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A Libertarian Approach to the Ebola Epidemic

Many government critics are up in arms about the fact that the feds “allowed” a Dallas nurse to board a plane while experiencing Ebola symptoms. Some point to Obama’s proposed cuts to the CDC in 2012 that would have harmed their efforts to combat Ebola now. Others, like Senators Ted Cruz and libertarian-ish Rand Paul, blame the Obama administration for not proposing a travel ban to Ebola-stricken countries (a plan that would only work, by the way, if affected countries were isolated entirely).

But is the federal government’s problem that it’s not doing enough? Is the solution to Ebola just a matter of giving government bureaucrats more power? Should the state really be powerful enough to prohibit people from traveling? I don’t think so.

This isn’t an apology for the state—I’m opposed to much of what it does. But blaming the government for not doing enough is the worst way to criticize its handling of Ebola. Instead, why don’t we propose an alternative to government inaction?

That’s what Firestone Tire and Rubber Company did when Ebola popped up in Harbel, Liberia—home to one of the company’s largest natural rubber plantations. Harbel is a company town. Besides the rubber plant, Firestone operates a hospital, a hydroelectric power plant, a botanical research division, and a literacy program in town. Firestone employees and their families comprise some 80,000 people in Harbel. NPR’s Jason Beaubien writes:

Firestone detected its first Ebola case on March 30, when an employee’s wife arrived from northern Liberia. She’d been caring for a disease-stricken woman and was herself diagnosed with the disease. Since then, Firestone has done a remarkable job of keeping the virus at bay. It built its own treatment center and set up a comprehensive response that’s managed to quickly stop transmission. Dr. Brendan Flannery, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s team in Liberia, has hailed Firestone’s efforts as resourceful, innovative and effective.

Currently, the only Ebola cases on the sprawling, 185-square-mile plantation are in patients who come from neighboring towns.

Meanwhile, the disease spreads like wildfire throughout the rest of Liberia.

The Firestone story proves that coercive government action is no prerequisite for successfully fighting Ebola. It may not even be the best way to stop the disease. The story is not over, of course. The epidemic is getting worse. But rest assured that no one is helpless to protect themselves in case of government inaction.

[pq]If we’re unwilling to accept any risk in our lives, we constrain the possibilities for a brighter future.[/pq]

At some point, combatting things like Ebola must be a matter of private, personal effort. Our world is full of terrible things like Ebola that threaten our happiness and well-being. If we rely on government to fight every terrible thing for us, we threaten losing the very liberties that make us happy and wealthy in the first place. The degree to which we’re unwilling to accept any risk in our lives is the degree to which we constrain possibilities for a brighter future.

A virus like Ebola doesn’t suspend the rules regarding the harms of big government. It’s not an exception to which the philosophy of liberty doesn’t apply. Libertarians must believe that we’re capable of mitigating Ebola risk without big government’s help. If not, our philosophy falls apart.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”