catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Flu and libertarians

with 13 comments

Lawrence M. Wein, a professor at Stanford’s graduate school of business, writes, “If a strain similar in effect to the 1918 Spanish flu (which killed tens of millions of people worldwide) emerges in the next several years, it is highly likely that an effective vaccine will not be available during the pandemic’s first wave, that we won’t have enough antiviral drugs for large-scale prophylactic use, and that hospitals will be too overwhelmed to treat most cases.

“Consequently, as in 1918, we will need to combine medical efforts with voluntary and forced social changes — closing schools and churches, canceling public gatherings, keeping workers at home — to hinder the flu’s spread. Our government must draw up a plan for educating the public about effective nonpharmaceutical interventions like hand washing and face protection like masks.” (Face Facts)

In a study, he and Michael Atkinson found “the single most effective intervention is face protection. And because roughly one-third of influenza transmissions occur before an infected person exhibits symptoms, these precautions should be taken whenever people are in the same room throughout the pandemic period.” This is consistent with established, but apparently somewhat ignored, research from the more distant past.

Wein notes, “The government doesn’t stockpile masks and respirators, and the manufacturers aren’t able to produce a huge number of them quickly.” The latter claim is supported by the shortage of masks that occurred during the SARS scare.

He continues, “But the way forward seems clear: the government needs to build up a supply of respirators and masks just as it does with vaccines and antivirals.”

Now here’s the question for libertarians. How much should the government do in this matter. For example, should it conduct tests on what are the best means by which a flu virus can be spread? Should the government spend time and effort informing the public about the pertinent results of its work? If it turns out that masks could be a key element in our defense, should the government fund research into building an optimal mask? Should the government stockpile masks?

Put in a more libertarian frame of mind, do we trust markets to deliver the relevant information to people about what will substantially reduce their risks of contracting the disease? Will adults, being well-informed and rational make good decisions should a flu pandemic occur? Will markets stockpile the relevant prophylactics or otherwise take action so that demand can be met when it peaks?

Written by Admin

October 27, 2006 at 1:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

13 Responses

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  1. On health issues, the public tends to over-react to possible threats (except where that requires prolonged self-discipline, such as obesity). So there are excellent marketing opportunities there.

    Andrew Norton

    October 27, 2006 at 7:01 am

  2. Obviously it would be short-sighted to outlaw the niqab if face coverings are likely to became medically necessary.

    Timothy Can

    October 27, 2006 at 9:43 am

  3. OK, I’m going to bite. Outlaw it?! The niqab is way more sexy than a face mask. Check out the Google images.

    (Pre-emptive response I: “For the sake of life, freedom & beauty, it was a joke!”)

    (Pre-emptive response II: “Google niqab. Note images.” Hold everything… make that pre-emptive response I.)


    October 27, 2006 at 1:45 pm

  4. kodjo you lefty loon!

    there won’t be a repeat of the 1918 epidemic because that required the unique conditons of trench warfare and frontline hospitals and then sending home large numbers of men around the world…

    this probably won’t happen again ever…so a repeat is very unlikely…


    October 27, 2006 at 2:17 pm

  5. c8to sez:

    “there won’t be a repeat of the 1918 epidemic because that required the unique conditons of trench warfare and frontline hospitals and then sending home large numbers of men around the world…”

    Haven’t you heard of this thing we call globalization? Aren’t something like 2 million people jetsetting at any one time?

    The mask thing shouldn’t be such a problem. For example, the public could be directed to wear a pair of underpants on their head with a couple of cutouts for eyeslits. Alternatively a napkin or handkerchief could be tied around the face.


    October 27, 2006 at 2:47 pm

  6. Well there is a couple of things here and it might seem a bit paradoxical.

    What we can say is that a near libertarian society is in a better position to handle any emergency that comes along.

    Yet if there is a lean military-focused government there it will probably handle that emergency better then the market alone.

    So if we were wanting a setup that had the best of both aspects we want everything hardwired so that all these forces tend towards capitalism as the default position……

    But to have things rigged that the near-dormant government ( a government that rouge states overseas feel more keenly then its own people) can spring into action , mitigate the disaster in about 6 focused months and fade right down to its default position again….

    In this way we might say that such natural emergencies represent a state of war if indeed they are that bad.

    I wouldn’t have wanted the British government to be any bigger then it was during the nineteenth century.

