Let me say upfront, I am less worried about an Ebola epidemic in the US than some folks. I can also sympathize with public health officials and the Obama administration in their obvious desire to avoid a national panic. What I can’t sympathize with is the way in which that effort has only fueled a panic. The communications operation of the federal government has been classically Obama-esque. At every turn they’ve over promised and under-delivered. It seems obvious to me that the two main drivers of this failure are an undue prioritization of politics and a typical overconfidence in the government bureaucracy. Whenever you listen to Friedan, Fauci or Obama talk about this, they do so in a way that leaves you wondering what the real facts are. What are they not telling us? At every turn they issue categorical statements about how things are under control and that X or Y won’t happen and when X or Y happen, they say it’s because of a breach in protocol they cannot identify. It’s as if the theory of government competence is more important than dealing with the reality of the situation at hand. That theory is only reassuring when it conforms to reality. When it doesn’t, it makes the next categorical statement not merely less reassuring but actually more worrisome.
Which brings me to the travel ban. I’m largely with the editors on this. One needn’t impose a complete cordon sanitaire around these countries. But you can quite easily create a system where you need special permission to come to the US. We put conditions on visas all the time. It strikes me as entirely reasonable to put some restrictions on who comes here, restrictions grounded not in hysteria but in simple common sense.
That said I’ve had private conversations with experts who think a travel ban is unnecessary and could be counterproductive. The best argument they offer is that a travel ban could be destabilizing to the governments in West Africa. Some people say “So what?” And I agree with them if the argument is based on some vague sense that we need to hold our public health policies hostage to the continuity of the Liberian regime. But it’s also possible that our public health is better protected if those governments do not unravel. I agree that we should do everything we can to contain Ebola where it currently exists (If Ebola breaks out in Nigeria, we should all be very afraid.). And if a travel ban does that, I’m for a travel ban.
My problem with the public arguments from the administration is that they are so underwhelming. We constantly hear that a travel ban would make it impossible to send volunteers to Africa to help contain the disease. Really? We can’t charter planes anymore? Is the military out of aircraft that could fly CDC crews and supplies to West Africa? It’s hinted that it would be somehow unfair or mean or unjust to bar travel to the US. But that’s nonsense. There is no civil right to fly to America. Frieden said today that if we imposed a travel ban we’d lose the ability to screen people coming to the US from West Africa. Uh, right. And if you lock the doors to your home, you lose the ability frisk intruders. It’s arguments like this lead people to think, “What aren’t they telling us?”
The debate over a travel ban is of a piece with the administration’s larger communications failures. They don’t lack for confidence, they lack the ability to persuade people their confidence is justified.