Covid-19 and Conservative Liberalism
By Dan Klein
I proffer conservative liberalism at OLL’s Liberty Matters. I highlight Adam Smith, David Hume, and Edmund Burke, while engaged by Michael Huemer, Knud Haakonssen, and Brianne Wolf. I paint Smith, Hume, and Burke as policy liberals and polity conservatives.
Here I write as though you have been acquainted with conservative liberalism.
How does Covid-19 illustrate things about conservative liberalism?
There are no absolute libertarians in foxholes. In the Covid-19 crisis, it is very likely that the government should exert its power of institutionalizing the initiation of coercion. Very plausibly, the government should coerce anew, for example ordering bars and concerts to suspend activities. Such emergency incursions on liberty should of course be temporary.
The well-being of the whole is supreme. That goes for Smith’s entire moral philosophy. It is specific to neither his policy liberalism nor his polity conservatism. It stands behind both, and all else. My byword is the holiness of the whole. The liberty principle is not synonymous with the holiness of the whole, and hence is defeasible.
What other emergency measures should the government take?
In a major speech on Covid-19 President Trump announced: “We are cutting massive amounts red tape to make antiviral therapies available in record time.” Speedy availability is needed for test kits, ventilators, care personnel, facility capacity, convalescent blood therapy, and so on.
Cut the red tape surrounding occupational licensing, new drug permitting, production requirements, facility restrictions (“certificate of need”), restrictions on imports and on “price gouging.” We need rapid response on the supply side.
Charles II imposed certain restrictions on the importation of grain into England. Smith writes:
The distress which, in years of scarcity, the strict execution of those laws might have brought upon the people, would probably have been very great. But, upon such occasions, its execution was generally suspended by temporary statutes, which permitted, for a limited time, the importation of foreign corn. The necessity of these temporary statutes sufficiently demonstrates the impropriety of this general one. (WN 536.34)
Smith repeats the theme two pages later, having also discussed export bounties:
The temporary laws…, expedients to which Great Britain has been obliged so frequently to have recourse, sufficiently demonstrate the impropriety of her general system. Had that system been good, she would not so frequently have been reduced to the necessity of departing from it. (WN 538.38)
Then the next paragraph begins: “Were all nations to follow the liberal system of free exportation and free importation” they would achieve “the most effectual preventative of a famine” (538.39).
Covid-19 emerged in December 2019. Now an emergency descends upon us all, as we learn the peril and learn how to change our habits and daily lives. We are experiencing the emergency together.
Prior to the emergence of Covid-19, we had had regular experience with viruses and related fatalities. The 2017-18 flu season in the United States was severe, but we had regularized our attitudes and practices, and did not regard the some 61,000 deaths to be an emergency.
But for one among those 61,000, or their family members, it was indeed an emergency. They might ask: How about cutting some red tape for us? Is our morbidity and mortality not equally important? Hey you, what is it that you are really all about? Would not liberalizations on supply and development vastly reduce healthcare costs for all of us? Would that not be the most effectual preventative of a crisis?
And, had there not been so much red tape, supplies and responsiveness would have been better achieved from the very onset of the Covid-19 outbreak. We would have been ready to respond rapidly.
Plain old policy liberalism, people.
The policy liberals have been right all along about ‘consumer protection’ restrictions. “The affected anxiety of the law-giver lest [consumers] should employ an improper person, is evidently as impertinent as it is oppressive” (Smith, WN 138.12). Policy liberals were right about it even before 1776, for example in 1751, 1758, 1763.
Emergencies might call for temporary restrictions on liberty. But overcoming emergencies depends critically on liberalizing old restrictions. Those moments might show us how the old restrictions stunk to high Heaven to begin with. Freedom makes wealth, and wealth is health—the most effectual preventative.
Also, enact tort reform, loser-pays etc., to be more conducive to security on the part of suppliers. Unshackle people, to trust and cooperate more freely. Thick-skinned individualist legal norms are part of good old policy liberalism. And reform against bulls–t patents.
Thus, policy liberalism makes us robust, anti-fragile. But even more so in another, more fundamental way.
In the Covid-19 crisis, everyone is a factor. Your conduct counts. Everyone.
To “blunt the curve,” to buy time for test kits, etc., everyone needs to show moral responsibility—responsibility for themselves, their family, friends, people at large.
What makes moral responsibility?
The governmentalization of social affairs tends to throw us into the passive position, and “our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish” (Smith, TMS 137.4). Liberty places us in the active position, and our “active principles” are “often so generous and so noble” (Ibid). Smith emphasized commutative justice as a social grammar. But grammar does not tell us how to fill the blank page. Grammar underdetermines our conduct. To make a becoming use of our own, we tap sympathy, heed our conscience, built from exemplars, and apply our beneficence and other becoming virtues. Proprieties emerge bottom up, in voluntary affairs, of their own accord.
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. The interests of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it… (Refl., 136-7)
It is better to cherish virtue and humanity, by leaving much to free will, even with some loss to the object, than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence. The world on the whole will gain by a liberty, without which virtue cannot exist. (Ibid, 201)
The policymaker should sow liberty to reap virtue—so that when Covid-19 comes around people act responsibly to blunt the curve.
And what about polity conservatism? How does Covid-19 pertain to that?
As I see it, the polity dimension is in play here, but not especially in a way that calls in the conservative aspect. Rather, the polity dimension brings out, again, the primacy of liberalism in conservative liberalism.
Robert Higgs is a great policy liberal but, alas, not a polity conservative. In the present moment, amid the Covid-19 crisis, however, his masterwork Crisis and Leviathan is uppermost in my mind. Emergency measures usually are subsequently scaled back, but often not all the way back. Beware the ratchet effect. Polity-wise, we should be concerned about what we might become.
The polity sensibilities of Smith, Hume, and Burke are conservative, but not otherwise neutral. In conservative liberalism, “liberalism” is the noun and it is primary. The long-term orientation is toward a more liberal character of the polity, and that means a general opposition to the governmentalization of social affairs.
The polity sensibilities of the conservative liberal sometimes temper the impulse toward liberty, but, also, those polity sensibilities sometimes bolster that impulse.
Dan Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.