What's your libertarianism worth now?
By Alberto Mingardi
On his Facebook page, Robert Higgs writes:
Virology is a branch of biological science. Epidemiology is a branch of medicine and demography. Libertarianism (including its subset, individualist anarchy) is an ideology. Do not let your commitment to libertarianism convince you that you do not need to know anything about virology and epidemiology in order to make intelligent appraisals of a viral-disease epidemic. And do not assume that virology and epidemiology are nothing but tools that the rulers use to bamboozle the public into greater submission to their power grabs. It’s not so simple.
This is a point similar to the one made by Michael Huemer, and which I have quoted in a previous post. Commitment to a certain set of political ideas is a poor guide in assessing risks due to a new situation, which results out of the spread of Covid19.
Ideologies are like eyeglasses: they allow you to focus on pictures of a world of which you have limited knowledge, where assuming and processing information is costly and simply can’t be done in an adequate way in most of instances. But wearing glasses does not mean you are no longer myopic. In some situations, your eyesight may get worse, regardless of the fact you keep your glasses on your nose. Largely unpredicted and unexpected shocks are one of those instances.
Yet here comes a question: what is your libertarian ideology worth, in these days of pandemic? Some of us are libertarian because we naturally resent any infringement upon our own liberties, or because we feel a free society best guarantees each’s own interests. This is, to my purely anecdotal but still suitable large experience of meeting real world libertarians (not their caricatures, so easily encountered in other folks’ political statements), a quite rare occurrence. Most of the time you are a libertarian because you think government is more likely to screw things up than are other social actors. In that sense, you decided to wear libertarian glasses because of your reading of a certain amount of historical evidence. Because of that, you think the burden of proof lies on the interventionists.
So, what shall your ideology teach you these days? How it can be of use? Here’s seven instances, in which I think your libertarianism may serve you well.
1. It makes you appreciate fiscal prudence. If exceptional moments may come, being fiscally prudent in normal times makes governments more resilient and more credible when they are under pressure. Germany’s fiscal probity does not necessarily make individual Germans healthier than Italy’s fiscal lassitude. But it makes Angela Merkel a more credible leader when facing markets and bond holders, which is not a trivial thing.
2. It makes you think of the next generation. Whatever the tricks deployed by central banks, we are going to end up far more indebted than we used to be. Hard times are coming and will especially impact younger people who are just entering the labour market, particularly if they have little or no family support and capital behind their shoulders. To not jeopardize their economic future is an important argument to check unnecessary and wasteful public spending, particularly as we have more genuinely needed, emergency expenditure.
3. It makes you beware voters, not just politicians. In Italy we have found some new “untori”. It is runners. You got it right: runners, those people who dress funny and take a jog in the street. As our hospitals are overloaded with Coronavirus patients, clearly runners should be careful and try to avoid accidents, as they are probably unlikely to be treated with the accostumed. Yet it is well known that the highest number of accidents happen when you stay home, between your house’s walls, and the whole country is forced to stay home. But of course in terrible moments such as these people feel a natural need for somebody to blame: visible hands which can be considered responsible for bad things happening. The more this happens, the uglier society may become.
4. It brings you to advocate deregulation even more. These days regulatory bodies such as the FDA are granting “emergency use authorization” to new coronavirus tests and will possibly use fast track for new drug treatments and, eventually, a vaccine. When the going gets rough, deregulation is no longer a libertarian fantasy: it is a need, to speed up processes that otherwise will take years, because of the regulatory burden, leaving people to die meanwhile.
5. It makes you to celebrate the profit motive. It is the profit motive that brings together capital and brains, in those companies that are trying to develop a vaccine as fast as possible. It is the profit motive that will make companies to switch to produce medical equipment (such as masks), in order to adapt to changes in demand.
6. It makes you skeptical of the ability of planners to twist things, and thoughtful about unintended consequences. Some of these unintended consequences are pretty predictable. For example, in Milan the local government has made underground trains run less often, in order to achieve social distancing. It ended up with the opposite result: people are now way too close to each other on the morning trains at rush hour. Happily, local government is relatively flexible and they reversed their decision. Something similar may happen in the near future, as the government is thinking of further limiting opening hours in supermarkets. None of this is astrophysics but to think about measures critically you need to know that reality can’t be changed at the stroke of the pen, and individual behavior adapts to, but does not necessarily obey, new laws. All the time you spent reading Hayek now come to use.
7. It will make you ponder the importance of the individual. In a 60 million person democracy, such as Italy, you cannot lock everybody in their flat, not even in great cities. To fight the virus we may need government, but we need people behaving responsibly and enduring the hardship of social distancing. After this is over, whatever the magic governments and central banks deployed in the meanwhile, it is people’s propensity to truck, barter, and exchange that will bring us back to a functioning economy, it is their creativity that will sparkle entrepreneurship. We are all in this together, but this “we” is millions of individuals, whose plans and hopes have been disrupted and whose discipline and intelligence are of paramount importance, in the dark days ahead.