Post-Debate Correspondence between Walter Block, Philipp Bagus and Bernardo Ferrero on the Ethics of the Coronavirus Quarantine
I would like to thank you one more time for the wonderful opportunity. It has been a great experience also for me.
Murray favours the legalization of drunk driving:
I think the quarantiner should get a medal, his private defense agency employer (or him, if no such entity exists) should pay Mary lots of money (assuming the virus she had was not harmful), but that the kidnapper, who treated her the exact same way as the quarantiner, should have the book thrown at him. Forced to play Russian roulette, etc. You make no distinction between these two in terms of punishment?
Dear Walter and Bernardo,
I think it was a very good and constructive debate, which will be pleasant for the viewers.
Murray and drunken driving. That is interesting. When I talk about drunken driving to be outlawed I refer to drinking so much alcohol that the driver actually loses control of the car and is a danger to others. How much that is, depends on each case.
About the quarantiner and the kidnapper. Good question. I guess that Mary would more easily forgive the quarantiner. It is more likely.
No, I would not treat them in the exact same way. I think both are guilty of violating property rights. The quarantiner slightly less guilty because he had better motives (which is, of course, hard to prove). So, I would think that he deserves a smaller punishment.
It was a pleasure.
Dear Philipp and Bernardo:
I think we both made some good points, and exposed some weaknesses in each other’s positions.
As far as I’m concerned, the debate was a tie!
Dear Walter and Bernardo,
I agree we both made some good points.
And I was relieved that you oppose the current lock-down imposed by our governments, and, especially, that you oppose the confinement of non-infected people, because I believe it is important that we libertarians oppose this Corona-lock-down vehemently.
I have been thinking about you saying that in a just war, it might have been justified to intern US citizens of Japanese descent in WWII. I think you are applying the concept of class probability to the case. Class probability can only applied to natural phenomena not to human action as each human action is unique. There is no higher risk that a Japanese US citizen was a spy than a non-Japanese US citizen, simply because there is no class probability, only case probability. Any individual is different and innocent until proven otherwise, independent of their ethnic or cultural background. What I want to say is, that one should or cannot base the judicial system on the concept of class probability. Otherwise we would quickly run in other reductio ad absurdums, for instance, interning all US citizens of arab descent, because statistically the (class) probability of terrorism is (supposedly) higher.
Regarding your agreement on the fact that locking down non-infected people is illegitimate, I must say that I was surprised. Please correct me if I misread you Dr Block, but in your principled defence of forced vaccinations, your argument applies also to currently non-infected people, assuming, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they are «about» to get infected (akin to stipulating, beyond any reasonable doubt, that A is about to threaten B, although technically not yet). Couldn’t the same reasoning be applied to the Coronavirus Quarantine? Why do you think that in this case it is necessarily illegitimate to confine «up to now» non-infected people? Let’s stipulate that A is non-infected (that is at present he is not a threat to anybody’s person or property) yet that the virus is pretty dangerous and that there is a 95% chance that A will get the virus once he steps outside his door step or by walking in a public (i.e. state owned) street, why is it illegitimate to confine him? Even if you are non-infected, if a similar causation chain is established beyond a reasonable doubt, can’t it be legitimate to confine A despite the fact that he is currently not infected and thus innocent? Wouldn’t you agree?
Again, I thank you for posing your important challenges to me. This one is only the latest. You realize it is a bit off the point of the quarantine, although as you quire rightly see, not unrelated to it.
Let me make the best case for forced vaccinations. Assume a minarchist libertarian government. Should it compel people to be vaccinated against the XYZ disease? Here are it’s characteristics:
If you contract XYZ, there is a 100% chance you will die a painful death. 40% of the people on the planet cannot tolerate the vaccination against it. We know who they are, through a test which is 100% reliable. The vaccine will not in any way harm the other 60% of the people. This majority will, all with 100% probability, contract this disease. They will die from it unless they are vaccinated. Also, again with 100% certainty (there is no doubt in this example, none) the 60% will spread the disease to the 40% vulnerables. The drug costs nothing, works perfectly in preventing the XYZ disease and there are no side effects of it whatsoever, again for sure.
