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.

NEXT: Can the Government Just Close My Favorite Bar?

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  1. This post knocks down a straw man while ignoring the real critique that us left types are making.

    That critique is this: in the event of a pandemic, it isn’t simply that government power is warranted, it’s that socialist / big government solutions are basically the only things that work.

    Basically, we need the government to do such things as:

    1. Spend billions of dollars obtaining tests, medical supplies, and researching vaccines.
    2. Spend billions on treatment and isolation of infected individuals.
    3. Pay for sick leave /unemployment for all those whose employment has been interrupted.
    4. Bail out key businesses such as airlines to the tune of many, many billions of dollars.
    5. Impose significant, crushing restrictions on freedom, including such things as freedom of movement and the right to operate a business.
    6. Put huge amounts of money into interventions into the economy, such as guarantees by the Fed, stimulus packages, etc.

    Libertarianism simply cannot get a handle on this problem. Indeed, libertarians’ advocacy of free trade and free movement are a causative factor in pandemics. (Note: I am nonetheless sympathetic to those beliefs. But no doubt they are a causative factor here.)

    That’s what people really mean when they say pandemics discredit libertarianism. The smarter libertarians, like Megan McCardle, basically admit that socialism is necessary in these situations.

    1. Meh, most of those things can be figured out by the free market.

      >1. Spend billions of dollars obtaining tests, medical supplies, and researching vaccines.
      All these things are profitable.

      >2. Spend billions on treatment and isolation of infected individuals.
      There is nothing in the free market that prevents treatment.

      >3. Pay for sick leave /unemployment for all those whose employment has been interrupted.
      Yes, the government should reimburse people it has forced to shut down their lives. This is not an illiberal suggestion, the illiberal thing is what is happening in IL and other states where entire industries are being shut down with no compensation.

      >4. Bail out key businesses such as airlines to the tune of many, many billions of dollars.
      Just like the banking crisis, this just perpetuates bad business models.

      >5. Impose significant, crushing restrictions on freedom, including such things as freedom of movement and the right to operate a business.
      Or we could pay people to do the right thing and impose proper liability rules.

      >6. Put huge amounts of money into interventions into the economy, such as guarantees by the Fed, stimulus packages, etc.
      Not necessarily needed if the economy wasn’t intentionally, via policy choices, reliant on linear supply chains easy to disrupt.

      1. 1.
        a. Just because something is profitable doesn’t mean the socially optimal amount of resources are committed to it.

        b. There are distribution issues. People who can’t afford tests also need to get them. Which the free market would not do. So you need the government.

        2. Treatment and isolation are costly, and lots of people can’t afford it. Again, the government has to step in. It protects other people as well as themselves.

        3. If you force the government to compensate every business ordered to shut down, you deter forceful action to stop the pandemic. It’s better to just compensate ex post the people put out of work. Plus, that can be done at the federal level, avoiding the deterrent effect.

        4. So what are you going to do. Not bail out the airlines? So they go bankrupt. No planes fly for awhile. Then we come out of the pandemic, and… we have to form airlines again and hire back all the personnel. Which creates no social utility. Might as well just bail them out.

        Now you can make a libertarian argument that large businesses should have to purchase insurance for this, but again, only the federal government could possibly mandate that (and act as insurer of last resort).

        5. Liability rules only work with good information so that rational actors can make decisions. Without good information, a lot of businesses are going to make bad decisions, either panicking too much or thinking too much about short term profit. Plus, a lot of them won’t be able to pay out mass tort suits. So liability rules don’t work. This is Torts 101.

        6. No matter what our supply chains look like, you would still need a huge stimulus after a pandemic. It simply puts a lot of people out of business, necessarily.

        1. Addressing 4, then what’s the incentive for airlines to borrow as much money as they can at all times, maximize dividends to shareholders, and then demand a bailout when they “need” it? At least bankruptcy, which would wipe out the shareholders (and many bondholders) would create parties who have incentives for proper management?

          1. The government could, and arguably should, require that too big to fail businesses insure, the same way flood insurance is mandatory in some areas. We don’t do this but it isn’t a bad idea. The government would still have to provide the insurance though, because a private enterprise would go bankrupt.

        2. By definition, prices and free markets do achieve the socially optimal resource allocation.

          Unless, of course, you mean “your” instead of society’s optimal allocation.

          1. By definition, prices and free markets do achieve the socially optimal resource allocation.


          2. No, they achieve the economically optimal resource allocation.

    2. Whittington doesn’t even accurately portray libertarian positions on state power when it comes to collective action problems (which the pandemic response is) in that they support them, generally speaking, in emergencies (which, for example, climate change while a collective action problem is not an emergency).

