Would ‘President Rothbard’ Shut Down Flights to West Africa?


What would “President Rothbard” do right now?

By Ryan McMaken @ Mises Blog

Last week in The American Spectator, Emily Zanotti noted that the Obama administration refuses to intervene and shut down flights between West Africa and the US: “Yesterday, the White House reiterated that a ban on flights originating in outbreak countries is not on the table.” According to Zanotti, the rationale is that any disturbance of air travel would negatively impact West African economies.

Zanotti is skeptical of this rationale, saying:

…from a libertarian perspective: free markets are better able to pull people out of poverty than free money, and where we don’t allow capitalism to flourish we end up subsidizing with foreign aid. But if we were talking about President Murray Rothbard, I might consider that awfully practical and economically-focused excuse a real thing. But since this might officially be the first time the Obama Administration has talked their way out of something using unfettered capitalism as an excuse, I consider it suspect.

The larger political point is fair enough, but really, would Rothbard ever make such a simple-minded argument as Zanotti suggests? I recognize that she’s just using Rothbard here as a stand-in for any hard-core free-market libertarian, but it’s highly unlikely that Rothbard would argue, “gee, let’s just let any diseased person fly into any airport anywhere because it would be good for the global economy.”

Key to understanding Rothbard on matters like this is that he identified himself as a “radical decentralist.” He did not make simplistic arguments like “free markets will solve all our problems” and leave it at that. Nor did he think that — like some sort of Marxist — that only a full-blown version of his vision could better achieve the ends he proposed. On the contrary, Rothbard knew that even a move in the direction of truly free markets, through radical decentralization, was better than the centralized state that dictates to all local governments and private owners everywhere. Centralization cuts off every possible solution except the few accepted by the “experts” of the centralized state, and thus ensures that , if the one “official” plan fails, that there is no plan B, or way to prevent the problem from spreading throughout the one, giant national jurisdiction.

In other words, the current lack of decentralization prevents local governments, airlines, airports, or even individual states from having any control over movements between states or into airports. Such matters are all dictated by a single source: the federal government. Were a decentralized approach allowed, however, individual states, cities, airlines, and airports would be responsible for their own safety precautions. Moreover, those making the decisions, i.e.,  those in charge of safety in Atlanta and the Atlanta airport (as just an example), would also be personally affected were the precautions to fail.

Also, were there a decentralized system, it is unlikely that (in our example) were the Atlanta airport to institute precautions (up to and including a full travel ban) that all other airports and states and cities would blindly accept that the precautions were successful. Instead, travelers from Atlanta to, say, Denver, would have to again be subject to checks of their origins, state of health, final destination, etc.

Now some libertarians will say “but that’s even worse than what we have now, where at least we have free movement once we’re in the US.” Now it’s true there may be more inconvenience in some cases, assuming one’s not already on some federal list (in which case your ability to travel by air is destroyed forever), but of course, this idea of some kind of one-stop-shop for disease control resembles the free market much less than does the decentralist model of redundancies and decentralized checks for disease control. In a totally-privatized society, each airport and local security operation would be likely to insist on checks for disease control. How this would be done exactly would be, as Walter Block often says “an entrepreneurial problem” to solve, but it would  nonetheless be likely that travel safety would be more complex in a privately-owned world. And in our case, it would also be more likely to contain epidemics since a failure at one point in the system would not lead to a complete system failure as is likely under the current system.

What would “President Rothbard” do right now? Well, it’s reasonable to assume that President Rothbard would immediately lift all federal regulations prohibiting airlines and local airports from making their own decisions on controlling flights in and out, and who would be free to travel, and he would make it clear that localities, airlines, and airports are responsible for coordinating with other airports for security purposes. If disease were to spread within a particular state (say, Georgia) neighboring states would be free to cut off all travel from that state, or to cut off certain individuals from travel. President Rothbard would refuse to use the Justice Department to prosecute state governments that cut off travel of certain persons or of people overall. The edicts of the supreme court on the matter would be irrelevant since President Rothbard would refuse to send in the national guard and federal troops/police with assault rifles to force compliance with SCOTUS rulings.

In the wake of such a situation, much of the country would continue with business as usual, but some areas would be on high alert. Some areas would shut their borders to all neighboring states while some would be very laissez-faire depending on the likely threat level and risk-tolerance level of the local population. Moreover, each state, locality, airport, and port of entry would have to balance security with economic realities. This is a decision we make every day when we balance the risk of leaving the house with the need to make a living. Such decisions are not best left in the hands of far-away national “experts.”

This article originally appeared at Mises Blog