Public opinion in many countries is shifting against COVID-19 precautions and restrictions – even against vaccine requirements. This has some libertarians declaring victory. Not only are they declaring victory, they are claiming that the rollback of restrictions shows that they were right all along, and that the restrictions were foisted on us by a corrupt government that should be stripped of its powers. Some at least flirt with the idea of punishing policymakers, a clear and present violation of the rule of law.
In fact, the rollback of pandemic measures highlights the absurdity of the libertarian response to COVID-19. Rather than patting themselves on the back, libertarians should be taking a hard look in the mirror.
A central tenet of COVID-libertarianism is that our policy response to COVID had ushered in a new era of despotic government. The problem was not just our policy response to COVID, which of course was far from perfect. No, the problem was an enduring corruption of our political system. We were now governed by tyrants, and freedoms lost might never be regained.
In fact, it was inevitable that a combination of pandemic fatigue and effective vaccines and treatments would erode support for closures and restrictions. The constant libertarian hysteria about tyranny (and yes, even fascism and Maoism) was never justified. There was no enduring change to our political institutions. There was not even a serious risk that pandemic restrictions would remain in place for years. Was it possible that some restrictions were unnecessary? Of course. Was it possible that some would stay in place longer than needed? Yup. But the notion that we would stay “in lockdown” forever because “tyranny” was always absurd.
Why did libertarians claim that some new era of tyranny was upon us? What evidence or logic did they have? Were they afraid that Republicans would use COVID as part of their assault on election integrity? No, the actual existing threat to democracy was and remains the furthest thing from their minds. Instead, they offered two arguments.
First, they argued that the press overhyped the dangers of COVID to gain eyeballs and sell ads, and that public fear led to great pressure on politicians to enact restrictions of various types, some of which were unjustified.
There is some truth to this critique. Press coverage of the pandemic was often sensationalist and exaggerated the risk from COVID, and democracies sometimes enact bad policies in response to public pressure. But recall from middle school civics that press freedom is a good thing, and so is the fact that public opinion matters in a democracy. Urging the press to cover the pandemic in a more balanced way and objecting to specific policies that seem overly restrictive is fine. But condemning our political system – calling it tyranny – when it is operating the only way a democracy can operate is dangerous.
(Of course, if libertarians have a better idea for how a political system should work, that would be great! They should trot it out. I’ve never seen a libertarian account of politics that amounted to more than the wishful thinking idea that “the government should do what I want it to do”. But if they roll up their sleeves and come up with a proposal that is more than word salad about limited government, we can talk turkey.)
Second, libertarians argue that restrictions were put in place by unelected, power-hungry bureaucrats. This narrative seems to be popular among libertarians now that public opinion is turning against restrictions. For example, here is Tucker (my bold):
We’ve seen what revolutions look like against monarchies (18th and 19th century), against colonial occupation, against totalitarian one-party states (1989-90), and against banana-republic strongmen (20th century). But what does revolution look like in developed democracies ruled by entrenched administrative states in which elected politicians serve as little more than veneer for bureaucracies?
. . .
That’s inspiring but what does it mean in practice? What precisely is the mechanism by which the overlords in our time are effectively overthrown? We’ve seen this in totalitarian states, in states with one-man rule, in states with unelected monarchies. But unless I’m missing something, we’ve not seen this in a developed democracy with an administrative state that holds the real power. We have scheduled elections but those are unhelpful when 1) elected leaders are not the real source of power, and 2) when the elections are too far in the distant future to deal with a present emergency.
This theory never had much in the way of evidence to support it. Governments around the world enacted policies to contain COVID in large part because of public opinion, and as public opinion shifts government policy will follow – a point that was, as I said, completely predictable, and that undermines the absurd claims about the autocratic power of bureaucrats currently being bandied about.
I am not saying that all is well with American democracy, that our response to COVID was great, or that the administrative state is functioning effectively. None of these things are true. We should be very worried about how poorly our institutions responded to a pandemic that could easily have been much worse. But libertarians are not contributing to constructive debate on these issues.
Finally, even though libertarian charges of “tyranny” are an intellectual train wreck, it is the case that the Republican Party – including its libertarian coalition members – will benefit from the souring political mood over COVID. This is why I have argued that Democrats need to get ahead of this and declare victory and even drop vaccine mandates, even though I think mandates can be justified in principle.