Why Elite Libertarians Failed so Miserably on COVID

Why Elite Libertarians Failed so Miserably on COVID
(BRUNO CERVERA/Unsplash.com)
Jeffrey A. Tucker
5/12/2023
Updated:
5/15/2023
0:00
Commentary
A priest friend of mine has been writing for three years against his fellow clerics who went along with the COVID regime, shut their churches, masked their parishioners, and then pushed shots on those who didn’t need them. He said that they forgot the first principle: be not afraid. And the second principle too: put not your faith in princes.
An academic friend of mine has been blasting his colleagues for just as long. He is even the author of a book “Treason of the Experts.”

Many conservatives who had sound opinions on lockdowns and vaccine mandates have gone after National Review and the Trump administration for their apostasies that gave us the biggest expansion of government power probably in world history.

Naomi Wolf has been relentless in calling out the left for their attacks on free association and free speech, in addition to their acquiescence to Big Pharma.

Each of these people say that they have a moral obligation to call out their own tribe.

Now to my own tribe: the libertarians.

For three years, I’ve been reluctant to say anything about the elephant in the room, the near-complete failure of libertarians to stand up to the lockdown and mandate regime. It was a moment in history that was tailor-made for them. Everything in their training taught them to be suspicious of government power and relentless in the defense of liberty.

Instead they mostly went silent. Worse, they became the Praetorian Guard of the lockdown Caesars, giving them cover when they deserved it least. The “radical” libertarians defaulted to a completely conventional careerism, even to the point of manufacturing rationales for terrible attacks on the most vulnerable.

Most organizations associated with the Atlas Network said nothing at all and still have said anything. The Mont Pelerin Society couldn’t muster the words either. Plenty of Twitter libertarians (and Reason Magazine) cheered masking as privacy-protecting disease-spread inhibitors while blasting me for criticizing them. Not even the Libertarian Party spoke out in 2020, a failure which led to a total upheaval in the party last year. Now, the anti-lockdowners are running the show.

Many if not most of the top intellectuals in the libertarian space were completely wrong and totally flopped when it mattered most. A book could be written on all the ridiculous excuses they marshaled to defend the worst attack on liberty in our lifetimes. Yes, many came around later and today pretend like that were right all along but the receipts are everywhere on what they said and did when it actually mattered.

Why haven’t I called them out? I convinced myself that they don’t really matter, so such a focus on internal strife achieves nothing. Maybe that’s right. It seems more true now than ever since they simply made themselves irrelevant by staying silent when voices of liberty were most needed. Now no one seems to care about them even as donor dollars are rightly drying up. My perception was that they (once we) mattered once upon a time, in any case.

In addition, my level of fury about the situation has been so intense that I did not think I could even pen a calm and persuasive article (even if I’ve attacked experts in general).

My bitterness began on March 8, 2020, with the government cancellation of a conference in Austin, Texas, with an edict from the mayor that massively trampled on liberty, contract, and property rights. I wrote against this and warned what was coming. Only John Tamny from my tribe joined me in condemning this, at least not yet. I was shocked but it got worse as the weeks, months, and years went by.

For the most part, and for reasons that remain a bit elusive to me, the libertarians squandered whatever credibility they had to side with the worst practitioners of public-health tyranny and the deletion of everything we previously called freedom.

What reasons did they have for their silence regarding this appalling attack on human rights? It was their job to be defenders of the public interest, and they failed. The deeper reason might simply be class identity: as elite members of the influencer class, they were perhaps glad for the chance to stay home and stay safe while the working classes brought them groceries.

As the Students for Liberty hashtag said at the moment when everyone wanted to know what the libertarians would say, #SpreadLibertyNotCorona. “The liberty movement,” said the organization in the voice of its well-trained CEO, “has stepped up and taken steps to start working remotely, to limit their interactions with people, and to implement best practices during these trying times.”

Meanwhile, the working classes could not abide by such exhortations of either Fauci or Students for Liberty. Among those “best practices” of course was closing churches, gyms, and obeying even travel restrictions and domestic capacity limits. Just obey our masters and then we can all stay safe, with emphasis on the word “we.”

