The Corner

Ebola and Rand Paul’s Conundrum

Senator Rand Paul has aggressively attacked the Obama administration for its failure to prevent the Ebola virus from coming to America. He’s right to do this: The Centers for Disease Control has a mandate to protect the public health, and what is more important to the public health than keeping a communicable virus that resists virtually all medical treatment from our country’s people?  

Paul’s credibility as an administration critic suffers, however, because of one simple fact: His 2014 budget proposed cutting CDC spending by 20 percent from FY 2008 levels (see p. 35). That provision would reduce CDC spending to about $4.8 billion; it is estimated to spend close to $6.9 billion in FY 2014. Paul’s budget, therefore, calls for a 30 percent cut from current CDC spending.

Now, I don’t subscribe to the liberal budget equation that spending equals competence. Clearly any serious public health agency ought to prioritize the prevention of mass epidemics over any other priority regardless of the amount it spends. The CDC itself notes this by listing “protect[ing]Americans from infectious diseases” as its No. 1 goal (see p. 7). Nevertheless, Paul’s proposal to reduce CDC spending is symptomatic of a large problem with his thinking.

Paul clearly has a theory of non-government. In his view, government is generally a bad thing and we need to reduce it as fast and as deep as we can. However, cases like the CDC/Ebola crisis call for a theory of government. No serious politician, not even the quasi-libertarian senator from the Bluegrass State, thinks that the federal government ought to have no role in public health.  

The way liberals argue about these things means that any conservative who proposes budget cuts is attacked for caring more about rich folks’ money than average Americans’ lives. Senator Paul and others who think like him can only avoid the political impact of this attack if they develop a serious theory of government that explains clearly and in a principled way what government should do and what it shouldn’t.

In the CDC’s case, that means having a clear idea of what the CDC’s mandate should be and what resources are needed to carry out that mandate. Is $4.8 billion enough to carry that mandate out? I have no idea; it might be more than enough, or it might be woefully inadequate. Given that what is primarily at stake in the Ebola case is the CDC’s existing authority to initiate travel bans and isolation orders for people with “highly contagious diseases,” it’s pretty laughable to argue that proposals to cut funding for more research on gun-violence prevention or HIV caused Ebola to come to Dallas. But I would guess that Senator Paul and his staff also have no idea if that figure is appropriate for a properly designed CDC, or whether the amounts he proposes to spend for most items in his model budget is enough to meet each program’s objective – and that’s a problem for someone who wants to lead our nation.

— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Henry Olsen — Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an editor at UnHerd.com, and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

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