Would I compel the 60% to get the vaccination on libertarian grounds? You’re darn tootin I would. Not so much to save them. That would be paternalism. But, rather, in order to save the lives of the 40% vulnerable people. If any member of this 60% refused this vaccination, I would execute him as threatening mass murder of 40% of the population.
Now, you can change the percentages around a bit. Then, you run into what I call the continuum problem, and I suggest, there is no clear libertarian answer.
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
Why do we libertarians have to nail every question? Yes, this would be nice, but, I don’t think it is proper to deduce a conclusion not justified by the premises. In my view, the NAP of libertarianism answers many, many questions. But, not all of them. We also need (hopefully private) courts to adjudicate these continuum problems, such as the proper statutory rape age, what counts as a threat, etc. There’s no greater fan of the NAP than me. But it is not the be all and end all of libertarianism (and, no, I’m not a thick libertarian!). There are continuum challenges it cannot answer.
Here is some material of mine on forced vaccinations:
Block, Walter E. 2013A. “Libertarianism and Compulsory Vaccinations.” January 19;http://archive.lewrockwell.com/blog/lewrw/archives/130928.html
Block, Walter E. 2013B. “Forced Vaccinations.” February 4;
April 29, 2015. Marc Clair [mailto:email@example.com] evictionism, Rand Paul, vaccinations; Marc Clair Editor In Chief; LionsOfLiberty.com; (203) 558-8342; Skype is MarcMadness8780; http://lionsofliberty.com/104/;
February 11, 2015. Sam Seder debates Walter E. Block. The Majority Report [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] The Majority Report with Sam Seder. Live M-F 12:00 NOON ET. http://majority.fm; Ring of Fire Radio. With Sam Seder, Mike Papantonio and Bobby Kennedy Jr. Weekends. http://www.ringoffireradio.com; Resolved: “laissez faire capitalism is the best system known to man” http://majority.fm/2014/05/01/51-professor-walter-block-defends-libertarianism/;http://majority.fm/; 646-257-3920; topics: vaccinations, a reprise of our min wage discussion, your email sign off «If it moves, privatize it; if it doesn’t move, privatize it. Since everything either moves or doesn’t move, privatize everything.» and if it’s ok, a listener wanted me to ask you to explain the difference between consequentialist
February 11, 2015 Debate with Leftist Sam Seder on libertarianism, Non-aggression, property rights, retributions and libertarians, Native Americans, homesteading, property in America, Rand Paul and Vaccinations with Sam Seder on The Majority Report (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBNZwHw4eT8)
This is the material from Hans that supports my view.
He supports my claim that things are not so clear, not so cut and dried, as often thought by libertarians.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Getting Libertarianism Right, p. 60-74:
“This does not mean that, with the discovery of the principles of natural law, all problems of social order are solved and all friction will disappear. Conflicts can and do occur, even if everyone knows how to avoid them. And, in every case of conflict between two or more contending parties, then, the law must be applied – and for this juris-prudence and judgment and adjudication (in contrast to juris-diction) is required. There can be disputes about whether you or I have misapplied the principles in specific instances regarding particular means. There can be disagreements as to the “true” facts of a case: who was where and when, and who had taken possession of this or that at such and such times and places? And it can be tedious and time-consuming to establish and sort out these facts. Various prior-later must be investigated. Contracts may have to be scrutinized. Difficulties may arise in the application of the principles to underground resources, to water and to air, and especially to flows of water and air. Moreover, there is always the question of “fitting” a punishment to a given crime, i.e., of finding the appropriate measure of restitution or retribution that a victimizer owes his victim, and of then enforcing the verdicts of law.
Difficult as these problems may occasionally be, however, the guiding principles to be followed in searching for a solution are always clear and beyond dispute.
In every case of conflict brought to trial in search of judgment, the presumption is always in favor of the current possessor of the resource in question and, mutatis mutandis, the burden of a “proof to the contrary” is always on the opponent of some current state of affairs and current possessions. The opponent must demonstrate that he, contrary to prima facie appearance, has a claim on some specific good that is older than the current possessor’s claim. If, and only if an opponent can successfully demonstrate this must the questionable possession be restored as property to him. On the other hand, if the opponent fails to make his case, then not only does the possession remain as property with its current owner, but the current possessor in turn has acquired a lawful claim against his opponent. For the current possessor’s body and time was misappropriated by the opponent during his failed and rejected argument. He could have done other, preferred, things with his body-time except defend himself against his opponent.
