"Tags:: " #libertarian #[[COVID-19]] #politics #[[role of government]] #[[state capacity]]
[[Brink Lindsey]] discusses libertarianism in the context of [[COVID-19]]. While there was significant government failure in handling the crisis, Lindsey suggests that what we need is greater government capacity, not to cut government services. According to him, this is the only solution Libertarians have regarding government. They offer valuable points on the limits of government, but they do not provide insights on how to improve the quality of government.
On March 3, in response to reports that some Republican lawmakers favored free testing and treatments for [[COVID-19]], [[Derek Thompson]] of [[The Atlantic]] tweeted, “There are no [[libertarians]] in a pandemic.” The witticism bounced all over social media during the ensuing days and weeks – and with good reason, since the jab hit its target squarely on the nose.
When public safety is threatened, whether by war or disease, our dependence on [[Government]] becomes immediately and viscerally obvious.
In the first place, the fact that certain kinds of government action are necessary under the extraordinary conditions of a public health emergency – a fact freely acknowledged by many libertarians and partisans of small government – does not mean that expansive government across the board is a good idea in normal times. Further, in the emergency now upon us, overweening government has contributed significantly to the scale of the pandemic here in the United States. Effective responses to the outbreak have been badly hampered by inadequate supplies of test kits and equipment, and primary responsibility for this failure rests with the Food and Drug Administration and its heavy-handed regulatory approach. A key blunder was the decision in early February to allow only the [[CDC]] to produce and conduct tests; problems with the CDC’s initial test then led to weeks of disastrous delay. #[[FDA]]
Meanwhile, responding to the crisis has necessitated a string of regulatory waivers at the federal and state levels – to allow doctors and nurses to work out of state, to facilitate telemedicine, to expand the scope of work that non-M.D. health professionals can do, to allow restaurants and bars to sell alcohol to takeout customers, and more. The relevant rules have been put aside temporarily as obviously dysfunctional now – but perhaps that means at least some of them are dysfunctional, if less obviously, all the time? #[[regulation]] #[[deregulation]]
But if the pandemic has shown that a critical stance toward government is always needed in formulating and evaluating policy, it has demonstrated even more forcefully the limitations and shortcomings of libertarians’ exclusive focus on government excess. The gravest failures in the government response to the pandemic were sins of omission, not commission – not unnecessary and ill-advised interference with the private sector, but the inability to accomplish tasks for which only government is suited. Yes, at the outset of the crisis the [[FDA]] was disastrously over-restrictive in permitting labs to develop their own tests for the virus, but it is flatly risible to suggest that everything would have worked out fine if only government had gotten out of the way.
While the economic collapse was doubtless aggravated at the margins by forced business closures and stay-at-home orders, those interventions largely codified the public’s spontaneous response to the uncontrolled outbreak of a highly infectious and potentially fatal disease. It’s quite simply impossible to run a modern economy at anything near its potential level of output when people are afraid that going to work or going shopping might kill them or their loved ones.
[[Government excess]], in other words, was not the fundamental problem. On the contrary, a large and activist government was all that stood between us and mass privation and suffering on a mind-boggling scale. Only government can mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic – in the same way it responds to other shocks that lead to other, less drastic slumps – by acting as insurer of last resort, using its taxing, spending, borrowing, and money-creating powers to sustain household spending and keep businesses afloat until resumption of something approaching normal economic activity is possible.
In the current double crisis, what has been lacking is not restraints on government power. What has been lacking – shockingly, shamefully, tragically lacking – is the capacity to exercise government power effectively. #[[state capacity]]
As to how to close America’s deficit in [[state capacity]], a question with millions of lives in the balance, [[libertarianism]] has nothing to say. The libertarian project is devoted exclusively to stopping government from doing things it ought not to do; its only advice about how to improve government is “less.” When it comes to making government strong enough and capable enough to do the things it needs to do, libertarianism is silent.
As I’ve already argued, none of this means that libertarians are wrong about everything, or that [[libertarian]] ideas are worthless. But it does mean that skepticism about government, standing alone, is an insufficient foundation for good governance. The insights of libertarian thought – suspicion of centralized power, alertness to how even the best-intended government measures can still go horribly wrong, recognition of the enormous fertility of the marketplace’s decentralized, trial-and-error experimentation – are genuine and abiding. But they are not sufficient.
I say this as someone who discovered [[libertarian]] ideas in the 1970s. Back then, the intellectual orthodoxy tilted heavily in favor of top-down, technocratic management of economic life. [[Paul Samuelson]]’s bestselling [[economics]] textbook was still predicting that the [[Soviet Union]] would soon overtake us in [[GDP]].
The intellectual turn against markets had derived enormous momentum from events. The catastrophic collapse of the [[Great Depression]] had seriously discredited [[capitalism]], while the energetic experimentation of the [[New Deal]] showcased government activism favorably. Belief in the benevolence and effectiveness of American government, and the crucial importance of collective action for collective welfare, gained further strength from the experience of [[World War II]]. And the glittering economic performance of the postwar decades under the [[Big Government]]-[[Big Business]]-[[Big Labor]] triumvirate seemed to confirm that government management and economies of scale had permanently displaced upstart [[entrepreneurship]] and [[creative destruction]] as the primary engines of [[progress]].
But by the 1970s, events had turned. [[Stagflation]], the combination of soaring prices and slumping output, was afflicting the country despite the fact that its very existence was a baffling mystery to the reigning practitioners of macroeconomic “fine-tuning.” In cruel mockery of the noble goals and soaring rhetoric of the “War on Poverty,” a major expansion of anti-poverty programs had been followed by waves of urban riots, a soaring crime rate, and the catastrophic breakdown of intact families among African-Americans. The auto and steel industries, pillars of the economy and only recently world leaders in efficiency and innovation, were buckling under the competitive challenge of imports from [[Europe]] and [[Japan]]. Gas lines and periodic rationing suggested a grim future of ever more tightly binding “limits to growth.”
Against this backdrop, the rising movement of libertarian thought and free-market economics represented a much-needed corrective.