      Meanwhile, it is entirely acceptable to be wary, as libertarians are, about the size and scale of the response. For instance, the propensity to bail out industries directly leads to bad incentives, it did for all the bailouts prior to 2008 and it will now, in that industries should have larger liability insurance and long term unemployement benefits disincentivise those who looking for work again in a month or two when they is all over.

    3. “Basically, we need the government to do such things as:

      5. Impose significant, crushing restrictions on freedom, including such things as freedom of movement and the right to operate a business.”

      We don’t “need” this at all. It will take a decade to recover from the government overreaction currently in vogue.

      Paraphrasing the perhaps mythical Vietnam comment “We had to destroy the economy in order to save it.”

    4. Does Libertarianism even exist, or are there people with libertarian values who have nothing else in common?

      Dilan’s comment convinces me of the latter. I don’t think there is anything I would ever agree with him on, other than a respect for personal liberties. And I doubt that he’d agree with me on the need for government to support religious orders in a crisis like thus, and facilitate alternative worship with public resources if we must close churches.

      I think that American politics today is divided on a schism between Progressive Socialism and Populist Individualism, and the question of if the state should relate to people as individuals or people as families.

    5. “3. Pay for sick leave /unemployment for all those whose employment has been interrupted.”

      I’m not sure how we can tell who’s employment has been interrupted and who’s hasn’t. We don’t want people coming in to work sick, but we also don’t want people to stop working when we need them to work, especially when we need their services. Are we really going to expect, say, supermarket workers to keep working, but pay bartenders unemployment?

      1. And bartenders can always work a deli counter, the skills are nearly identical.

        We had (and again will have) a serious labor shortage in the low-wage jobs. I doubt that a lot of prudent employers are going to be willing to nonchalantly lose all their employees, knowing how difficult it was to obtain them in the past.

    6. “Basically, we need the government to do such things as:

      1. Spend billions of dollars obtaining tests, medical supplies, and researching vaccines.”

      We needed them to not prevent private labs from developing tests. At least so far as testing goes, government has been the problem, not the solution.

      1. While that wasn’t a good thing, that wasn’t the reason we didn’t have any tests either.

        1. Yeah, apparently ip lawyers are also part of the problem.

        2. And if you’re claiming that the reason we don’t have tests is that Trump wanted to keep his numbers down, I have yet to see evidence for that outside of misleading media coverage.

          1. I think the big issue was not accepting the WHO test. The motives for that decision, I don’t really know.

            1. It’s not clear how much of an effect that had. We developed our own test during the Ebola outbreak as well.

              1. And is sound like there is alot of BS going around about this. We didn’t reject kits from the WHO, but the CDC elected to design its own test, which doesn’t appear to be unusual.

                1. It was a mistake in retrospect.

    7. Your list is certainly debatable, particularly #4 and #6, but for the sake of discussion I’ll agree that, yes, in times of crisis such as we are in now and were in during World War II, massive government action is required and these actions resemble those of a socialist society. But it doesn’t therefore follow that that should be the norm all the time. In fact, it argues for the opposite. At the outbreak of WW2, the US government spending, despite the new deal, was no more than 15% of GDP, which left plenty of room for it to expand, as it did, by a factor of 3 to almost 50%. Right now we’re damn near 50% already! Where is the extra spending to come from?

    8. Libertarians aren’t anarchists. You might as well say socialists aren’t true socialists unless they determine on a case by case basis if a woman can have an abortion.

      1. I don’t know about anarchists, but many libertarians are a lot more convinced about the need for a minimal state that is only slightly bigger even in a crisis, and see the sweeping powers the government actually needs as dangerous and statist.

        The smart ones realize the problem though.

  2. What I haven’t seen yet, but it has to be coming, is calling all libertarian critiques of the current lockdown mentality ageist. I mean, the lockdown itself is ageist- I’ve watched multiple men over 60 scold us young people and tell us to stop living our lives to protect them. But they have the power to make everyone miserable and destroy the economy over how scared they are. And so long as they have us all on lockdown, we can’t vote them out. So what do we do?

    1. I am not sure this is a serious comment or attempt at trolling, it’s so inane.

      1. that’s the same reaction I have to these lockdowns.

    2. There is a difference between Libertarian and Libertine.

      I don’t drive 80 MPH through school zones because while I don’t have children, other people do and there is a concept known as “social responsibility.” Likewise, you have a responsibility to your fellow human beings, the world does not revolve around you.

      And as to “voting them out”, I think the greater issue is them voting you out — that our collective liberties will be lost because of people such as you and your libertine values.

      1. […] and there is a concept known as “social responsibility.”

        While I agree, I’m not a libertarian/Libertarian, and that concept is routinely scoffed at ’round here, putting selfishness and greed as a higher virtue then any sort of community commitment.

