We Need a Price Signal

Dan KNews & Views

Few if any libertarians are acknowledging the hard problem of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forget the question of how and whether quarantines would be enforced in a free society. We have potential millions dead from disease on one side and an economic depression on the other. Exactly how is a free market actor supposed to decide the appropriate level of risk to take when making each decision?

Many private organizations are currently implementing their best “common sense” approach to being good members of society. Google can work from home, that’s easy. The local cafe may risk operating, but perhaps they Lysol the door handles every half hour. But in the end it’s a shot in the dark. They have no idea how many people will live or die as a result of their decisions.

It’s as if this scenario was designed to destroy all of the abstractions we use to make sense of rights and economics. Decisions to meet people today in large groups render potentially massive consequences for completely unrelated people. Under these conditions, how do you construct a framework of liability? Without liability, how do you put a price on risk? Without a price on risk, how you decide whether to reopen your business?

I don’t have any serious answers, but I think it’s something we as libertarians should be thinking about. If we distrust the government’s guidance on this issue, as growing numbers of non-libertarians are, we should be ready with an idea of our own. And this wouldn’t even be “a libertarian alternative” to some standard government solution to this problem. The government barely has a solution. They segregate businesses into “essential” or “non-essential” and make sweeping policies for either one. There’s no room for nuance because they can’t trust us to be reasonable. And again, to be fair, we have no guidance for what reasonable behavior is. We need a price signal.

The half-baked solution I could come up with is to hold people and businesses liable for who they infect, even if by accident, all the way down the tree. That is to say, if I infect 3 people, they each infect 3 people, and so on, I’m liable in some way for the health outcomes of all of them. My liability would be shared, in some way, by other people in the tree, since they also hold some responsibility. This is the only way that comes to mind for everybody to account for the consequences of their actions. And it’s an absurd idea that’s impossible to implement.

Putting aside practicality, it also seems very harsh to hold everybody liable in this way. However, people could get liability insurance, just like they do for driving. Insurance companies would charge a premium based on each person’s behavior. Once you have an insurance policy covering your infection liability, you could open your business, which would increase your premium. You could outfit your business with extra precautions, which would then lower your premium a little. And so on. The insurance company, as usual, does the hard work of determining the risk profile of each scenario. From there you can decide whether the revenue you would get is worth the premium and the investment in safety precautions.

Perhaps you could take my half-baked idea and come up with some clever way to make it practical. Or maybe you have a new idea altogether. Let’s start the discussion.