Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Walter Block on Quarantines Because of the Coronavirus

Dr. Walter Block
OM recently sent the following email to Dr. Walter Block:
Subject: Forced quarantine

Hello once again professor Block,

Due to recent Coronavirus outbreak many countries started forcing people into quarantine. I was wondering about the libertarian stance on this issue. I considered the person who is infected and knows that he is infected and doesn’t get checked into the quarantine to be violating NAP. Yet leaders of libertarian party in my home country Georgia consider the quarantine to be violation of human freedom. I was wondering about your position on this issue. Thank you in advance.
Dr. Block responded:
Dear Otar:

I support forced quarantines for the coronavirus. I disagree with Lew Rockwell and also Murray Rothbard (who is well deservedly known as “Mr. Libertarian”) on this issue: https://www.lewrockwell.com/2020/03/lew-rockwell/what-would-murray-say-about-the-coronavirus/

For me, the crucial statement is this: 
“It is important to insist, however, that the threat of aggression be palpable, immediate, and direct, in short, that it be embodied in the initiation of an overt act. Any remote or indirect criterion—any ‘risk’ or ‘threat’—is simply an excuse for invasive action by the supposed ‘defender’ against the alleged ‘threat.’” Murray hammers home the point later in the book. He says, “Once one can use force against someone because of his ‘risky’ activities, the sky is the limit, and there is virtually no limit to aggression against the rights of others. Once permit someone’s ‘fear’ of the ‘risky’ activities of others to lead to coercive action, then any tyranny becomes justified.”
When we apply what Murray says to the coronavirus situation, we can answer our question about forced quarantines. People are not threatening others with immediate death by contagion. Rather, if you have the disease, you might pass it on to others. Or you might not. What happens if someone gets the disease is also uncertain.
Where I depart from these two leaders of the libertarian movement is on the precise meaning of “palpable, immediate, and direct,”. I am an Austrian economist, as are, of course, both Lew and Murray. As Austrians, all three of us adhere to subjectivity as one of the very basic foundations of the entire praxeological school. Thus, I think, there is room for disagreement, while agreeing, fully, on the NAP of libertarianism.

I have written, here, of why people like the three of us can start from the same principles, all of us be entirely logical, rational, reasonable, and, yet, come to different conclusions:

Block, Walter E. and William Barnett II. 2008. “Continuums” Journal Etica e Politica / Ethics & Politics, Vol. 1, pp. 151-166, June; http://www2.units.it/~etica/http://www2.units.it/~etica/2008_1/BLOCKBARNETT.pdf

It is as if Lew and Murray are maintaining the that statutory rape age ought to be X, and I say it ought to be Y, where both X and Y lie somewhere in between 16 and 19. Principles, alone, cannot settle issue of this sort.

In similar manner, A is running at B with a knife, yelling he’s gonna kill B. B has a gun and can shoot A. But how close does A have to be to B before the latter is justified in shooting the former in self defence? Ten miles? Five miles? One mile? A half mile? A quarter mile? 200 yards? 100 yards? 200 feet? 100 feet? 50 feet? 10 feet? My point is, libertarian principles alone cannot determine the correct answer. According to subjectivism, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.” Applying that insight to this case, I would say that 5 and 10 miles are way too far away for B to shoot A (B is a GREAT marksman). A is running and screaming, he’s gonna get too tired to shoot long before he gets to B. On the other hand, 100 feet is way too short. B should plug A before he gets to that point. But what is the precise point at which B may properly shoot A and claim self defense? I don’t know. I think you need (private!) courts to make such determinations. All I’m saying is that libertarian principles alone cannot determine the precise spot at which offense becomes defense. You need prudential judgement, and mine is different than Lew’s in this case. Hans Hoppe has eloquently made this point.

On the other hand Congressman Chuck Schumer just made threats against two Supreme Court judges. Schumer’s threat of physical violence against them was not palpable, immediate, and direct nor embodied in the initiation of an overt act. So, I agree with what I think Lew and Murray would say: these supreme court judges are not entitled to shoot the congressman. However, I think, in the free society, Schumer should pay a lesser penalty for this act of his (I’m now abstracting from all other issues, such as abortion rights, the legitimacy of the supreme court, etc.) Threats, too, are proscribed by the NAP. A, even when 10 miles away, should also pay a lesser penalty for this threat.

Best regards,


Walter E. Block, Ph.D.
Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics      
Loyola University New Orleans


  1. If you support forced quarantine for "immediate threats", don't be surprised if false threats will be invented and used to apply forced quarantine.
    Perhpas a thorough and rational assessment of the "coronavirus threat" should be preliminary to the support for forced quarantine, instead of accepting the media narrative.

  2. What's going on with Block? He's become some sort of tinkerer, getting lost in bizarre minutia.

    How is an argument over the statutory rape age an apt analogy to this whatsoever?

    Why argue over the distance needed to justify killing an impending attacker? As a libertarian (or believer in PPS), shouldn't this be totally irrelevant as long as it is conclusive that an attacker is on their way to harm you, no matter the distance?

    A more apt analogy in this case in gun control. Are you going to impede a non-aggressor from freely obtaining a gun because there are potential threats from unknown wrongdoers?

    Forget about leading Libertarians for Trump. This guy is taking foundational libertarian theory and turning it on its head.

    1. Completely agree. Prof. Block apparently believes it is "prudential judgement" to treat everyone guilty until proven innocent. Anyone government bureaucrats believe to have the virus are judged guilty of the intent of harming others with their illness. This is not a just response to the situation. That would be for each individual to assess his own risk and self quarantine to avoid the virus. Analogies are difficult at best but Blocks choice is completely inappropriate. And determining when defense become offense is a difficult question. A formal accusation decided by a jury with the presumption of innocent until proven guilty has been our best response at answering this question.

    2. I remember him supporting "stop and frisk" not too long ago. So sad...

  3. In a libertarian society, each legitimate owner of private property would prescribe who can enter that property and on what conditions. One of those conditions could be a virus test. But you cannot apply these principles when there is a state, as the state is never a legitimate owner of property, and thus cannot legitimately set the rules.

  4. Problem is there is no privacy. Today it is not private courts or property owners that will force quarantines. Government bureaucrats will be the ones making the decisions. This leads to a cure that is worse than the disease.

    In a PPS a crisis is a temporary issue that would be handled for the most part by temporary solutions. For the powers that should not be a crisis is golden. An opportunity to take away freedom permanently.

    For what is known about Covid-19 forced quarantines are ridiculous. In a real plague those that carry the contagion would rightfully loose some freedom temporarily. In today’s world of no private property all freedom is in the hands of the gang writ large.