It’s a common thing in history for the elites to hide from germs and force their lessers to bear the burden of inflection. This is how and why whole social systems have been constructed, against which libertarians are supposed to stand. And yet these self-identified libertarians occupy that elite echelon. They are supposed to concern themselves with the common good, one would suppose.

And to be sure, some were great. For example, Porcfest of 2020 was never canceled, God bless them. FreeThePeople never gave in and neither did the Atlas Society. And as always, Ron Paul was 100 percent solid. John Tamny at RealClearMarkets was solid from early on and never gave in to the rabble and intimidation. John was one of the few journalists brave enough to attend the Great Barrington Declaration in person.

But among the elite theorists, people employed to be libertarian intellectuals, they had a serious brain malfunction and it cost us (and them) dearly.

Aside from their class bias, they had their stated reasons. I would like to address those, with focus on a piece published November 2020 (a bit late, wouldn’t you say?) on the website of the Cato Institute. The time to speak out is when it matters most. Cato had next to nothing to say during the whole year and waited until Biden was elected to speak.

When the Cato Institute did speak, it was in the voice of the editor of Regulation journal, Thomas A. Firey. The piece is “Government in a pandemic.” I should add the archived perma link in case he takes it down after this critique. Bottom line: the article deploys every trope drawn from first-year graduate school to justify every evil.

“Government does have important roles to play in a pandemic,” Firey assured us even as the world we had known was being destroyed by force. “However, those roles are consistent with the principles of limited government,” which is another way of preparing readers for the weird reality that the Cato Institute was blessing the most expansive government power in U.S. history and slapping a libertarian label on it.

The piece comes to the defense of lockdowns, mask mandates, forced human separation, closures, tax-funded vaccine development, and—even if implicitly—shot mandates. Just so we are clear that I’m not exaggerating, Cato later wrote explicitly for such vaccine mandates.

“Critics of limited government often equate it with anarchy, the lack of any government activity. That equivalence is false,” says he, with a strange and quick segue from condemning anarchy to endorsing totalitarianism.

In this author’s view, three failures of the market necessitate extreme actions.

First, there is a negative externality (a regrettable harm) that presents itself in a pandemic, he writes. Second, there is a problem that funding for medical research is caught in the bind of being a “public good” and therefore taxpayers have to foot the bill. And third, herd immunity itself is in everyone’s interest but no one particular person’s interest and, therefore, government must necessitate meds for everyone, even the unwilling.

(Paul-Alain Hunt/Unsplash.com)
(Paul-Alain Hunt/Unsplash.com)

At no point in this essay does the author discuss the known peculiarities of this virus, much less reveal any knowledge of infectious disease at all, or stop to examine whether the supposed vaccine for this thing had any hope of success in achieving herd immunity. His confusions would have been easily sorted out by a phone call with an expert but Washington think-tankers long ago gave up the need for doing real-world research.

Let’s consider his arguments.

On the matter of negative externality, the author just assumes that every microbial pathogen is an unequivocal threat to human health and hence passing one on constitutes aggression. In the libertarian playbook, aggression is wrong and necessities some legal response. Therefore it is up to the government to stop it. “People’s liberty ends at the point that they put others at involuntary risk,” he says, invoking an old cliché.

This is mortifyingly ignorant. Trillions of pathogens make up the world and even the human body. Putting government in charge of policing them would necessitate a totalitarian state of the worst sort, one that was always and everywhere coercive and engaged in constant surveillance. Infectious diseases are constantly circulating everywhere. If the principle prevailed that every infection is aggression, there would never have been a reason for liberty at all.

Virology discovered over time that the best protection against medically significant outcomes from infection of respiratory viruses is exposure itself, which confers lasting immunity. This has always been true. There is no such thing as a world cleansed of exposure, as the book “Fear of a Microbial Planet” points out.

If there were such a completely sanitized world, it would be a deeply dangerous one, as the native population of the United States and Latin America discovered hundreds of years ago: due to immunological naivete, some two-thirds of the native population was lost to the wicked killer Smallpox, which is now eradicated.

The only thing more dangerous to human life than government itself is an unprotected immune system, which is one that is insufficiently scaled to beat back a new pathogen with preexisting immunity.

A good vaccine itself relies on exposure to stimulate an immune response. That alone should be a clue to these armchair theorists that this is not merely a case of aggressing against people. Before calling something an unmitigated instance of a negative externality, pundits really should make some effort to discover basic facts of the case in question, lest they confuse the cure of protective immunity with the problem itself.