And importantly also: the procedure to be selected for dispensing justice along the just indicated lines is clear and implied in the very goal of peaceful, argumentative conflict resolution. Because both contenders in any property dispute – John and Jim – make or maintain opposite truth claims – I, John, am the lawful owner of such and such a resource versus no, I, Jim, am the lawful owner of this very same resource – and hence, both John and Jim are interested, partial or biased in favor of a particular outcome of the trial, only some disinterested or neutral third party can be entrusted with the task of dispensing justice.
But it assures that the likelihood of unjust verdicts is minimized and errors of judgment most likely and easily be corrected. In short, then, for each and every property dispute between two (or more) contending parties it must hold: No party may ever sit in judgment and act as final judge in any dispute involving itself. Rather, every appeal to justice must always be made to “outsiders,” i.e., to impartial third-party judges.
We may call the social order emerging from the application of these principles and procedures a “natural order,” a “system of natural justice,” a “private law society” or a “constitution of liberty.”
I Thank you very much for your detailed response to my previous email and for providing an extensive bibliography on the topic. I agree with every word you wrote. Regarding «continuum problems» I agree that while the Non-Aggression Principle is easy to state in theory, when its a matter of applying it one is confronted with a lot of grey areas that need to be addressed cautiously with the help also of other sciences (in the case of pandemics, for instance, one cannot determine whether walking at a distance of 1 meter from other people represents a palpable, immediate and direct threat to their person or property without, among other things, having some knowledge of epidemiology). I also agree with you that, as you pointed out, in principle forced vaccinations can be, in some cases like the one you report below, legitimate (i.e. they do not violate the NAP). My question however would be: if the issue of forced vaccinations and forced quarantines is, from a libertarian standpoint, similar, why don’t you think that it can also be legitimate in the case of the coronavirus to quarantine non-infected people? In your defence of forced vaccinations (as you also point out between minute 22: 17 and min 25 in this conversation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gsra1cLNZkE) you state that if we stipulate that an innocent, non-infected individual will promptly get the disease (or is highly likely to get the disease since we live in a sea of ignorance as you pointed out on Monday) then the difference between him and Typhoid Mary is just one of timing, which means that one would be justified in forcing also the innocent, up-to-now non-infected individual to be vaccinated (or quarantined for that matter) before he gets the disease. Why wouldn’t you argue the same in the case of Coronavirus? In the debate, in other words, you concluded: instead of embracing the position «Yes Quarantine» or «No Quarantine» the most reasonable libertarian position given the Coronavirus should be «Maybe Quarantine». But why do you think, as you mentioned in the debate, that this answer should only be applicable to infected people? Wouldn’t you agree that, based on your principled arguments in favour of forced vaccination and given our incomplete and dubious knowledge on the topic, the answer should be «Maybe Quarantine» even with regards to innocent, non-infected individuals?
Please allow me to thank you again for your kind attention. I am really grateful for you taking the time to answer these doubts of mine. I feel honoured to have moderated this debate between you, which has definitely enriched my understanding of the NAP and some of its limitations.
Thanks for your important, insightul, question. My answer is, was, based upon my own prudential judgement. My thought is that such people do not constitute a threat. However, you are perfectly correct. One, I don’t know this for sure. And two, if the facts were the other way around, then, yes, I would indeed favour quarantining everyone, even those who are not now infected.
However, we cannot, literally, quarantine everyone. If we did, we’d all die of starvation. Libertarianism isn’t a suicide pact. So, provision would have to be made for this. Here comes a justification for the present policy: everyone is under house arrest, except for people in grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals, restaurants (for take-out food only).
Where do you think I’m in error on this?
I agree with you with the argument you make in the «Continuum» article, that there are grey areas and the application of the natural law is sometimes tricky, for instance, in the case of homesteading. What counts as homesteading and what not?
I personally think that Hans’s quote is supporting my position, though:
» the burden of a “proof to the contrary” is always on the opponent of some current state of affairs and current possessions. «
In other words, if someone wants to take ownership of the body of someone else and confine this person, the burden of proof is on the first person.