    But then again it ought to have been able to spring into serious action for just a few months to have handled the potato famine and then fade back down again.

    We see that this is a similiar setup we need to be able to convince foreign governments, in a century where America may well pull back from the world stage, that it never pays off to mess with Australia.

    We would have to be able to explode into a war economy for a few months JUST AS A PRECAUTION to show the other state that we can work this thing out by talking and they better hope we don’t walk out on the talks.

    No good deed goes unpunished and we ought not expect great payoffs from the assistance we gave the Indonesians after the big brown wave came through.

    Occupying armies will be welcomed to cheers in situations like this but after 3 months the clock is ticking as to when they will have outstayed their welcome.

    But we don’t expect some sort of diplomatic payoff from these things and we don’t buy friends. We do these things because there are small children walking around like ducklings on the road after you knocked over there mother….

    Without even fresh water. And there are dead bodies everywhere and if there isn’t some help there will be a cholera epidemic. And an outbreak of barbarism.

    So you go in there in an absolutely explosive way and flood the place with capital goods to get people working again and sort everything out and piss off.

    Hopefully in three months but six months max.

    We see that these emergency situations and these sudden military preparations and even these military actions ought to be prepared for with an eye to being BIG AND SHORT…. and that we fade back to capitalism pretty much straight away.

    At the moment we have a major ally and we ought MORE THEN hold up our end of the alliance.

    But we can fashion our participation in these things to being BIG AND SHORT.

    We want potential enemies to know that there is a big difference between when we are focused on them and when we are thinking about ourselves…

    The latter being the better way to live.

    So the way we are to set up our society for the potential of an overwhelming emergency is just the same as for most foreign aid and for most military action.

    The government might be justified in taking a BIG AND SHORT effort to stop the spread of this disease.

    But the longer that action goes on the more its going to subvert the effectiveness of the free market.

    No-ones really learnt how to fade back to the Capitalist default position after these emergencies and thats what we ought to figure out.


    October 27, 2006 at 3:22 pm

  7. Steve M, I take it you’re jesting? I have a great image of everyone getting around with undies on the head… now didn’t that cause a bunch of trouble in Guantanamo…


    October 27, 2006 at 3:23 pm

  8. Why *do* states like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea wear rouge? It’s as if they are deliberately inciting those “violations” of their territorial integrity they’re always whining about.

    Timothy Can

    October 27, 2006 at 6:22 pm

  9. yobbo

    October 27, 2006 at 6:47 pm

  10. Sexy Face Mask.

    … and the rest?

    Sinclair Davidson

    October 27, 2006 at 6:51 pm

  11. The simple thing the government could do right now would be allow people to buy their own antivirals without having to argue and a pay a doctor (and you could also encourage personal face masks). Many of us carry antiobiotics and so on and I don’t see why adding an anti-viral or two is going to hurt.

    Also, I was in HK when SARS was on, and I didn’t think there was any mask shortage (but there might be in a world-wide pandemic). The problem was people wore masks that don’t protect you, because the ones that do are almost unbearable in heat and humidity (and of course, you are not supposed to touch your face either — very hard when you have to keep adjusting a mask). I also doubt asthmatics could wear the ones that actually stop airborne viruses either.


    October 28, 2006 at 7:32 am

  12. From the NYT article I cite, it sounds like underpants & paper towels would be of limited value.

    There is indeed a problem with comfort, thus the authors found that while N95 masks worked better than surgical masks, they might not in practice because they are more uncomfortable. The authors also recommended that the US government contract out to design a better mask, taking account of both comfort & protection.

    On mask shortages: There certainly was a shortage in New Orleans at that time, & also in other places in the US if my memory is correct.


    October 28, 2006 at 8:30 am

  13. “There certainly was a shortage in New Orleans at that time”

    A shortage of WHAT.

    The shortages are caused by all the price controls that lie dormant and come into effect just when you don’t need them.

    What is the word they use for people charging (lets say) $5 for a bottle of water?

    There’s a phrase but I can’t remember it right now.

    That was on bigtime in New Orleans. This anti-price-exploitation sentiment and the laws.

    The shortage of road space to get the hell out. The shortage of cash when the banks close down. All of it the result of bad policy.

    It would have been better for all the price-GOUGERS (price-gougers…. thats it) to hit town with a gold-rush frenzy in mind and the feds to be on the ground loaning out cash.


    October 28, 2006 at 8:43 am

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