A recent headline at The Atlantic declared that, “There are No Libertarians in an Epidemic.” Written by a White House reporter, the story is just one of a growing number of think pieces and commentary smugly asserting that in times of crisis, libertarians abandon their free-market ideals and demand big government intervention.
But, rhetorical flourishes aside, just as there are atheists in foxholes, there are libertarians present in a crisis; it’s just that nobody listens to them. And because those in power tend to exploit the widespread fear that accompanies national emergencies, often in ways that infringe on civil liberties, an epidemic is exactly when libertarians are needed most.
In fairness to The Atlantic article, it was less an examination of views on limited government and individual liberty than a commentary on President Trump’s anti-socialist rhetoric in light of his proposed big government response to COVID-19. In fairness to libertarians, being opposed to socialism doesn’t make someone libertarian, something the current administration certainly isn’t.
As Eric Boehm at the libertarian Reason magazine pointed out, The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas might be confused by the frequency that Trump speaks about the value of free markets. The difference is, libertarians actually consistently defend free markets and limited government because they value individual liberty above all else. For them, the only appropriate actions by government are those taken in defense of people’s life, liberty, and property from outside threats. That is why, unlike other political factions, libertarians consistently oppose government impositions like tariffs, trade barriers, and immigration restraints.
Markets free from those artificial constraints make it possible for people to build financial security and have access to the products and services many are utilizing now in preparation for pandemic-related self-quarantining.
That said, the current American economy, though freer than some, is not truly laissez faire. Which is what makes arguments like the one summed up by Bloomberg’s Noah Smith disingenuous:
Smith’s tweet conveys the common misconception that the libertarian ideal would be to gut government into oblivion. As noted, libertarians believe that government activity is appropriate when those activities are focused on defending individual liberties. Few libertarians oppose the existence of police, courts, or the military, because their purpose is supposed to be to protect individuals and their property from outside aggressors. Similarly, preparing for and hopefully containing life-threatening diseases, like COVID-19, is a valid governmental goal.
The problem, which libertarians have been warning about for years, is that our current system grants a virtual monopoly to government so that it is the only entity managing such outbreaks.
The fumbling response to COVID-19 so far, as libertarian economist Daniel Mitchell points out, is neither a condemnation of free markets nor evidence that big government is the panacea we need. Under the current system, there is little incentive for private entities to involve themselves in infectious disease control because of regulations that make the development of testing tools and treatments a losing financial proposition.
Moreover, even if a private company or individual wanted to get involved, red tape largely prevents them from doing so. As Reason’s Ronald Bailey recently highlighted, the outbreak of COVID-19 in Seattle might have been identified weeks earlier and robust containment measures in the U.S. (only underway as of this week) might have been instituted far earlier, had it not been for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration blocking experts on the ground from conducting tests.
For many years, libertarians have warned about the unintended consequences of power-bloated health agencies. Bureaucratic rules and processes, often intended to protect consumers, also make developing drugs a time-consuming and costly prospect—reducing the number of companies that even bother to try—and delay the availability of novel treatments, sometimes by decades.
Perhaps even more important, libertarians also have long decried how government perverts science and skews public health priorities. Had anyone listened, we might have been prepared for and better able to contain the outbreak of COVID-19. For more on that, see Liberty in the Time of Coronavirus Part 2.