So many people on the Left want to embrace the COVID-19 pandemic as the validation of their world view. I don’t buy it.
In “Jokers to the Right,” posted here on March 31, I wrote that many people on my side of the political divide have been brushing off the pandemic as a minor thing. They’re doing it, I think, in order to save libertarian ideology, which doesn’t provide the best answers for fighting the spread of an infectious disease. People on the Left are having fun reminding us of that — for example, “There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic,” posted on The Atlantic webpage, March 10.
The Left is proud that the public health authorities are proclaiming that “we are all in this together,” which is the Left’s principle about the whole society. The Left is making a we-were-right argument.
Many libertarians have been brushing off the pandemic in order to save libertarian ideology, which doesn’t provide the best answers for fighting the spread of an infectious disease.
We-were-right arguments are standard in political discourse, and both sides make them. In the current epidemic, for example, Liberty contributing editor Randal O’Toole, a critic of the public transit complex, argues in “We Were Warned Not to Bunch Up,” (The Antiplanner, March 18) that the virus shows the folly of transit modes that require people to bunch up. Of course O’Toole is right that buses and trains are dangerous during an infectious epidemic. (So are automobiles full of people.) But if you believe in massive subsidies to high-speed rail, O’Toole’s argument won’t move you. His we-were-right argument is cheeky but peripheral to the general question of mobility in normal times.
The Left is now making a we-were-right argument that is also peripheral but much more ambitious — and at our expense. Here is one such:
“A pandemic . . . makes clear that we need the state if we are going to survive,” writes Jedediah Britton-Purdy in “The Only Treatment for Coronavirus Is Solidarity,” in Jacobin, March 13, 2020. “Our alone-together world of individualist ethics and material interdependence didn’t just happen. It takes a vast and intricate infrastructure to keep us all running in one another’s service, and in the ultimate service of return to capital: from highways to credit markets to the global trade regime. The fact that these interwoven systems are tanking financial markets around the world at the prospect that people might need to spend a few months [sic!] sitting at home rather than hurrying around exchanging money shows how finely calibrated they are to profit, and how totally lacking in resilience to shifts in human need.”
The Left is now making a we-were-right argument that is much more ambitious — and at our expense.
Here is another:
The COVID-19 pandemic “and the inadequate U.S. response have laid bare the brokenness of neoliberalism,” write Jonathan Heller and Judith Barish in “How to Prepare for the Next Pandemic,” in The Nation, posted April 2. “The neoliberal worldview, which has dominated public policy-making across the world for the last 40 years, celebrates the liberation of a nimble market free from the oppressive constraints of the lumbering government,” they write. “Neoliberalism’s prescriptions are rooted in a radical individualism. In the words of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, ‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families’.”
(The Left loves to quote that statement of Thatcher’s. They have made it the most famous thing she ever said.)
The libertarian counterargument has been that the Left is attacking a straw man — that Clinton’s America, Dubya’s America, Obama’s America, and Trump’s America are not libertarian. In responding in this way, libertarians are comparing reality, as they perceive it, to the image of an ideal society in their heads. That’s exactly what the socialists at Jacobin and The Nation are doing. Focus for a minute on reality alone. What’s really going on here is that the Left is denouncing the classical liberal component of current society — and there is a large component — and demanding to replace it with socialism. These writers are attacking the idea of individualism — and that’s our idea.
In The Nation, Heller and Barish argue that our individualist society has ignored the alleged fact that wealth is “socially produced” — the Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren line that “you didn’t build that.” In Heller and Barish’s view, the rules of American commerce are set up to foster the production of wealth and not its fair distribution. The result, they argue, is “a competitive individualism that undermines community and destabilizes the social order.” And to them, this pandemic nicely shows they are right.
What’s really going on here is that the Left is denouncing the classical liberal component of current society and demanding to replace it with socialism.
