Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ensuring the Isolation

A man named Robert Daniels has been detained and isolated in a Phoenix hospital because he has drug-resistant TB. (Or, as the Arizona Republic put it, "Man with 'extreme' TB may be jailed until death.")

A man infected with an especially virulent strain of tuberculosis has spent eight months in a hospital jail ward under a court order and may be held until he dies.
NPR helpfully adds that Daniels was incarcerated because he "refused to comply with voluntary quarantine rules."

Over at LewRockwell.com, Wendy McElroy makes a fascinating argument. According to libertarian theory, she says, Daniels' incarceration "is not and cannot be justified. The young man has committed no crime; he is a self-owner with the same individual right to freedom as anyone/everyone else."

That said, if everyone who came in contact with Daniels were certain to die, Ms. McElroy would advocate incarceration:
I would advocate some form of isolation -- forced if necessary -- but I would not and could not justify it on libertarian principle. My advocacy of using force would rely on the fact that the Typhoid Mary/Robert scenario destroys the intellectual framework of libertarianism.
Before you bite down on that cyanide capsule, please be advised that:
The situation does not destroy the validity of libertarianism, which continues to address 99.99% of all situations in life and 100% of those most people will confront.
McElroy seems dimly aware that she's on dangerous ground here. If this scenario "destroys the intellectual framework of libertarianism," it also destroys its validity. In claiming otherwise, McElroy is a bit like a believer in the luminiferous aether who insists that the theory is perfectly sound, save for that minor flaw identified by Michelson and Morley.

Accordingly, she attempts to haul herself out of the quicksand by pulling heroically at her own leg:
Nor does the situation place libertarianism at a disadvantage relative to other political theories since none of them provides a good answer to Typhoid Mary or lifeboat situations.
Political theories don't reliably solve real-world problems? Jeez, next you'll be telling me that chanting NAM-MYOHO-RENGE-KYO won't bring me health and happiness.

Anyhow...McElroy wants contagious people confined because she has an interest in "protecting my own life and the lives of those for whom I care." But since the state has no right to confine sick people, she "would assist another party in ensuring the isolation."

"Cletus, that fag acrost the street is coughin' again. Fetch me the Benelli M3 and some Saran wrap!"

McElroy's love of "individual liberty" is so profound, so inviolable, that she sees enforced isolation as acceptable only if it's imposed by vigilantes (who may or may not have any relevant medical expertise), and is not justified "through an appeal to libertarianism." So her ideal course of action is constrained by her libertarianism (state intervention is taboo), but can't be justified by it (because libertarian theory has been "destroyed").

It'd be an interesting paradox for juridical theorists, if it weren't so fucking silly.

The larger problem is that enforced isolation is likely to fail (or make things worse) in precisely those situations that McElroy believes would justify it. As usual, Revere says it best:
It is inevitable that these kinds of restrictions will come into play if a pandemic is starting. It is just as inevitable they will be costly and will fail. It isn't even sure they will slow things up much. This is apparently an obligatory response that can't be stopped. But it shouldn't also prevent us from beginning the kind of community mobilization that will really make a difference in managing the consequences of a pandemic, should one come.

Pulling up the drawbridge and community mobilization, unfortunately, are polar opposites. One is based on fleeing our neighbor. The other on neighbor helping neighbor.
(Illustration by Paul Emmert, dated 1853, showing smallpox quarantine hut at Honolulu Harbor.)

1 comment:

olvlzl said...

God help us if we let political theory determine how we're going to do things. These things start out with theory but they just about always manage to try to shoe horn reality into a form that is coherent for the theory. And if theory doesn't provide the deep thinker with a solution? The theory wins. A while back, thinking how it was too bad that Marx got swept up by Hegel's dialectic. He had some good ideas but that wasn't helpful. And then there is my favorite example of Alfred Kahn who I seem to recall saying that even though prices went up and service went way down that airline deregulation was still a good idea.

Theory is sloppy. I don't know who first said it but Roger Sessions repeated it. And I do to.