  3. If anything the grocery stores around here have been a shining example of why capitalism is superior.
    -Poorer communities with limited access have Dollar Stores that are decently stocked and from social media reports are actually better stocked as of today then many mainstream stores.
    -Even though around here most “big box” stores were rather empty on Thursday night/Friday most got stocked up on Saturday and Sunday.
    -I was just at a more expensive grocery store and the shelves were decently stocked. Items there are not the cheapest but beans, rice, pasta, and some canned goods are still around. Gallons of name brand water can still be found. Same with toilet paper.
    -And FTW Instacart is still filling orders with about a 2 hour delivery timeframe. Indeed, saw the service in a local store filling up a few carts. Stopped on guy to ask why he was still working and he said “the tips are amazing…I got $100 for an elderly guy just for dropping off $75 in groceries…”

    1. Market Basket (a New England success story) was literally able to haul stuff into the store faster than customers could haul it out. It was close, but they largely managed to do it.

    2. Ugh….here in the anti-capitalist People’s Republic of NJ, we have a few problems with some grocer supply chains. Bleach is hard to come by. Whole organic chicken is gone. Toilet paper? Fuggedaboutit. They sell out quick despite the 4p/p limit. You need to hunt for stuff in multiple stores, which is precisely what not to do, since we need to limit exposure to others.

      Memo to Wegman’s Grocer: Get your act together! Improve distribution. Shop Rite did. They had bleach, toilet paper, and corned beef (for tomorrow!). Wegman’s had…bupkis. Take three guesses where I am not shopping next week, assuming I have to go shopping.

      Now bars/restaurants are closed. Schools are closed. Gyms are closed. Our Governor is toying with a 8pm-5am mandatory curfew. Maybe the People’s Republic of NJ is an example of what not to do.

      1. Whole organic chicken is gone.

        Dr. Maslow, we have a winner.

        1. Touche. 🙂

    3. I was just at a Dollar General and the place was well stocked. Cashier said they got a shipment earlier in the day and since they keep a streamlined inventory it is easy to replenish. They had toilet paper, bottled water, plenty of canned goods, and at Walmart prices too. In fact, some things were cheaper then Walmart. Walked out with a car full of stuff and it was about a $60 bill.

  4. The answer to the headline question is of course No but that is because it is never acceptable to be a libertarian.

  5. Pandemic is the health of the state.

  6. Normal responses right here.

    Libertarianism is fine because there is not pandemic I guess.

    1. Quaint.

      How did thou feelest during yonder H1N1 pandemic of yesteryear?

      No pandemic response from your boy the Big O, either. Yet here we are with Trump large and in charge.

      1. Nice attempt to change the subject.

        Also, you fail at even that, link.

      2. How did thou feelest during yonder H1N1 pandemic of yesteryear?

        There are plenty of stories out there explaining why facile comparisons of the coronavirus outbreak to H1N1 are inapt. You should look for them, instead of relying on your twitter feed echo chamber.

        In any event, since the Trumptards are gung-ho about measuring Trump’s handling of the coronavirus according to the standard set by Obama, can we just agree now that, if fatalities in the US from the coronavirus have exceeded 13,000 by the election, he will have manifestly failed? Or should we pencil in your future goalpost-shifting, now?

      3. Bah, you two are so transparently partisan here, it’s hard to take you seriously, so I won’t.

        Trump has handled this thing well, all things considered.

        Obama, he blew H1N1 off, which might have been the right thing to do considering there was no panic inducing press at the time, as they were all slobbering over the guy. The panic is worse than the disease.

        1. Get your news from someone besides Trump, moron.

        2. This is a discussion about libertarian policies. I noticed lots of denial and minimization in the thread. Your only defense is off-topic partisan attacks. Not a great sign you’re dealing with reality very well.

          Speaking of reality, Obama didn’t blow H1N1 off, as any amount of research, including the link I provided you with, will reveal. So quit with your facile lying, it’s not a good look.

        3. Well, that descended into ad hominem territory rather quickly.

          Sarc, when you first posted, there was only a few comments that minimized nothing…just some debate on the level of bailouts and stimulus spending necessary. You are as transparent as a window.

          Yea, Obama blew off H1N1. Any take other than that is partisan hackery. Like I said though, it was probably the right decision at the time. Trump, aside from travel bans, was going to do the same, but was forced not to, mostly by a panicky press.

          1. You keep repeating the same BS about Obama without actually backing it up.

            You also don’t know what ad hominem means.

          2. Well, that descended into ad hominem territory rather quickly.

            I agree. After all, you accused us both of being “transparently partisan” and resolved not to take us seriously.