For their part, supporters of the market have been arguing that capitalism has allowed people to create the wealthiest society that ever was, including fabulous medical services and drugs; that in this emergency, companies and individuals are making supplies available, sometimes with no profit; and that a socialist society would be much less able to do this. (Where would you rather be sick?) Supporters of the market further argue that American wealth was not “socially produced” but produced under the guidance of innovators and entrepreneurs, which our system encourages. In addition, the relatively low death rate from COVID-19 in the United States makes a strong argument that “individualist” America is not being outdone by countries with government-run medical systems.
I like those arguments a lot. We should keep making them. But my argument is different. It’s that if you’re thinking of the best principles under which to organize human life, you have to start with normal life. You don’t start with a global virus panic, distill the principle of “we’re all in this together,” and apply it, rubber-stamp-like, to everything from college campuses to grocery stores. You start with normal life, and derive principles from that. And that is what classical liberalism does. It starts with rational individuals who need to work to sustain themselves and their dependents. It declares that people in normal life should have the liberty to choose their work and make their own decisions about the use of their time and their stuff, and that they should own the gains and losses from their decisions. Over time, this rule will allow people to make themselves wealthier and happier than having some ruling power, democratically selected or otherwise, making these decisions for them. Individual responsibility also tends to make the people stronger, whereas socialism tends to turn them into whiners.
The classical liberal world will have different rules during emergencies. When the cruise ship is sinking, the captain does not auction off seats on the lifeboats. Likewise, in an epidemic of infectious disease, we’re all in it together. But an epidemic is an outlier, a “black swan.” The rules for an epidemic are special, and not relevant to the politics of normal life.
You don’t start with a global virus panic, distill the principle of “we’re all in this together,” and apply it, rubber-stamp-like, to everything from college campuses to grocery stores.
But to some people, they are emblematic. I remember people who lived through World War II who said it was the best time of their lives. It gave them a collective purpose. Suddenly I hear the thought that we have a collective purpose again, and that our society should retain some of it after this is over.
I do not hope for such a thing. Individual libertarians may want their lives to have a purpose, whether it be fighting disease, raising their children, building a company, or serving God, but we don’t want to be assigned a purpose. We want to choose our own. That insistence, that your life is your own, is our calling card.
On a web page called unherd.com, James Kirkup offers a piece called “Will the Panic Kill Off Libertarianism?” He begins: “I am not a libertarian, but I think libertarianism deserves some acknowledgement for its optimism about human nature. In short, this suggests that when people are left to their own devices, they will, in the end, do sensible, collaborative and even kind things.”
Suddenly I hear the thought that we have a collective purpose again, and that our society should retain some of it after this is over. I do not hope for such a thing.
Well, that’s nice. Then Kirkup goes on to observe that in the coronavirus epidemic, many people are doing stupid things. And they certainly are. Recently I’ve seen stories of people going to weddings and church services in defiance of “social distancing.” Kirkup argues that this shows that people need to be told what to do. And he concludes:
If people cannot be trusted to make decisions that can make the difference between life and death . . . where else should restraint be imposed by the state, for the good of the individual and society? Put it another way: once you’ve closed pubs and banned people from going outside, imposing, say, a tax to deter people from consuming sugary drinks is going to seem like a very small thing indeed.
It may seem a small thing, but it does not follow. During an epidemic the society may have to protect itself by quarantining an individual against his will, just as in a war the state may ask its soldiers to shoot and kill human beings. But neither epidemic nor war is part of normal life. Sugary drinks are. Asserting that government control of soft-drink cup sizes is a response to an “obesity crisis” is an attempt to apply the rules of emergencies to ordinary life. It is ridiculous. It should be laughed out of the public square. It is also dishonest: I live in a city that has put a tax on sugary drinks supposedly for the public health, but the net effect has been to take more of the people’s money for politicians to spend.
Libertarians should be fine with a measure of “we’re all in this together” during an epidemic. In some ways, we need that idea in organizing a society, especially in recognizing that everyone has equal rights under the law. But it cannot be the organizing principle for everything.