Let the Market Contain Ebola

American politicians’ attempts to create panic over a potential Ebola outbreak in the United States seem to have failed. Family and other contacts of US “patient zero” Thomas Eric Duncan completed a 21-day quarantine with no new cases appearing in that pool. Two nurses who treated Duncan are now symptomatic, but this seems to be a matter of early protocol failure (in any new health care situation it takes awhile to get things right). I’m reasonably confident in predicting that we won’t see any large-scale Ebola outbreak in the US.

That’s not stopping the politicians from using all this as an excuse for more government control, of course — airport “screenings” by Customs and Border Protection personnel, proposed travel bans from African countries with Ebola outbreaks, formation of a “rapid response” military team, etc.

I’m surprised that libertarians haven’t been smeared with more “see how much we need government?” propaganda than usual over this. But thinking about it, I can see why. It’s not like the governmental response inspires much confidence, and there are obvious ways in which even the current not-very-free market could respond far more effectively. Two potential panic points revealed over the last couple of weeks provide great examples:

Amber Vinson, a nurse who contracted the Ebola virus from Duncan, flew from Dallas to Cleveland and back before her diagnosis, with the approval of the Centers for Disease Control even though she was running a low-grade fever the whole time.

Another unidentified healthcare worker (a lab supervisor who had handled Duncan’s blood samples) and her husband voluntarily quarantined themselves on board a cruise ship, but turned out to be free of the infection.

Left to their own devices, airlines and cruise ship lines would likely handle the potential problem with ease. Unfortunately, they’re literally NOT left to one specific device: A stick test for Ebola that’s “under development.”

The fine print on “under development” is “already in use by the military but hung up in the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for everyone else.”

Shipping blood to a lab for Ebola analysis takes several days. The stick test takes minutes and while not yet perfected is probably much more reliable than the current government “screening” procedure of taking passengers’ temperatures.

Suppose you ran a $35 billion company like Carnival Cruise Lines or even a $150 million company like Frontier Airlines. Do you think you’d be willing to fork over during an outbreak for a quick and easy test to protect your passengers from Ebola (and yourself from negligence lawsuits should one passenger infect others)? My guess is that you’d be very willing to do that. In fact, I’m sure the cruise lines wish there was a similarly quick, inexpensive and reliable pre-boarding test for norovirus, aka “stomach flu,” as right now the only way they can respond to outbreaks (there have been a couple) is to quarantine symptomatic passengers and offer those whose trips are affected refunds and discounts.

A truly freed market, completely absent state power plays, would likely look a lot different than the current system. We don’t have any way of knowing how people would travel and to where in a free society (or free world!) but it’s safe to predict that if even the current hobbled market offers better solutions for outbreaks than political government does, a freed market would be better yet.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory