Brink Lindsey on Libertarians and Pandemics

Brink Lindsey rightly points out that libertarianism (at least a dominant form of it) is anti-government: “The modern libertarian movement . . . is dedicated to the proposition that the contemporary American state is illegitimate and contemptible. In the libertarian view, government is congenitally incapable of doing anything well, the public sphere is by its very nature dysfunctional and morally tainted.”

Lindsey finds the libertarian position obviously absurd and argues we obviously need effective government: “When public safety is threatened, whether by war or disease, our dependence on government becomes immediately and viscerally obvious. There are no Centers for Disease Control in the private sector. There is no possibility of swiftly identifying the virus, and launching a crash program to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines, without massive government support for medical research. And for those tests, treatments, and vaccines to be effective, their distribution cannot be restricted by ability to pay; government must step in to ensure wide availability. In addition, vigorous use of the government’s emergency powers–banning large public gatherings, temporarily shutting down schools and businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders, quarantining the sick and those exposed to them–has been needed to help contain the outbreak. When a highly contagious and fatal disease can spread before its victims even show symptoms, the libertarian ethos of personal responsibility–do what you want, and bear the consequences for good or ill–leads not to mass flourishing but to mass death. Only the government has the power and resources to internalize the externalities of contagion and coordinate a rational response.”

The problem is that Lindsey pitches a large and aggressive positive-welfare government as the only alternative to no government.

The Objectivists (who very strongly reject libertarianism) have laid out a reasonable third path. One Objectivist publication runs the article, “‘Big Government’ Is Not the Problem.” The idea is that government needs to vigorously protect people from others who would harm them. More recently, Objectivists have argued that government has a legitimate role to play in keeping people safe from others carrying infectious diseases (see video conversations involving Gregory Salmieri, Amesh Adalja, Yaron Brook, and Ben Bayer). So government is perfectly within its proper guardrails in providing testing, setting up quarantines, and so on. I do think this line of thinking generates a lot of questions in terms of where to properly draw the lines delimiting government action.

Lindsey asserts that a free market could not otherwise counter a pandemic, but he just presumes this without evidence or serious argument. I want to offer a few reasons to think he might be wrong.

  1. Bill Gates has spent enormous sums of money fighting infectious diseases around the world, now including COVID-19. Tyler Cowen leads a group to provide fast grants to researchers working on the problem. So it is obviously not the case that only government can address externalities in this positive way (as opposed to strictly playing a protective role). The interesting question is whether government is needed at all for it, and, if so, to what degree.
  2. Firms have enormous financial incentives to stay open. The problem is that, in most cases, private testing has been literally illegal. The CDC and FDA derailed early testing efforts. In Colorado, only recently (within the past few weeks) could people get tested for COVID-19 without a doctor’s prescription, and testing was limited to people with symptoms. You can’t outlaw private testing and then blame the market for not providing private testing.
  3. Largely through a system of state laws, American government has imposed serious price controls during emergencies. This substantially throttles the market response and arguably is largely to blame for shortages in masks and other important products.
  4. Government has so royally screwed up health payments by turning health insurance largely into an employer-paid and prepaid system that it’s really absurd to measure a free healthcare market by today’s mostly-government-controlled “market.”

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