It's almost never a good idea to use a public health crisis to score points against your political opponents—and if you're going to do it, you really ought to try to describe the situation accurately.
Actually, that second part applies even when there's no public health crisis.
It has, however, become fashionable for certain elements of the Very Online Left to use the ongoing coronavirus outbreak as evidence that libertarians either don't actually exist or that we quickly abandon our principles in the face of a pandemic. This recent outbreak of libertarian bashing—which makes only slightly more sense than the claims made by some on the right that libertarians are secretly running everything in Washington, D.C. and plotting to get your kids addicted to porn—seems to have started with a pithy tweet from Atlantic writer Derek Thompson on March 3. But it's become a ubiquitous online "take" since Sunday afternoon, when Bloomberg opinion writer Noah Smith logged on.
Libertarians: Government sucks, let's hollow out the civil service
*Pandemic comes, hollowed-out civil service is unable to respond effectively*
Libertarians: See, told you government sucks
— Noah Smith ???? (@Noahpinion) March 8, 2020
The take may have achieved its final form—at least let's hope so—with The Atlantic's publication on Tuesday of an 800-word piece from staff writer Peter Nicholas carrying the headline (sigh) "There Are No Libertarians in a Pandemic."
Lazy? Yes. Inaccurate? Yes.
Nicholas' article opens with a scene from CPAC—that's the Conservative Political Action Conference, by the way—and proceeds to detail all the ways in which the Trump administration has botched the federal response to the new coronavirus, called COVID-19. You know, the same Trump administration that is just full to the brim with libertarians. The same administration that is raising barriers to free trade, making it more difficult for people to move to America, giving bail-outs to politically favored industries, considering more bailouts to more politically favored industries, trying to regulate free speech online, suing newspapers in an attempt to curb the First Amendment, and launching missiles into foreign countries without congressional authorization. That administration? That's the libertarian one?
Nicholas tries to get away with this nonsense by setting up a false equivalency. Trump is campaigning against socialism, you see, and libertarians also dislike socialism—so therefore the Trump administration must be libertarian. Right? Therefore, when Trump starts talking like a socialist himself—by promising coronavirus bailouts and the repurposing of disaster recovery funds to cover people who come down with COVID-19—it is proof positive that the libertarian world has abandoned its commitment to smaller government. Voila!
Perhaps The Atlantic's editorial staff has self-quarantined from its duties—how else to explain how an otherwise thoughtful publication could allow a headline that confuses libertarianism with anything that the Trump administration is doing? For that matter, maybe Smith and Thompson believe that an army of strawmen are an effective defense against COVID-19. I hope it works out for them.
As a libertarian in a pandemic, let me first assure you that we do in fact still exist.
And, in fact, it is the free market—and, to a lesser extent, its defenders—who will help you survive the new coronavirus. All those groceries you're stocking up on in advance of the expected collapse of civilization? They didn't end up on grocery store shelves because government officials ordered it to happen or because someone was feeling particularly generous today. That gallon jug of hand sanitizer delivered to your front door less than 48 hours after you ordered it online? It didn't show up because Trump tweeted it into existence or because the surgeon general is driving a delivery truck around the country.
Bottled water? Face masks? They're available because someone is turning a profit by making and selling them. The first latex gloves were invented in the 1880s but the disposable variety that are so useful right now have "only been available since 1964, as innovated by the private company Ansell, founded by Eric Ansell in Melbourne, Australia. Thank you international trade," notes Jeffrey Tucker, editorial director of the American Institute for Economic Research.
Sure, one consequence of the success of private enterprise in reshaping the world is an interconnected planet that allows for something like COVID-19 to spread more rapidly than would have been possible in the past. But modern technology has also allowed doctors, private enterprises, and (yes) governments to respond more quickly than ever before.
It also means that you'll have access to nearly every piece of film, television, and music ever recorded by human beings if you have to self-quarantine for a week or two. It means that humans have the ability to live far healthier lives than they did in 1918, when a global flu pandemic killed 50 million people. The people who live through the current coronavirus outbreak because of stronger immune systems made possible by steady diets won't show up on any list of statistics after the coronavirus has passed, but capitalism is at least partially to thank for their survival.
In short, if you had to pick any time in human history to live through a global pandemic, you'd be incredibly foolish not to pick the current time. And the reason you'd pick this moment in history probably has less to do with who is running the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the World Health Organization, and more to do with the technological and medical advances made possible by free enterprise.
"What is the mighty contribution of government these days?" asks Tucker. "To order quarantines but not to tell you whether you can step outside, how you will get groceries, how long it will last, who you can invite in, and when it will all end. Don't try to call the authorities. They have better and bigger things to worry about than your sorry plight that is causing you sleepless nights and endless worry. Thank goodness for digital technology that allows you to communicate with friends and family."
Yeah, there are libertarians in a pandemic. We're the ones willing to acknowledge how much more all of this would suck if the market didn't exist.