In any case, there is a word for a person who wants to unleash the police to stop the spread of a textbook respiratory virus: a despot. That’s true even if a one-time anarchist like my old friend Walter Block endorses the sneeze police, as he did as recently as this year. It implies total societal control, including such preposterous practices like universal mask mandates and forced human separation, of which our brilliant Cato expert also approves:

“Distancing and universal wearing of facemasks reduce the chance of transmission in two ways: by reducing the number of droplets expelled by infected persons wearing masks and by reducing the number of droplets absorbed by healthy persons who are both masked and some distance away.”

Of course he was wrong on the empirics of the matter too, not that he bothered to check. Meanwhile, the rights of people were trampled and viciously so. Think about the timing too: he wrote all this fully nine months after whole towns had been wrecked and the entire population (in most all countries in the world) was brutalized by the public-health hegemon.

Don’t worry about it, he wrote; this is liberty in action!

To the second issue, our writer says there are “market incentives for research into the virus and disease and distribution of the findings. But the benefits from that work are difficult to confine to the individuals who pay for it” which causes “private funding” to “be below optimal levels.”

The point of this riff was to defend Operation Warp Speed and hundreds of billions squandered on bureaucratic boondoggles.

To be sure, private funding is always below optimal levels for things that are most important to you personally, so this critique of freedom would pertain in every case imaginable. It so happens that we have a system in place to fund research that doesn’t bestow financial remuneration. It is called the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Like the CDC, the NIH is captured by Big Pharma, and did almost none of the research on therapeutics that would have been necessary. That was left to private individuals, and the results of their labors were banned by government itself. You could hardly buy basic therapeutics in most pharmacies in this country, simply because they weren’t the great vaccine, the approval of which required that everyone pretend that there was no other choice.

In other words, the reality is opposite of what the Cato Institute author says. The government massively overproduced proprietary vaccine products while neglecting and then banning repurposed generics, even those that had been long approved. The result of the author’s writings was to generate a global tsunami of mRNA drugs that had never been tested sufficiently for safety or effectiveness.

To the third issue, our author alleges that markets fail to incentivize vaccine acceptance sufficient to accomplish the goal of herd immunity and hence mandates may be necessary. Without them, “a third to more than half of the population could free‐​ride on others’ bearing the cost of the vaccine, allowing for a public goods problem.”

As it turns out, the vaccine did not protect against infection or transmission and thus made little or no contribution to herd immunity, as anyone who has studied coronaviruses and vaccines could have predicted. The truth is that 90-plus percent of the public never needed to take the vaccine but were forced to anyway, precisely because of these delusions that the market was failing and thus needed government to step in.

With friends like these...

And speaking of real negative externalities, meaning genuine harm imposed by outside forces, have a look at the millions of vaccine injuries, among which there were many deaths. In many if not most of those cases, they were a result of government coercion. Where is the Cato Institute treatise on that topic?

It’s strange to have to lecture libertarians on human liberty. But as with my other friends in other tribes, priests should not have to remind bishops not to trust princes, leftists should not have to tell others of their bent of the importance of universal rights, and conservatives should not have to preach the rule of law to their ideological compatriots.

And libertarians should not have to remind each other of the importance of liberty, bodily autonomy, and property rights, or to distrust the state and its establishment organs of opinion.

But such are the times in which we live. Everything has been scrambled.

I’m mortified to say that many in leadership positions of what we call libertarianism completely failed the test and are thus discredited for a generation if not forever. They are dealing with this failure by pretending like it never happened.

It’s all deeply tragic. While they continue to play their intellectual parlor games, the goal of which is to be seen holding the fashionable and safe opinion at precisely the right time, liberty continues to slip away. We needed them in this battle. We need them now! And we need honesty and truth about what happened.

Billions have suffered unspeakable pain. The so-called “libertarians” might have made a difference. Those chose instead their class privileges, the safety of their jobs, and rhetoric and opinions no better than the CDC. Let’s put a fine point on it: they have betrayed us.

Therefore I’ve done my duty: I’ve decried the apostasies of my own tribe, as painful as that truly is.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of “The Best of Ludwig von Mises.” He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.
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