Coronavirus Maximus: a thought experiment on forced quarantine
By Walter E. Block - May 19, 2020

Suppose there were such a thing as a Corona Virus Maximus; it kills 100% of the people who catch it (don’t sweat it; this is an entirely made-up example).

Someone is stuck on a cruise ship infected with this Corona Maximus. He has not yet contracted the disease but will become infected for sure if he is forced to stay on the ship. There is no way to know if he is yet infected; let’s call it a 50/50 chance either way.

Is society justified in quarantining him? If he is forced to stay on the ship and dies as a result, should the authorities be punished for making him remain on the ship?

Let us attempt to analyze this by analogy.

You have a gun with six chambers in it, and 3 bullets (that’s the 50%). You insist upon aiming the gun at innocent people, and then pulling the trigger. Would we potential victims have the right to compel you to cease and desist from this act (that is compel you to stay aboard, to your certain death)?

Yes, unhappily.

And no, if the cruise ship customers die as a result of us stopping him from pulling the trigger (getting off the quarantine boat) we should not be punished for defending ourselves. Yes, we may properly force you to remain on the ship, and we engage in no criminal act in doing so. Rather, this quarantine amounts to self-defense on the part of us and of society as a whole.

I go further. Here is the case for voluntary quarantining. We’ve all got to die someday. None of us gets out of this vale of tears alive. If this person perishes from this horrid disease, he will not have perished in vain. Rather, he will have died protecting other people from catching it. That’s pretty noble.

If somehow this man was rescued from that boat, and set ashore, and god forbid infected other people, he should have a hard time to forgive himself. So his best option is to stay right where he is and hopefully not catch that disease. If it is 100% for sure that he will become infected, he can think of himself as being noble and protecting other people. If there is a heaven under the worse assumptions this hero will surely be going to a far better place.

That’s the easy one, voluntary quarantining.

The difficult one is a compulsory order that you remain on this boat. The freedom-loving, libertarian aspect of us recoils in horror from forcing people to remain on board to their certain death. But it is not our fault. If it is anyone’s or anything’s, fault, it is to be attributed to the deadly virus.

We would not allow a gunman to shoot off bullets into a crowd even if there is only a 50% the target would be hurt. The same applies with this disease. Spreading it around, even probabilistically, is akin to spreading around bullets.

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op-eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shaken his hand. Block has never washed that hand since.  So, if you shake his hand (it’s pretty dirty, but what the heck) you channel Mises.