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Libertarian Perspective On Government's Role In Health Crisis


By now you've probably seen demonstrations popping up around the country against stay-at-home orders issued by government officials in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And you've also seen that many of these demonstrators are refusing to follow the guidelines laid out by officials - to avoid large gatherings, to say 6 feet apart, wear face coverings and the like. Well, some people say they're demonstrating because they can't afford to shut their businesses or stop going to work. Others are making the point that these demands violate their freedom.

And we wanted to dig into those arguments for a few minutes, which are generally described as libertarian. We wanted to get a libertarian perspective on this from someone who also has a background in health policy. And that led us to Michael Cannon, who is the director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute, which is based here in Washington, D.C. Michael Cannon, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL CANNON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, the Cato Institute says it's dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. So as briefly as you can, what is the role of the government in a health crisis like this one according to those principles?

CANNON: Well, it's the same as the role of government when there isn't a health crisis, which is to protect us from people who would do us harm. And when there is a deadly contagious disease that is spreading throughout the public, there can be a role for government to take additional steps that it wouldn't take during ordinary times in order to prevent people from harming each other with that deadly virus. Now, what those steps are is a different question, a very complicated one. But most libertarians do agree that there is a role for government to play in a pandemic.

MARTIN: So let's talk specifically about the government orders mandating the use of masks in certain situations like grocery stores or pharmacies, these social distancing mechanisms. Is there something wrong with that in your view?

CANNON: Well, it's a very difficult balancing act because nobody knows just how deadly it is. Nobody knows just how much additional good each of these individual measures that the government wants to implement are going to do in terms of reducing the incidence of transmissions of this deadly disease versus how much harm those measures will do in terms of harming people's livelihoods or even leading to interactions with police that could themselves lead to harmful situations.

MARTIN: So you're familiar with the expression your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. So an infection is an assault on the body. So why shouldn't the government be able to ask people or even require people to take these minimal steps to avoid assaulting other people with this virus?

CANNON: It should take steps to do that, but you have to keep in mind that what we're talking about are decisions and costs and benefits that are occurring at the margin. Now, what I mean by that is if you look at the data from Google about how much people are moving around or social distancing, you'll find that before the government issued any of these orders that people had to shelter in place, stay at home or shut down businesses, businesses were telling people to work from home. People were avoiding each other. So the question becomes, given the responses that people are going to undertake on their own, what marginal benefit is the government going to be able to yield by issuing a stay-at-home order or requiring people to wear masks? Because it may not reduce transmission very much at all if people are already doing all of those things themselves.

MARTIN: We've already seen some of these demonstrators in Wisconsin. There were thousands of people who were at these rallies who did not undertake any of the self-protective measures that the government has asked them to take. So then how can you say that if the government were merely to suggest these things, people would do it?

CANNON: Well, I'm not sure that everyone would. But there is something to be said for the government might get more people to comply if it were asking or suggesting rather than mandating.

MARTIN: But isn't the government's mandate part of a social contract? What the government is saying is that we expect people to have some mutual obligation at this moment. In exchange for that mutual obligation, I mean, that is why the government is offering, say, financial support for individuals who have been harmed by this. I mean, is what you're saying, we should wait and see? I mean, is that what a President Cato would do, a President Cannon - Michael Cannon would do, just say wait and see what happens? Is that really what you're saying the libertarian principle would suggest?

CANNON: I would not say take a wait-and-see approach. What I would do is I would want the government to very - and I have advocated that the government do more to gather the information we need so that the governors can make careful decisions about how to reduce the harm of both the virus and the efforts to contain it.

MARTIN: That was Michael Cannon, who is the director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute here in Washington, D.C. That's a libertarian research and advocacy organization, a think tank. Michael Cannon, thanks so much for talking to us.

CANNON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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