The libertarian divide over how to respond to coronavirus
By Walter E. block - May 28, 2020

Why should this debate interest anyone besides libertarians?

There are several reasons. One, a perspective from a minority position might be of interest to those in the majority.

Two, in the not totally accurate but widely accepted definition of libertarianism, it consists of those who are socially progressive, economically conservative. As such, adherents of this view comprise an estimated 10% to 25% of the electorate. This is not overwhelming, but even at the lower end, it is not insignificant either. (The number of registered members of the Libertarian Party is less than 1%, but they constitute only a small part of the overall libertarian movement. Gary Johnson, former Governor of New Mexico, garnered 4,489,233 votes, 3.27% of the total, in the presidential election of 2016).

Why the debate? One would think that based on its uncompromising principle of no initiatory aggression, coupled with a strict adherence to private property rights, this would be a no brainer. After all, a quarantine is akin to kidnapping. Innocent people are in effect jailed on a massive scale. This is anathema among libertarians, even if it is house arrest, not a prison cell. Coupled with a deep and abiding suspicion of all things governmental, this charge ought to put paid to any support for present public policy concerning the pandemic.

There are leaders of the libertarian movement who hold precisely this view. For example, states Dr. Ron Paul, former Republican Congressman:

“Our country is far less at risk from the coronavirus than it is from the thousands of small and large authoritarians who have suddenly flexed their muscles across the country. President Trump would do well to end this ridiculous shutdown so that Americans can get on with their lives and get back to work. Americans should remember the tyrants who locked them down next time they go to the ballot box. Let’s demand an end to the shutdown so we can resurrect our economy, our lives, and our liberties!”

Another leader of the libertarian movement is Lew Rockwell, who characterizes the shutdown as “the criminal folly of US government policy” and avers: “These draconian quarantine measures are an overkill.”

Rockwell quotes Mr. Libertarian, Murray N. Rothbard, to the effect that if a quarantine is to be justified “… the threat of aggression (must) be palpable, immediate, and direct, in short, that it be embodied in the initiation of an overt act.”

Rockwell continues:

“When we apply what Murray says to the coronavirus situation, we can answer our question about forced quarantines. People are not threatening others with immediate death by contagion. Rather, if you have the disease, you might pass it on to others. Or you might not. What happens if someone gets the disease is also uncertain.”

The other side of this internal debate is not without its supporters. They are equally adamant about the opposite stance: that quarantines are presently justified. For example, in the view of Ilya Shapiro:

“Yes, the president really can requisition ventilators and masks from manufacturers that can produce them… Yes, governors really can require travelers from coronavirus hotspots to self‐​quarantine … And yes, mayors can force businesses to close and stop people from congregating, assuming…  a pandemic when we don’t know who’s infected and infections are often asymptomatic, these sorts of restrictions end up maximizing freedom. The traditional libertarian principle that one has a right to swing one’s fists, but that right ends at the tip of someone else’s nose, means government can restrict our movements and activities, because we’re all fist‐​swingers now.”

Walter Olson opines: “I’m a bit of a COVID-19 hawk myself — being exposed to a fatal load of virus particles by some well‐​meaning stranger in a shared public space seems to me a kind of physical aggression…”

The problem I have with both sides of this debate on the pandemic is that each is so certain of its righteousness. How does Shapiro know that “we’re all fist‐​swingers now” even those of us who test negative for the disease, and/or show no Covid-19 symptoms? On the other hand, why are Paul and Rockwell so sure this is not the case?

Yes, of course, in libertarian theory, the burden of proof rests with the initiator of violence, the quarantiner in this case. But how can both sides think that their analysis is so indisputable? In terms of theology, on the justification of compulsory isolation, Paul and Rockwell are atheists, Shapiro and Olson are theists, while I hold an agnostic position, I think the only correct one.

So what is the correct libertarian position on this matter? I think there is none, at least not yet, with our present (lack of) knowledge. We can say nothing, qua libertarians. We can only speak on this matter based on our own prudential judgements. Our stance on politics and economics is still robust, still correct, even if it does not lead, inexorably, to any one side of this issue, as of now.

Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Business, Loyola University New Orleans, and senior fellow at the Mises Institute. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University in 1972. He is the author of more than 600 refereed articles in professional journals, two dozen books, and thousands of op-eds (including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and numerous others). Prof. Block counts among his friends Ron Paul and Murray Rothbard. He was converted to libertarianism by Ayn Rand. Block is old enough to have played chess with Friedrich Hayek and once met Ludwig von Mises, and shaken his hand. Block has never washed that hand since.  So, if you shake his hand (it’s pretty dirty, but what the heck) you channel Mises.

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