Thursday, December 6, 2007


Mosquito carried viruses have been among the greatest causes of death and misery in human history. The mosquito eradication and malaria control programs have been among the greatest success stories of 20th century American government. According to the cdc in 1933 30 percent of people in the CDC suffered from malaria. Now it is virtually eliminated in the USA.

Malaria in particular and mosquito carried viruses in general are an area in which applications of libertarian philosophy in its purest forms could lead to highly unfortunate results. The methods used for malaria control (requiring people to install screens on all doors and windows and requiring them to eliminate all standing water on their property) don't seem terribly oppressive to me, but they are the sort of thing that a purest could regard as being intolerable in principle. A neighbor three miles down the road who leaves an old tire in his back yard probably intends me no harm, and probably won't cause any. But if I become infected with malaria it will be impossible to prove where the mosquito came from, so obtaining compensation from the person who allowed the mosquito to breed on his property is impractical, even if he were to agree that if it could be proved that it was "his" mosquito which infected me he is liable and that he is capable of adequately compensating me for the damage, neither of which is likely to be the case.

Of course, no sensible person would suggest that a full modern regulatory state is necessary for malaria control, and if it were, perhaps one might prefer to avoid the regulatory state and accept the malaria. I think in the early 20th century it was understood that contagious diseases were a matter of legitimate public concern in a way that obesity, steroid use, and even smoking are not.


Byrne said...

Again, insurance sounds like a simple solution, here: clearly, Malaria-specific health insurance could have different price levels for people with different risk profiles, to the point that there would be a strong incentive to minimize those risks (or to compensate others for doing so).

George Weinberg said...

There are people that will not keep standing water off their property voluntarily, perhaps because they don't believe in the germ theory of disease but think it's God's will whether we get sick or not, or because they're just too irresponsible to consistently clean up, or for other reasons. Even if everyone were willing to clean up their property for some compensation, many people would refuse to pay, because they consider it unreasonable or because they think someone else will. Remember, the mosquitoes have a range of several miles. This situation will get resolved, but not necessarily in a good way.