The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Can You Be a Libertarian in a Pandemic?


For some reason, socialists have decided that now would be a good time gloat about empty supermarket shelves in capitalist countries. I had not realized that pointing out that life in emergency conditions in liberal capitalist democracies can look somewhat like life in ordinary conditions in an alternative political-economic regime could be used as a knock on capitalism, but there it is. Happily, the empty shelves in the United States will be restocked (and, indeed, my local grocer was restocking most goods as rapidly as the shelves were emptying).

Others have suggested more broadly that "there are no libertarians in an epidemic." It seems particularly weird to hold up the actions of the Trump administration as evidence of that, though perhaps it is in keeping with the odd fantasy that libertarians have been running the world for the past several decades. Whatever the Trump administration has been doing since 2017, it cannot generally be characterized as libertarian.

But laying aside the particulars of the current administration, can one be a libertarian in a pandemic? It is worth breaking the question down a bit.

One might ask whether there are any libertarian-friendly public policy proposals that are particularly useful in a pandemic. The answer is yes. Of course, a libertarian would say that. There is a long-running theme in politics of advocates urging "now more than ever" their long-held policy preferences should be implemented to address whatever the situation du jour might be. Even so, some libertarian policy proposals have particular relevance in the current situation. As some have pointed out, some libertarian initiatives would be helpful here. Some government constraints have proven counterproductive to the effort to combat COVID-19, and some loosening of regulatory constraints might facilitate private and state and local efforts responding to the current situation. Even if some of those regulations make sense in more normal circumstances, they might be excessively burdensome now.

A traditional libertarian skepticism of big government solutions to social problems is still warranted. There is a tendency in any crisis for the crowd to yell "do something," and for politicians to respond with "here's something," even if the something in question is wasteful, useless or even damaging. Libertarian skepticism about the purpose and design of immediate policy measures can be helpful in separating the wheat from the chaff in addressing even an emergency situation. The normal logic of political rent-seeking and incompetence does not magically disappear in a crisis, though we might have to be more tolerant of such political failings in order to deal with a fast-moving situation.

Libertarians have been particularly sensitive to the fact that crises have often proven to be moments that shift power and resources to the government that far outlive the crisis. In the midst of World War I, Randolph Bourne (no libertarian) observed that "war is the health of the state." Emergency conditions like pandemics can do the same. The machinery of government can be vastly expanded and strengthened during these periods to the detriment of liberty and civil society in the future. We should be cautious about putting in place anything other than temporary measures for addressing the current crisis. If there are long-term reforms that need to be considered in the aftermath so as to better prepare for future epidemics, there will be time to carefully consider them later.

Libertarians should recognize that classical liberal principles rest on certain assumptions. Libertarians are not (generally) anarchists. They recognize that there is a need for the state to secure rights and address the wrongs that individuals can inflict on others. Where the government is needed to adequately secure rights and prevent harms, it should be competent and empowered to perform the task with which it has been entrusted. No one is well served by having a hulking but ineffectual state or an interventionist but incompetent government. Moreover, the control of the spread of infectious diseases is one of the classic things that we expect the state to do. It is in our long-term collective interest to accept restrictions on individual liberty that are necessary to contain the spread of a deadly disease and remedy its ill effects. Some limits on individual freedom are both necessary and proper in these circumstances that would emphatically not be necessary nor proper in more normal circumstances.

It is useful and necessary to question government action. There are bound to be reasonable disagreements on the best government action to take in particular circumstances. Some mistakes will be made along the way, and we should insist that those mistakes be identified and corrected whenever possible. But it neither a knock against libertarianism nor a sacrifice of libertarian principles to accept the fact that sometimes government action is needed, and a pandemic is one of times.