Masks VI

Letter 1

From: Madlovics Bálint

Sent: Thursday, September 10, 2020 4:52 AM

To: Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu>

Subject: Re: The libertarian case for mandatory mask wearing and quarantine

P.S.: Thinking about it, I think the deadliness of the virus might not even count. Only the probability. (If Russian roulette is played with pointing the gun at my leg, not my head, it’s still coercion.) So it doesn’t have to be the bubonic plague or something similarly deadly, it can be anything which is so infectious that almost anyone can spread it. In my point, that would justify universal countermeasures, involving those who are not proven contagious as well.

Dear Walter,

I got into a debate with someone on mandatory mask wearing. I generally argued against it, but came up with the following argument showing how it can be possibly justified on libertarian grounds:

The non-aggression principle prohibits any act of violence or the threat thereof. It is clear that spreading the virus counts as violence. The question is whether people who are not proven contagious but have a probability of spreading the virus can be compelled to do anything about it (wear masks, quarantine themselves etc.).

My answer is inspired by your reply to David Friedman (http://libertarianpapers.org/wp-content/uploads/article/2011/lp-3-35.pdf), who speaks about Russian roulette played while pointing the gun at your head instead of mine, and therefore presenting only a probability of coercion. You say that this counts as “clear and present danger”, as opposed to Friedman’s other, supposedly analogous example, an airplane with a very small probability of falling off.

Inspired by your argument, I make the case that a very small probability of having the virus does not constitute clear and present danger. But a higher probability could. How much higher is, of course, a continuum problem, but suppose that it has as high probability as a bullet being shot while playing Russian roulette–1/6. If every sixth person spread a disease as deadly as a bullet to the head, I would see countermeasures justified, every person being a “clear and present danger.”

Obviously, this is not the case with COVID, and probably not even the bubonic plague would qualify (Wikipedia says it has 10% mortality with treatment, probably lower than the mortality of headshots). However, being a continuum problem, even a Rothbardian judge could make the case that a bubonic plague epidemic, if not properly contained, makes everyone such a clear and present danger that countermeasures are justified. Such as mandatory mask wearing or quarantine.

I wonder what you think about this argument.

Best wishes,

Bálint

Letter 2

Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu> (időpont: 2020. szept. 11., P, 4:18) ezt írta:

Dear Madlovics:

Thanks for your kind words. I think your assessment is brilliant.

Best regards,

Walter

Letter 3

From: Madlovics Bálint

Sent: Friday, September 11, 2020 12:00 AM

To: Walter Block <wblock@loyno.edu>

Subject: Re: The libertarian case for mandatory mask wearing and quarantine

Dear Walter,

Thank you. I’m unhappy with the conclusion, though. Initially, I thought this is only a hypothetical and COVID would not qualify (nor the bubonic plague, although that’s more of a borderline case). But as I now think that deadliness does not matter, only infectiousness, i.e. how high probability people have of spreading the virus and therefore being clear and present danger, does that mean that any endemic disease qualifies, even COVID? And therefore, in these times, quarantining the whole population is justified on libertarian grounds?!

I can’t convincingly argue against COVID being infectious enough to make everyone clear and present danger. It’s really a continuum problem. But I might have two points that prevent us from legitimizing every government countermeasure.

First, while everyone has a probability of spreading the virus, some people have higher probability. For instance, in Hungary, the government has a policy of quarantining everyone for two weeks who comes back from a foreign country. It also compels them to have tested in the time being. Now, I know this is a continuum issue, but maybe a Rothbardian judge would say that such measures as that Hungarian policy is justified, because people who travel have higher probability, whereas limiting the freedom of movement for everyone in the country or closing shops or banning crowded events etc. (stuff the Hungarian government also does) are unjustified, because the general population has lower probability.

Second, I don’t think any measure is justified by my argument. Rather, measures are justified only to the extent that they reduce the given people’s probability of spreading the virus to a level where they do not constitute clear and present danger anymore. Let’s suppose we have hyper COVID, which is a hundred times as infectious as normal COVID. In that case, perhaps only a quarantine would work, for less draconian measures would not prevent people from being clear and present danger. However, in the case of normal COVID, a quarantine might not be needed, only, say, mandatory mask wearing, because that already reduces the probability to a tolerable level—say, to the level people are normally at during non-endemic times.

I listened to your recent interviews on the pandemic, and I know you are not generally against quarantine, mask wearing etc. But if you can come up with any more points (or perhaps refine my ones) to prevent us from justifying everything the government does, please do. I really don’t want to conclude that a simple reference to probability justifies everything; I don’t want to give the government such a powerful argument.

I’m sorry for writing so long letters. I’m really happy to have a chance to correspond with you, and I hope you can take the time to answer and think about my points.

Best wishes,

Bálint

Letter 4

Dear Madlovics:

Yes, it is a continuum problem.

I’ve written about this 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

Right now, posit that of every airplane and helicopter flight, .00000000001% of them crashes, killing totally innocent people on the ground. Would we now be justified in banning all such flights? No. Neither the government now, has done this, nor would, I’m pretty sure, any private ancap defense agency. But suppose 10% of flights did this? How about 50%? 99%? Somewhere along these lines a ban would be eminently justified, at least according to my understanding of the NAP, as a threat.

People who can’t conceive of ANY justification for imposing compulsory masks, social distance rules, quarantine, or sticking needles into those who are possibly infectious (vaccine), are akin to those who can’t think of ANY reason to ban airflights. They lack imagination.

Best regards,

Walter

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5:33 am on December 25, 2020