What do the “libertarians” want?

No, not the United States Libertarian Party this time, which still has to find itself a presidential candidate after Justin Amash, whom we talked about last week, decided not to seek the nomination.

I’m thinking instead about the “libertarians” – those who call themselves libertarians and adopt a posture of warriors for freedom, but who over the last few years have disgraced themselves and tarnished the brand by their more or less open embrace of Trumpism.

It’s no surprise that in recent weeks many of these people have been at the forefront of opposition to quarantine measures imposed due to Covid-19. Some have veered into outright conspiracy-theory territory, maintaining that the virus is a fiction devised by governments as an excuse to implement their tyrannical policies.

The majority, however, have not gone that far: they accept that the health crisis is real, but argue that it still does not justify the restrictions on individual liberty that have been imposed. They also maintain that the restrictions will do more damage to the economy than the virus would do in their absence. (Interestingly, actual economists seem not to buy this argument.)

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using both a moral and a practical argument for the same conclusion. Opponents of drug prohibition, for example, may argue that it is both wrong in principle and counter-productive in practice. But one of the unfortunate habits of the “libertarians” is to run the two things together – to stubbornly assume that the facts must support their philosophical views.

Hence with the debate on climate change: because they are philosophically opposed to certain measures necessary to combat global warming, “libertarians” dogmatically assert that it either isn’t happening or isn’t serious. Attempts to get them to engage with the issue, along the lines of “Well, if you were convinced that climate change was real, what would you say we should do about it?”, are invariably unsuccessful.

It’s the same with the coronavirus. Because they don’t want government-enforced quarantine, they’re driven to assume that the facts that might justify it are not real.

And it’s worse than that, because the reference there to “government” is a red herring. Of course if you’re opposed to the state in principle (as I am), you’ll think it’s not the ideal agency to be handling this particular task. That’s a truism, but it’s an unhelpful one. It would be better if we had decentralised voluntary agencies to enforce quarantine, but we don’t: in the actual world we live in, government is the agency that does these things, so we have to make the best of it.

For comparison, it’s as if we were travelling on a particular (government-owned) railway and arguing about whether or not the service should have a dining car. To say “I don’t believe the government should be running railways at all” may be quite legitimate, but it’s not engaging with that argument. It’s completely beside the point.

The “libertarians” in this case are saying that they don’t believe in dining cars enforced quarantine at all, regardless of who’s doing it. They only support “voluntary” measures, although on closer examination many of them make it clear that they don’t support those either.

So if the government is not to enforce quarantine, what should it be doing? How would the “libertarians” have our actual existing governments behave instead? There seem to be three broad possibilities:

(a) While not coercing anyone, the government should tell people that quarantine measures are necessary and justified, and encourage them to adopt them.

(b) The government should avoid expressing any view either way about quarantine, doing no more than provide bare factual information (if that).

(c) The government should encourage people, on a voluntary basis, to ignore quarantine and engage in normal social and economic activity.

A case can be made that (b) is the most libertarian option, since it maintains government neutrality. Equally a case can be made for (a), since it involves respecting science and promoting public well-being, which are supposed to be important libertarian values.

But from the “libertarian” point of view, (a) and (b) are subject to the same basic flaw: they wouldn’t actually do much to re-open the economy, because, as numerous analysts have found (including real libertarians), fear of the virus rather than government controls was the main thing driving physical distancing and economic shutdown.

So “libertarians” gravitate towards (c). The government should treat quarantine as a greater enemy than the virus, because that must be what the science says (actual science to the contrary notwithstanding), because otherwise it would support “un-libertarian” conclusions.

As a result, “libertarians”, who are supposed to be mostly concerned about government power, spend a surprisingly large amount of their time arguing about what look like scientific questions. But it’s a peculiarly politicised science, where apparently factual questions have ideological answers. For those of a certain historical bent, the name of Trofim Lysenko might come to mind.

It’s again reminiscent of the climate change debate, where “libertarians” spend most of their time not talking about coercion at all, but attacking renewable energy and promoting fossil fuels (and also nuclear power, which doesn’t contribute to global warming but for historical reasons engages the same tribal enmities).

So far, the politicisation of coronavirus science has not fully flowed through to public opinion. Polling suggests that while there is (not surprisingly) a partisan divide as to how particular public figures are performing, quarantine measures have broadly bipartisan support.

But not if the “libertarians” have their way.

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