            Like I said, if you want to measure by the Obama-stick, let’s see where we are in November. Let’s see if Trump can keep coronavirus deaths below 13,000. We may have to measure on a state-by-state basis, though, to get a true picture, since he’s doing jack shit, and governors are having to pick up the slack.

          3. Don’t walk back the insults now, may as well embrace it bucko. I was calling a spade a spade by noting your partisanship.

            Look, it is pretty simple. Trump cut off travel to China, way back in January. If he did nothing else other than that, he saved lots lives. Obama did not cut off travel to Mexico during H1N1, costing lives by not, as is now popular parlance, bending the curve. He blew it off. Maybe the economic disruption was more valuable than human life to him; we make societal decisions like that all the time.

            I get it. Obama is your boy, you dislike Trump and don’t want to give credit where credit is due. In all honesty, in your place I might lean the same way.

          4. SimonP has never heard of federalism it seems.

          5. ….and that even Gavin Neussum of California has been praising Trump for his response. Lol

            1. Still providing no evidence about Obama, just evidence you haven’t cared to do any research about epidemiology.

              Simon and I both asked for evidence, you continue to refuse. At this point you’re either trolling or lying.

  7. “can one be a libertarian in a pandemic? It is worth breaking the question down a bit.”

    The challenge is that libertarianism inherently includes agreeing the other people should be allowed to do things that they choose to do. Some libertarians are smart enough to to allow for limits to be placed on other people’s rights to do things that have an effect on their own choices… usually pointing out that rights find their natural limits where they interact with other peoples’ rights (the prototypical example is “your right to swing your arms freely end at the tip of my nose”. There’s two problems at work here… sick people should stay home and keep their infections to themselves, and people should keep their panics in check, and not buy up all the hand sanitizers and toilet paper at the Walmart, so the people who need these things can get ahold of them, and the corollary that people who try to profiteer on the threat of pandemic should be intentionally infected and left to suffer.

  8. How are you supposed to increase the supply of something (such as facemasks, soap or toilet paper) if you don’t let the price go up?

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  10. “There is a tendency in any crisis for the crowd to yell “do something. . . . ”


    What exactly happens in the Whittington household when one of your children accidently swallows poison?

    Or if the house is on fire?

    Or there’s a terrible accident with several, severally injured people?

    It’s the govt’s job to be prepared for and then address crises.

    Shit happens and govts are the ultimate insurance policy.

    1. As a former member of a VOLUNTEER fire department, let me assure you that it is possible to deal with all of the above without the fiat of government bureaucrats.

      That said, there is a very big difference between “do something” and a specific “do this” — and there are established protocols as to what to do in each of your examples — everyone knows them.

  11. I think it’s perfectly fair to note that “libertarian” approaches to the market are what keep our stores stocked in times of crisis. I think there’s plenty of evidence to that effect. Similarly, regulations that are beneficial in times of normalcy may easily be eclipsed by fast-evolving health crises like global pandemics.

    The problem is characterizing these cherry-picked examples as demonstrating some broader libertarian competence for handling pandemics. The fact of the matter is that, in any fully libertarian society, a global pandemic will simply kill lots of people. Libertarians should acknowledge this, if they want to be acknowledged as anything other than clever sophists.

    For example – in a libertarian society, there would be no top-down constraints on movement during a pandemic. People would make their own risk assessments based on their own imperfect sense of the pandemic’s risks, likely resulting in widespread contagion. This would quickly overburden a private healthcare market that is geared towards a lower level of demand, leading to people going without lifesaving care. Yes, in a libertarian society, there would be ample incentive to ramp up capacity quickly – and to price services according to demand. But in the meantime, people would die, and a lot of those people would just be poorer people.

    Similarly, the lack of mandatory paid sick leave and other support services for the poor would mean that more people would go to work while sick, transmitting the virus to others and exacerbating the crisis. New medical treatments, drugs, and vaccines would be fast-tracked, but so would sham treatments and quacks – and the latter would get to market, faster. New treatments could prove massively beneficial, and they may prove to be duds or counterproductive, meaning that there is a chance both that the private markets would save the world or kill a lot of people trying. Meanwhile, there would be no central authority giving people reliable information about what they should do, what the symptoms are, what the behaviors are high-risk, and so on – they would rely, as we frequently are now, on informal information networks that may not have the correct or up-to-date facts.

    None of that is to condemn libertarianism. We could conceivably look at all of that and conclude that the costs are worth the benefits. But it seems to me that any intellectually honest and reasonably informed libertarian must acknowledge that this is what a fully “libertarian” approach to a global pandemic would look like. If that is not an outcome you want to embrace, then you should not make these kinds of cherry-picked arguments like they are adequate defenses of libertarianism. They are just arguments in favor of a slightly more competent regulatory state.

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