The current controversy about how to deal with Ebola in America tells us a lot about America, and very little about Ebola. In an excellent blog, Scott Alexander discusses how Ebola has become the latest battleground between the ‘red tribe’ and the ‘blue tribe.’
It’s very telling that the opinions on the need for quarantine have polarized along the party lines – yet another sign of how polarized the country has become. Perhaps the Democrats, who charge that Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey and a possible candidate for presidency in 2016, is using the issue for political gain, are right. But it doesn’t negate the basic wisdom of the policy that takes steps to prevent an occurrence of a catastrophic event, even if an unlikely one.
I don’t belong to either red or blue tribe. And this blog is resolutely non-political and non-partisan. Yet I agree with Christie. In fact, in the previous blog (published before the New Jersey quarantine was announced) I wondered why such a sensible precaution as imposing quarantine on travelers from the West African countries afflicted with the Ebola epidemic was not in place by the time Dr. Craig Spencer came back to New York.
Folks, it’s true that the chances that Ebola will develop into a catastrophic epidemic in the United State are indeed not very high. But they are not zero. We really don’t know as much about Ebola, or epidemics in general, as we may think. If we really understood Ebola, then why did Craig Spencer or Amber Vinson (the Dallas nurse who cared for the first patient in the US to die of Ebola) become infected? Surely they took all the necessary precautions.
Small probability events do happen. They are Black Swans, popularized by Nassim Taleb.
Suppose that the chance of an Ebola epidemic in the US is 1 percent, and it’s a relatively mild one, as they go, say, it will kill 10,000 people. That’s the mathematical expectation of 100 deaths. Balanced against 100 human lives, what’s 21 days spent in isolation by Traci Hickox and by other travelers from West Africa, including medical professionals (who are not really great in numbers)?
Traci Hickox sees it differently.
“I feel like my basic human rights have been violated,” Hickox told CNN on Monday.
“I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners?” she wrote in a commentary in the Dallas Morning News.
She sounds like all she cares about is herself. It’s particularly jarring, because she supposedly went to Africa because she wanted to help people, not for her own selfish reasons. So why not make a small sacrifice for the sake of New Yorkers, now that she got back?
What’s surprising to me is how solidly the blue tribe has lined up behind her – from the White House down. The framing of the quarantine issue as a human rights issue is all wrong. Public health is a public good. Public goods are produced by people cooperating, and cooperation requires sacrifice. In this case sacrifice is quite mild (a few days of freedom) and the pay-off is potentially huge.
Our “human rights” are constantly sacrificed for the sake of common good. For example, I am made feeling like a criminal and a prisoner every time I want to board a plane, even though I know perfectly well that I am not a terrorist. More broadly we all have to pay taxes, even though many feel that it’s a legalized theft.
The nature of cooperation, which is the only way to produce costly public goods, is that it requires sacrifice. It has nothing to do with human rights.
One sad realization I had while following the debate over quarantine is that neither of the tribes in America cares about cooperation. The blue tribe allows the rhetoric of individual rights to trump considerations of the public good. The red tribe is as bad, with its fascination with competition and untrammeled markets and its hatred of government (one the most effective ways to coordinate the solution of cooperation problems, especially at the national level). No wonder cooperation is declining America. No wonder cooperation has been declining between the two tribes.