7:30 am on October 24, 2020