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Covid Policy: Hindsight on the Libertarian Reaction
As usual, libertarians had much to say during the Covid era. And as usual, there was plenty of in-fighting. In hindsight, what - if anything - did libertarians actually add to the discussion? And did their words actually matter?
On reflection, libertarians pushed in two rather different directions.
Some libertarians, most notably my friends and colleagues Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, pushed for freedom to fight Covid: the right to use technology to save lives in the most effective way, unhindered by the FDA or other medical regulators. Tabarrok, a long-time critic of FDA overregulation, argued that regulation was especially deadly during a medical emergency. He pushed for speedy vaccine approval, legalizing home testing, half-dosing, “First Doses First,” Human Challenge Trials, and much more. Cowen and Tabarrok also strongly supported Operation Warp Speed, which violated strict libertarian principles.
Other libertarians, most notably my friends and colleagues associated with the American Institute for Economic Research like Dan Klein, Phil Magness, and Don Boudreaux, pushed for freedom from the fight against Covid. They quickly declared their opposition to government “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” (NPIs) especially lockdowns, business closings, social distancing requirements, and mask mandates. Instead of shutting down normal life, they advocated “Focused Protection” of the aged and infirm. The Great Barrington Declaration was doubtlessly the highest-profile statement of this position. Once vaccines became available, most people in these circles added vaccine mandates to their list of objectionable policies.
These two positions are close to compatible. You can simultaneously advocate the freedom of individuals and business to fight Covid as they think best and the freedom of individuals and businesses to return to normalcy when they think best. You could even defend Operation Warp Speed as a far smaller violation of human freedom than all the regulations likely to stay in place without a vaccine. In practice, however, “freedom to fight Covid” and “freedom from the fight against Covid” libertarians split into two largely disjoint camps. Two largely discount camps that repeatedly lashed out at each other.
Which is sad, because both sets of ideas were basically right. Emergency exceptions to standard regulatory practice saved a lot of lives, and full technological freedom would probably have saved a lot more. At the same time, NPIs were an absurd overreaction to a moderate health crisis. Even on charitable assumptions, and even if you scoff at the sanctity of individual freedom, NPIs grossly failed a cost-benefit test. Places that swiftly returned to normalcy may have had moderately worse health outcome, but they indubitably had vastly better quality of life.
At the same time, both camps lodged some fair complaints against the other. The tech freedom camp was outraged by libertarian vaccine skeptics, plus anyone who tolerated them (and perhaps anyone who tolerated anyone who tolerated them). The vaccine skeptics continue to seem like kooks to me, but I don’t see why they’re worse than all the Normies who think that standard FDA regulatory procedures are vital for drug safety. The “freedom from the war on Covid” libertarians, similarly, were outraged by libertarians who supported NPIs, or even failed to staunchly oppose NPIs. Per Huemer, I agree that violations of individual freedom are justified when the costs of freedom vastly outweigh the benefits. Yet almost three years later, I don’t see that any of the pro-NPI libertarians earnestly tried to meet this bar.
Did either libertarian camp actually sway policy? I really don’t know. On the tech freedom front, Tabarrok especially got high-profile attention, but he was one bright voice out of many. On personal freedom, the Great Barrington Declaration wasn’t even published until October of 2020, months after some states had mostly returned to normalcy. While I expected the War on Covid to stay bipartisan, many prominent Republicans shocked me by quickly becoming more libertarian on this issue than many long-time libertarians. I wouldn’t be surprised if libertarians nudged a few states back to normalcy a few weeks earlier, but I know of no relevant smoking gun.
But, you may pugilistically ask, which camp was better? The key fact to remember is that humanity got very lucky. Even before the FDA had much power, discovering new vaccines normally took years. After four decades and mountains of research funding, we still lack an AIDS vaccine. For Covid, miraculously, researchers were able to get from thought to finish in under a year. During 2020, I repeatedly asked libertarians in the tech freedom camp the question, “When exactly will I be able to get my vaccine?” I got my vaccine before I got a straight answer. When pharmaceutical companies announced their clinical trial results, stock markets shot up, indicating an unforeseen positive shock.
The upshot: Knowing what we know now, the relative merits of the two camps are at least debatable. While libertarians should have a strong anti-crusade presumption, and NPIs were a foreseeable cost-benefit failure, the tech freedom people definitely have something to crow about ex post.
Ex ante, however, the personal freedom position remains much stronger and more urgent than the tech freedom position. When the next pandemic hits, we can’t reasonably expect to get vaccines in under a year. What we can reasonably expect, however, is another hysterical overreaction. It will start with bait-and-switch like “two weeks to flatten the curve.” Then it will slide into years of innumerate tyranny. Government will once again order us to surrender years worth of quality of life in exchange for a few days or weeks of quantity of life. And rest assured, virtually all of the people who supported this innumerate tyranny will do so again.
While I would like to see the abolition of the FDA, widespread Human Challenge Trials, and so on, I’d much rather live in a country that regards shutdowns, social distancing, and mask mandates with utter horror. The former will save some lives, but only the latter will keep life worth living.