Libertarians and the Zika Virus

The open access medical commons and the role of government


University of Florida

Zika virus is coming to the mainland U.S. this summer. It is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and is now known to target developing brain cells and thus substantially raise the microencephaly rate among children whose mothers had been infected during their pregnancies. In addition, Zika infections also increase the risk of the Gullain-Barre paralyzing syndrome. The Zika virus has spread throughout Latin America and the Caribbean; the outbreak in Puerto Rico is growing fast. So far no local mosquito-borne Zika virus disease cases have been reported in the mainland U.S., but there have been 388 travel-associated cases.

Pharmaceutical companies are working on a vaccine, but until one becomes available mosquito control is the only real way to limit the outbreak. In addition, modern biotechnology could be used to create mosquitoes genetically engineered to resist the virus or even kill off the mosquitoes that spread it.

Libertarians are justifiably skeptical when federal health bureaucrats seek to expand their powers by claiming that obesity and gun violence are public health emergencies. However, infectious diseases occur in the medical open access commons where individuals (especially in the absence of a vaccine or suitable anti-viral medications) have a hard time taking effective measures to protect themselves against infection. In this case, the medical commons that we all share is threatened by a disease that can be best limited by implementing widespread measures to kill the mosquitoes that spread it. There are three ways to address problems in a commons: regulate them, privatize them, or ignore them. In the case of Zika privatizing won't work, although I suppose we could all drape mosquito netting or soak ourselves in DEET before going outside this summer.


The Obama administration has asked Congress to appropriate $1.9 billion to fight the spread of the disease. Congress is balking at appropriating the requested funds on the grounds it will increase the federal deficit. Congress wants the Obama Administration to shift some funds previously appropriated for Ebola control to the fight against Zika. This fight needs to be resolved before summer when Zika is likely to begin its spread in the U.S.

For more background on how to handle the medical commons, see Reason's forum, What is the Libertarian Response to Ebola?