As you might imagine, Covid-19, both the virus and the associated lockdowns, have weighed heavily in the news for a long time. Unfortunately the US has botched its handling of the whole thing, and it’s become a political football for everyone-libertarians included. For me personally I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to work from home through the whole thing, I still have a job (internet screaming doesn’t pay the bills yet, believe it or not), and I haven’t lost anyone to the virus. But it’s kept me away from a job I love for far too long, it’s kept me away from family, friends, and life, and the virus had made several friends very sick with serious residual effects. The lockdown, meanwhile, has decimated entire sectors of the economy and cancelled literally years worth of plans for people.
Right now libertarians and a lot of Republicans are screaming about the lockdowns, harassing retail employees with mask protests, and trying to dunk on everyone who takes the virus seriously. Too many libertarians have made claims that are dumb in their incompleteness. They’ve said that the death rate is low, or it’s all about the underlying conditions, but newsflash for you folks: if you don’t die, but you’re messed up for months or years after, it’s still a pretty serious illness. And if you have AIDS you’ll probably die of some weird untreated adrenal cancer or rare pneumonia, but guess what? It was the AIDS that killed you. I’ve also seen libertarians claim that because masks were ineffective against the recent fires they’re ineffective against the virus. Yes, virus particles are smaller than ash-but they’re usually transmitted in spit and mucus, which are more than big enough to be caught by a decent mask! See, for example, this. Meanwhile most of the mainstream left is still either calling everyone else idiots and assholes or using it as an excuse to push a complete government takeover of healthcare, or both.
So what is the appropriate libertarian response to Covid-19 and all the havoc it’s created? Thankfully the discussions of Covid as a government conspiracy, bioweapon, hoax, or cover to shut down the world to make pedophilia arrests has mostly faded, so I don’t need to address that, however it’s very useful to go back to before the beginning. Going into this the United States has done so many things to artificially constrain the supply of healthcare. Certificate of need laws are probably the most egregious, but there’s the whole mess of regulations and bureaucratic interference that stops doctors from caring for their patients-the laws that prohibit insurance sales across state laws, lack of license reciprocity for health care professionals across state lines, the patent protections, and a host of other things. This did not leave us in a great spot to weather a pandemic of this scale.
Then there’s how the US botched the initial response. For the first six weeks that Covid-19 was in the US doctors were prohibited from testing for the virus, and then the FDA delayed development of tests and approval of tests already in use in Europe. So in so many ways our country started well behind the 8 ball.
Then we had a complete failure of leadership. Assuming minarchy for a moment and leaving out how ancapistan would have responded, what real leadership would have looked like is the president and every governor saying very clearly: “This virus is real, and is a real threat. Because of the first amendment we cannot order any shutdown of private businesses or the movement of private individuals. However, this is what the best science we have at the moment says. And, by way of protecting our employees and setting a good example I’m ordering all government departments that can work remotely to do so, and requiring masks and social distancing at all government facilities. In addition, the government will offer no liability protection from Covid-19 related claims” (credit to Spike Cohen for the last part). This would have struck a proper balance between liberty and science, set a positive example for the broader society, and allowed individuals and communities to determine their own acceptable levels of risk. Instead Trump basically pretended the virus didn’t exist for months unless it was useful to bash China, and his cult followed suit, leading to some truly stupid statements, truly douchey behavior, putting US troops in harm’s way, and ultimately the infection of the president and many top aides, along with 210,000 and counting dead Americans. The backlash from the left, on the other hand, was lockdowns and complete shutdowns of EVERYTHING, along with insisting on massive government welfare. The result of their actions was the decimation of entire sectors of the economy, most notably entertainment and restaurants, the death of many local businesses, the serious disruption of the lives of most of America’s schoolchildren, and a nationwide increase in mental health problems due to the isolation and uncertainty. And as the two strains of thought have interacted, the result has been a complete mess and a long series of counter-accusations and name calling. Oh, and a massive increase in profits for places like amazon that were allowed to stay open. And the vast majority of the Covid relief money went to corporate welfare.
And that’s before we talk about the awful precedents this whole thing could conceivably set for the next crisis.
So…we all screwed up at the beginning, and now we’re here. What’s the way out of this mess? It’s not too late to go back and do what we should have done in the first place. Political leaders, keep government facilities, including schools, closed or otherwise socially distanced unless your facilities and your community can truly reopen properly. Stop giving handouts to the rich and powerful. Libertarians, put your contrarian tendencies aside for 5 minutes and wear your damn mask, ESPECIALLY in a private business that requires you to do so. And while you should have the right to do so, maybe let’s not really reopen completely until we get through flu season.
In the end, trust the science, have some caution, respect peoples’ private property rights, racism is complete bullshit, government artificially constrains the productive economy and the supply of healthcare, and let people decide their own levels of acceptable risk, subject to respecting the private property rights of others.