The coronavirus scare has turned into a full-fledged panic, as the nation cancels public events, classroom activities, European flights, the NBA season, you name it. At the grocery store, the toilet-paper aisle is inexplicably empty and people wander around with face masks even though such precautions do more to calm nerves than stop the spread of a potentially deadly virus that already has infected 130,000 people worldwide.

Amid all the fear and uncertainty, a few obvious questions jump to mind. How far off is a vaccine? What’s the best way to get more people tested? Is the media overhyping the situation? Are travel bans the most effective way to stop the virus’ spread? Does giving government officials emergency powers really protect public health?

Yet based on news articles and social media posts, many leftist commentators are obsessed with a different question: What would libertarians do about a pandemic? It’s an odd concern given that libertarians — e.g., those who believe in limited government and a free-market economy — have no power. Every substantive decision is made by politicians willing to flex government muscle.

Coronavirus is a serious national health threat, but it’s reassuring Americans aren’t so panicked that they aren’t up for philosophical discussions and the promotion of their own political hobby horses. In the mid-1300s, the Black Death killed up to half of Europe’s population. There probably wasn’t much time to worry about the king’s response during that catastrophe.

The headline of one recent Atlantic article declares, “There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic.” The piece doesn’t seriously tackle the matter, given that it is focused on the president’s willingness to embrace interventionist policies despite his tirades against socialism. It’s a weak premise. This president — and Republicans in general — rarely shy away from big government.

On a similar note, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch wrote about European paid sick-leave policies that have dampened pandemic fears. “On this side of the Atlantic, in the land of unfettered free-market capitalism and ‘rugged individualism,’ things are little different,” he added. Well, capitalism hardly is unfettered in highly regulated America, so again we see a writer using coronavirus to push for his pre-existing political preferences.

What would we, as libertarians, do? It’s an interesting conundrum. In my view, pandemics show why everyone should be a libertarian. During a crisis, we see how ineffective and absurd government actions can be. Leftists who think coronavirus proves the need for a stronger central government should ask themselves how happy they are with Donald Trump’s approach.

He’s been accused of embracing a “no bad information” strategy and put Vice President Mike Pence — who liberals accuse of being “anti-science” — in charge of the response. Conservative critics of libertarianism ought to ask themselves whether they feel more secure knowing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency or that California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a crackdown on companies that price-gouge for hand sanitizer.

Before libertarians are required to offer some easy solution to a vexing international problem, we ought to look at the way our current government-centric system has handled the problem. It’s mostly atrocious, as clueless politicians announce pointless strategies designed mainly to give the appearance that everything’s under control.

I shake my head at how government recently responded to a lesser health crisis involving vape-related lung diseases. Those diseases were almost entirely caused by black-market vaping products, yet government officials hurriedly passed bans on commercially tested products that were not the cause of the disease. That led even more people to seek out dangerous underground products. By all means, trust the government if you must.

Libertarians aren’t anarchists. We’re fine with letting public health agencies do their thing, even if we have realistic expectations of what bureaucracies might accomplish. We would rely more on them, and on local decision-makers, than on edicts from presidents and governors.

“If you had to pick any time in human history to live through a global pandemic, you’d be incredibly foolish not to pick the current time,” writes Eric Boehm in Reason. “And the reason you’d pick this moment in history probably has less to do with who is running the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the World Health Organization, and more to do with the technological and medical advances made possible by free enterprise.”

Yes, countries with freer markets are most resilient in times of crisis. They have the best supply chains and the widest availability of food, medicine and other crucial sustenance. They also are the wealthiest nations. It’s not about survival of the fittest, but citizens in market-based countries are more fit to provide for themselves than those where government controls the economy.

Unlike socialists, libertarians don’t have an instantaneous, magic solution to the novel coronavirus. But we do know that people in America will weather this public-health storm thanks to a system that still promotes creativity, ingenuity and enterprise.

Image credit:  creativeneko

Featured Publications