Four things only libertarians can see about COVID-19

Published in Economic Liberty .

A new form of political correctness has spread, like a virus, across the fruited plain. Libertarians are taking heat – getting angry responses for criticizing governors who have used the spread of COVID-19 to issue edicts that shutter businesses and impose martial law-like schemes.

coronavirus covid-19 libertarians politics

Still, libertarians find they cannot keep quiet. Their philosophy of self-government is forged in an understanding of consequences. Libertarians are the only members of society who can see – even foresee – the following four things about the State’s edicts and regulations…

The seen and the unseen

First, libertarians can visualize the Unseen.

What is seen is that which is obvious to us. In the present case, it’s easy for us to see the way the virus is spreading and how the healthcare system is overrun in Italy.

What is unseen are the variety of harms that occur because people have been denied freedom of association and movement. Politicians are using wartime powers and preening before TV cameras. There will be short-term and long-term effects stemming from their actions. Nearly everyone, especially the regime media, is overlooking these costs.

The proper way to analyze this situation is to take all of the effects into account.

Libertarians are just like you; they’re sheltering and practicing physical distance. But let’s be clear, not everyone has that luxury. There’s no way that a governor could anticipate, let alone solve all of these sticky issues. Edicts are “one size fits all.” Each person understands their unique situation better than a politician in a distant capitol could. There are many scenarios to consider. Here’s a sampling…

  • Right now, families are trapped in a home with an abuser. Perhaps the abuser’s workday was a time of relief, or the victim’s school or work was an escape path to safety.
  • Suicides will increase during the crisis.
  • Addiction will worsen because the sense of purpose or even mere interruption that occupational work provides has been stolen away.
  • Businesses that were operating on a thin margin will fold, crushing dreams, resulting in unemployment, and even reducing supply. Supply reductions will fuel price increases for all of us.

Notice State failures

Second, don’t overlook the harm caused by government actors. For example, Donald Trump’s aides were afraid to give their reelection-minded boss any bad news until it was too late. And the sudden, jarring, gubernatorial edicts have caused fear, uncertainty, and doubt – provoking shortages.

In a libertarian world, reliable tests would already be for sale! And if the tests were universally available, the crisis would’ve been far smaller and Americans would be back to work.

There are two reasons tests are not already on the market.

  1. Political suppression of information. If they had gotten the signal earlier, then entrepreneurs, inventors, and existing businesses would’ve started delivering tests by now. We know there was sufficient time because a handful of U.S. Senators were briefed in January. After seeing the impending crisis, they sold off their stocks.
  2. Ironically, regulations are supposed to make us safer. What they do instead is create barriers which increase delays and costs. Frequently, the innovator realizes that no action is profitable, choosing not to invent (another unseen effect). The FDA has been in the way of tests getting to market.

Wisdom of the crowd

Third, self-government is the best solution to the Knowledge Problem. No matter the doomsday scenario, it’s hard to imagine a single governor (or president) outsmarting millions of people.

No matter how brilliant the governor and his or her advisors are, he or she lacks the capacity to win a problem-solving contest against tens of millions of people.

Worse, political acts are prone to cause injuries (which tend to be unseen and unreported). The miracle of “stuff” arriving on our store shelves involves millions of micro-decisions. Sudden edicts have replaced that. Shortages result because the governor deploys unanticipated force. Consider…

Restaurants who planned menus suddenly have too much food. Grocery stores, who thought people would be at restaurants, find that they have new customers instead. The restaurant owner takes a bath.

Even with nearly-empty shelves, stores need to make sure they don’t over-order in response. Grocers know these effects are temporary, but they don’t know when they will end. They don’t want to end up like the restaurants, stuck with too much stock on hand. Uncertainty prevails. Shortages will remain a problem until governors back out of the equation.

Human respect

Fourth and most important of all, is the matter of Human Respect. The libertarian uniquely recognizes that everyone seeks happiness and that no one person can make everyone happy.

The Principle of Human Respect is a natural, cause-and-effect relationship. If I rob you at gunpoint, your happiness decreases. Social harmony and prosperity are diminished too.

Since this is a principle, even governors cannot violate it. Bans and edicts are ultimately enforced by armed men and women. These are not acts of persuasion; they are threats to achieve a desired result. When anyone, be they a criminal or your governor, coerces another human being, they never increase happiness. And in the present situation, the bans have obviously decreased social peace and material prosperity.

The damage to prosperity is already so obvious that no one is contesting it.

And before the governors started acting, we had peaceful cooperation. Most people were already practicing physical distancing. We also witnessed allegedly greedy corporations voluntarily sacrificing many millions of dollars. To prevent the spread of COVID-19 the NCAA closed events to the public. Then, the NBA suspended its season and Disney closed its parks. Like falling dominoes, tons of businesses followed.

AFTER that, governors forced the holdouts to close. Libertarians began raising important questions like the four you’ve just reviewed. They’re getting accused of wanting to clog hospitals and increase the death toll. Therefore, consider the role politicians are playing. Are their acts increasing harmony or did they introduce new divisions into our society?

Jim Babka is the Editor-at-Large for Advocates for Self-Government and the co-creator of the Zero Aggression Project.

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