Looking Back on Two Plague Years

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In January 2021, I wrote on the Liberty web page, “The coronavirus was not good for libertarians.” A year later, I would rephrase that. Libertarians’ reaction to the coronavirus has not been good for our brand.

I pass over the fever spots on the Internet where assorted hotheads have spent two years denying that covid was a problem worth worrying about. In 2020, these people railed against facemasks and social distancing, and in 2021 they disowned the vaccines. Never did they offer any plan of actually fighting the virus. They attacked the government, and the people who sided with the government. Never did they offer a plan they would have to defend. They attacked.

OK, guys. You need to defend. You need to say what your position is, and not by saying only what it is not. In debate lingo, you need to take the affirmative.

How should a human community defend against a deadly infectious virus?

A human enemy may be delayed, bought off, or talked out of it entirely. You can’t negotiate with a virus. You have to act.

 

If you want to think in principles, you need to consider not just the original COVID-19, or the delta or omicron variants, but all conceivable epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, bubonic plague, the lot. It won’t do to argue that covid isn’t a big deal, and thereby sidestep the question. Answer the question about the role of government in epidemics. Then, if you want, you can argue that covid doesn’t come up to the mark — but then you have to defend your mark.

To me, it is obvious that covid is what the medical people say it is. I began writing about it for this page in March 2020, when the national death toll was about 200. By the time the page published my article, the death toll was over 2,000. When I wrote a year ago it was 350,000. Now it is north of 850,000, a number greater than the population of my hometown, Seattle. There has been nothing like this in a hundred years.

And the deaths are not just in the United States, though officially the greatest number have been here. Covid is harvesting souls all over the world, and more than a hundred governments are fighting it.

The spread of this virus has been like the invasion of an alien army. To defend against invasion is one of the things government is for — because you can’t do it with spontaneous order or the free market. It is the same with a deadly pandemic.

The disaster of 2020 was not that the Trump administration was too intrusive, but that it was too slow.

 

I can hear the question: You trust the government?

Yes.

Why?

Because there is no alternative.

As a political idea, war is a powerful touchstone. It unleashes power, and libertarians are rightly wary of that. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt asked for war powers to fight the Depression. Lyndon Johnson had his War on Poverty and Nixon had his War on Drugs. Economic depression, poverty, and drug addiction are problems. They are not equivalent to the invasion of a foreign enemy. A pandemic is. In one sense it is worse. A human enemy may be delayed, bought off, or talked out of it entirely. You can’t negotiate with a virus. You have to act.

The disaster of 2020 was not that the Trump administration was too intrusive, but that it was too slow. Several advisers warned President Trump in January that he had to take drastic actions, fast. The people making these warnings weren’t epidemiologists or scientists. They were people who been in Asia during the SARS outbreak of 2003. They thought they had seen this before, and they knew what needed to be done. And they were right. Trump’s epidemiological people dismissed their warnings. They were scientists, and they needed more data to reach a scientific conclusion. But the question at hand was political: what should the authorities do? And in January 2020 politicians in Washington DC, were busy with a thing they thought was really, really important: impeaching Donald Trump for what he had said in a telephone call to a politician in the Ukraine. They weren’t worried about a virus.

You can argue about the numbers; no doubt some countries’ numbers are more accurate than others. But they do suggest that some governments have had much more success fighting the virus.

 

When the “lockdown” came, it was too late to trace every individual who had been infected, which is what China had done. All the US government could do to the virus was slow it down — to “bend the curve” — to prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed. This was worth doing, but it was not going to beat the virus.

So, do I trust my government? It did a rotten job. But other governments did better, starting with China’s. I don’t like to admit that an authoritarian state protected its people more successfully than mine. But there it is. Look at the numbers. In the United States, deaths per million persons from covid are now more than 2,500. In China, the number of deaths per million is three. All over East Asia, the number is a small fraction of the US figure. In Hong Kong, which has had a medical system separate from China’s, the number is 28 deaths per million. In Japan it is 146. You can argue about the numbers; no doubt some countries’ numbers are more accurate than others. But they do suggest that some governments have had much more success fighting the virus than ours.

The response I hear from libertarians is that once you free the government to fight the virus, you’re at their mercy. Under such a power, the politicians could impose mask-wearing in public for the next 80 years, if they felt like it. This is often followed by the suggestion that probably they would feel like it.

That’s possible, but it’s not a realistic view of politicians. Politicians like to feel they’re doing big things, save-the-world things. They like to be seen to do good. In a democratic state, they like most of all to be reelected, and even in an authoritarian state they crave the people’s esteem. The nature of politics is the strongest guarantee that the covid restrictions won’t last for 80 years — here, in China, or anywhere.

East Asian countries learned from the SARS epidemic, and in the fight against covid they have the best numbers.

 

I can hear the objection: you outlined all the ways the government screwed up this time, and you want people to trust it next time.

Yes, and not only because there is no alternative. Also because people learn. East Asian countries learned from the SARS epidemic, and in the fight against covid they have the best numbers. Probably this year the cumulative butcher’s bill in the United States will top one million dead. That’s a hell of a price to pay for knowledge, but at least we have it. In the next pandemic, the White House and the statehouses will make better decisions. (How could they not?) Pharma companies will have more experience of making and distributing vaccines quickly. Medical people will know what to do, as will ordinary Americans.

Two years ago, wearing a surgical mask in public felt like carrying a protest sign. Now the door of my supermarket says that wearing a mask is state law. It’s like wearing shoes. “No shoes, no service.” And yeah, I understand that “wear a mask” is a mandate enforced by state power and “wear shoes” is a mandate of a property owner. I also understand the reason why the mask mandate is there, and I accept it as a temporary measure to protect me and the people around me. It embarrasses me when people of my political persuasion want to go to war over it.

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