Further Hans after quoting approvingly Rothbard that the burden of proof is for «defensive aggression» is on the aggressor says:
«the necessity of establishing causation, based on “individualized evidence” rather than mere probability (or preponderance of evidence) based on “statistical” evidence is accepted.»
But the “burden of proof” is itself a gray area. I say that the quarantiner has met this burden, you say he has not. We’re both good libertarians. Yet, we disagree on this matter of prudential judgement. Just like we also might as good libertarians, disagree on the age of consent. I say it is 16 years old and six months, you say it is 16 years old and seven months. So, we need more than faithful adherence to the principles of libertarianism to settle that issue. I say the only way to settle both of these two issues is with a (private!) court. You, on the other hand, are more sure you are correct in your views (quarantiner has not met the burden of proof; 16.7 not 16.6) than I am in mine (quarantiner has met the burden of proof; 16.6 not 16.7). From whence springs your greater certainty than mine? Remember I’m supporting the agnostic position; you’re not.
On another matter. We can still co-author a refereed journal essay on this issue! Only, unless one of us chages the other’s mind, which I greatly doubt, we can publish in a debate format!
In any case, it is a pleasure tangling with you on this. I think we both benefit from this exchange.
I think we are closer together than I previously thought. I actually agree that «the burden of proof» is somewhat grey.
Take the following quotes from Rothbard’s essay “Law, Property Rights and Air Pollution”:
«[e]vidence must be probative in demonstrating a strict causal chain of acts of invasion of person or property. Evidence must be constructed to demon- strate that aggressor A in fact initiated an overt physical act invading the person or property of victim B. (Rothbard 1997, p. 137)
What the plaintiff must prove, then, beyond a reasonable doubt is a strict causal connection between the defendant and his aggression against the plaintiff. He must prove, in short, that A actually “caused” an invasion of the person or property of B. . . . To establish guilt and liability, strict causality of aggression leading to harm must meet the rigid test of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Hunch, conjecture, plausibility, even mere probability are not enough. . . Statistical correlation . . . cannot establish causation. (Rothbard 1997, pp. 140–41)»
For me, it is essential to point out that the burden of proof is on the person employing physical violence as a defensive act (the quarantiner) and he must proof beyond a reasonable doubt the looming attack. You may say that «beyond a reasonable doubt» is somewhat grey. And I agree here. But it is also clear that it is not enough that someone stipulates a threat, or that a threat is plausible, or merely probable. All that is not sufficient. What would be sufficient then? For example, if I am tested positively with Corona and write an email threatening you, that I will take a flight to New Orleans and sneeze at you. In this case I would say, yes, you are justified to confine me. Or if someone is proven to be negligent. For instance, it is proven that someone is infected and he repeatedly gives hugs and kisses to other people or spits around randomly (on which property would be also an important question) just because he is used to it and cannot help it. In this case, it would also be proven without a reasonable doubt that there is negligence.
You say: the quarantiner has met the burden of proof. But I do not actually know what situation you are referring to.
In one of the two situations descripted by me above, I would agree with you. If you say, that the quarantiner has met the burden of proof confining me today in my apartment in Spain, I say «no». And if you apply it to the question if the confinement of whole populations in the corona crisis is justified, I would also clearly say «no.» And yes, in these cases I say that I am correct with my views. The greater certainty comes from my understanding that the burden of proof beyond any reasonable doubt has clearly not been met. It was not even tried to show that I am infected and that I want intentionally or by negligence infect others.
On the idea to publish an «debate article.» Are there journals who actually would do that? I would be all in favour of it. Great idea. It would be an honour for me and benefit the debate among libertarians.
I am certainly benefiting a lot from this exchange. It is always important to re question your own position and your points have been really illuminating for me.
I do think we’re getting closer. You now see more grey areas than before. For my part, I now appreciate, more, on which side of the proof the burden lies (I always saw this, of course, but, now, thanks to you, I see it better, more clearly).
If I said that “the quarantiner has met the burden of proof” I misspoke. I should have said, instead, “I think that the quarantiner has met the burden of proof.”
What I object to in your position is that you are so sure that the quarantiner has NOT met the burden of proof. I’m an agnostic on this. You’re a believer, a staunch one. Maybe, now, less staunch?