Beware of Dogma

This article appeared on Washington Examiner on March 26, 2020.
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One of the hottest takes currently circulating the internet is that the coronavirus pandemic has eliminated all of the libertarians — an outcome perhaps most surprising to those of us who are libertarian and still exist. Metaphysical riddles aside, the prevalent view that America’s COVID-19 crisis has rendered libertarianism inutile suffers from myriad errors. Most important (and annoying) is that it seems not to understand what libertarianism actually is and what its ideal response to a global pandemic might be. Even odder, it ignores the many ways that American society has become more, not less, libertarian in recent weeks.

On a basic level, libertarianism is the view “that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others,” in the words of Cato Institute Vice President David Boaz. Implicit in even this simple definition are two key points that critics seem not to grasp. First, while libertarians highly value economic and social freedom, they also recognize its limits and therefore oppose human actions that directly harm others. Second, and because of the first, mainstream libertarians see government action as necessary to protect individuals’ natural rights (pre‐​government rights such as a right to life, liberty, and property) and allowed in (albeit rare) cases of legitimate “market failure.” At the same time, libertarians understand that governments are composed of fallible and corruptible human beings and, when combined with a license to use force or the threat thereof, have the potential to commit idiocy at best and grievous injury at worst. As such, libertarians believe government action requires strict limits, skepticism, and scrutiny, leaving the remaining joys and necessities of life to the things better suited to deliver them: markets, states and localities, civil society, and individuals. Such ideals are embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

For these reasons, there is much that a “libertarian” government could and probably would do in response to COVID-19, such as —

  • ensuring the free flow of interstate and international commerce, especially medical goods and services, in order to make sure that resources (capital, goods, and labor) are produced or distributed as quickly and efficiently as possible (as opposed to delayed in bureaucracy or taxed at the border);
  • conducting international diplomacy and multilateral coordination of public health and economic issues in order to share best practices, ensure global medical collaboration on potential cures, and prevent counterproductive, “beggar‐​thy‐​neighbor” policies such as hoarding or export restrictions;
  • policing interstate and international fraud and other crimes to protect the life and property of American citizens;
  • providing sound monetary policy to keep financial markets afloat; and
  • patching longstanding market failures or those caused by a historic catastrophe by offering, for example, multibillion‐​dollar prizes for medical researchers who invent a COVID-19 vaccine and agree to give it away for free.

You might even find libertarians supportive of coercive government “social distancing” mandates to the extent that such rules are required to prevent individuals from harming others through the intentional or negligent spread of infectious disease — an argument that many (though certainly not all) libertarians put forth when supporting mandatory vaccine policies.

At the same time, of course, libertarians would cheer the role of free markets, private businesses, private charities, states and localities, and individuals working to ease suffering or solve medical or economic problems caused by the pandemic — problems that Washington, D.C., is ill‐​suited to address efficiently. Indeed, during the weeks of federal squabbling over national rescue aid or the invocation of the Defense Production Act, private individuals and businesses have rapidly adapted to provide critical goods and services such as surgical masks or special shopping hours for the elderly.

But, of course, that’s an ideal — a situation we do not have. Instead, the federal government has for decades been deeply involved in national health policy and related economic regulation and has spent trillions to address these issues. Unfortunately, the initial returns on this bipartisan investment have been less than stellar (no libertarian gloating there, I promise).

Yet, instead of undermining libertarian ideals, recent events have seen large segments of American society reinforce or embrace them. Indeed, beyond the sheer incompetence of the U.S. government’s initial response to COVID-19, the last few weeks have revealed a strong libertarian response from individuals in the private sector and global community. In the face of onerous regulations, bureaucratic turf wars, and cynical political calculation blocking the rapid production and dissemination of testing equipment, we’ve witnessed private businesses and individuals taking the lead on not just medical innovation, but also social distancing, public hygiene, mass communication, and assistance for vulnerable groups such as hospitality workers or the elderly. Cross‐​border, “permissionless” innovation has occurred at a breakneck pace among global medical research groups seeking to map the virus and then to develop effective remedies. And states and localities have stepped in with public health and safety directives where the federal government fell short, prodding federal authorities to do more.

The inadequate early response of the federal government to the crisis has provided abundant evidence of the unintended negative consequences of anti‐​market restrictions such as protectionism — for instance, hand sanitizer tariffs exacerbating shortages — and anti‐​gouging laws causing hoarding (and thus shortages) of daily necessities. Yet in the days since, even the government has begun to get out of its own way, so to speak. We have seen tariff exemptions on imports of medical equipment, local police delaying arrests for nonviolent crimes, and even ICE begin to pause some immigration enforcement methods during the outbreak. States, localities, and the federal government have launched “emergency” efforts to waive “never‐​needed” regulations that have blocked or impeded the provision of medical services across state lines or via the internet, the rapid production of medical equipment such as ventilators, drug research and development, commercial transport, and the production, sale, and delivery of food and drink. Cities across America are releasing low‐​risk prisoners to free up police resources or prevent the spread of the disease.

All of these policies and reactions have in some form or another been planks of the libertarian agenda, which emphasizes free market capitalism, federalism, deregulation, occupational licensing reform, criminal justice reform, liberalized trade and immigration, and the benefits of private action over political action in the vast majority of cases. As America’s testing fiasco goes from minor annoyance to major problem (and potential scandal), the most important of these policies going forward could very well be the deregulatory agenda, as decades of red tape appear to have turned agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into maddening, risk‐​averse barriers to the rapid production and dissemination of life‐​saving goods.

None of which is to suggest that there are only libertarians in a pandemic. In reality, the COVID-19 crisis is a once‐​in‐​a‐​lifetime “black swan” event that requires everyone to put aside much of their ideology for a moment, accept the unfortunate reality we’re given, and just get stuff done. For libertarians, this might mean not opposing some once‐​unthinkable government action in order to stave off economic collapse and even greater state expansion and liberty infringement in the future. Open Twitter right now, in fact, and you’ll see libertarian economists and pundits not simply praising worthwhile deregulatory policies but also debating the most effective ways for government to compensate, via immense, non‐​means‐​tested deficit spending, the millions of Americans’ whose livelihoods were just confiscated by the state. In normal times, such plans would be libertarian apostasy, raising legitimate concerns over exploding debt, moral hazard, fraud, and unintended disincentives (e.g., for work). But these are not normal times, and most libertarians seem to get that.

Do our critics?

Scott Lincicome

Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and visiting lecturer at Duke University.