The appeal of contrarianism too often leads libertarians to make libertarian solutions less likely.

How Not to Argue for Liberty

Jason Kuznicki has facilitated many of the Cato Institute’s international publishing and educational projects. He is editor of Cato Unbound, and his ongoing interests include censorship, church‐​state issues, and civil rights in the context of libertarian political theory. He was an Assistant Editor of Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Prior to working at the Cato Institute, he served as a Production Manager at the Congressional Research Service. Kuznicki earned a Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005, where his work was offered both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Chateaubriand Prize.

Why do so many libertarians efface libertarianism?

I’ll explain what I mean.

A threat arises. It might be addressed in a libertarian way, or in a much less libertarian way. Even if the threat is a pandemic, libertarian approaches certainly exist. One that I favor right now is to say that people should practice social distancing and wear masks when interacting with those outside their immediate family. But—and this is the libertarian part—we should do it voluntarily, as a matter of free, private choice. That means exceptions will exist, but so will strong norms of behavior, and they will be strong in part because they are freely chosen.

A good social norm is often a lot like that. Just as we don’t need the government ordering us to shower or brush our teeth, we should regard wearing a mask as part of the personal hygiene we’ll need to practice in the future, at least until we have a vaccine. Except that wearing a mask is a lot more important for protecting others than brushing your teeth. Nobody ever died from smelling bad breath.

Another possible response to the pandemic is to say that masks and social distancing should be compulsory. The police should hand out citations and eventually jail people who don’t obey. And if people continue to resist, we should give the state the power to injure or kill them. This is what nearly all laws mean sooner or later, even when non‐​libertarians don’t like to think about it.

This second approach is not libertarian. It relies on coercion, and I don’t believe that it needs to. If we look to similar cases in the past, no coercion was really needed. Norms of personal hygiene are widely shared and popular. We generally like seeming (and being) non‐​infectious, and good personal hygiene norms help us both to signal and to be the healthy people that we want others to think of us as. Adopting a new norm in the face of a serious public health threat shouldn’t be too hard, and it’s a tribute to the ugliness of coercion that coercion has brought people to oppose even a reasonable, well‐​supported, and low‐​cost anti‐​infection strategy. Voluntary masks have become unacceptable to a lot of people because involuntary masks have become so common—a sentiment I can understand even if I don’t shed my mask.

But some libertarians don’t opt for the first approach as the better alternative. Instead they claim that the pandemic is a hoax or an exaggeration, or that it’s no worse, at any rate, than a typical flu season.

This is totally nuts, and in several different ways.

First, I’d have to go back at least to early March to find any kind of reasonable‐​looking argument for why the pandemic is possibly no big deal. Even back then I had a hard time believing those kinds of arguments, several of which were falsified in quick succession. Even back then, and growing more so in the meantime, the real argument has centered on just how big of a deal it was going to be.

Yes, experts are often wrong and, sometimes, plucky amateurs with dissenting views manage to get things right where nobody else could do it. But ask yourself: What if this isn’t one of those times? What would happen to your libertarianism if the more‐​or‐​less expert consensus on COVID-19, as it stands today, were completely correct?

My libertarianism would end up at something like “masks and social distancing, but do it voluntarily.” It wouldn’t end up at “our basic ideas about germs and disease just happen to have been fundamentally wrong for nearly two hundred years.” This much less reasonable position does seem to be where some people in my social media world have ended up. 

Yes, I’ve seen models from early in the pandemic that predicted a much worse event than we seem to be experiencing. Those models were wrong, and on further scrutiny they turned out to be quite embarrassing. But two things stand out about mainstream science in regard to them: First, mainstream science updated itself and dropped those models as soon as better data became available. And second, the alternatives to the mainstream have done absolutely nothing to prove their worth. The pandemic trutherism making the rounds is about as persuasive as 9/11 trutherism or Holocaust denial. This is to say both that it’s completely not persuasive and that it’s morally repulsive. Aggressively not caring about others because you’ve found some highly selective statistics or misleading charts on Facebook isn’t libertarianism. It’s just being a jerk.

Why, then, do people hide the confident, optimistic, pro‐​social idea that we can beat the pandemic through voluntary action? Why do they replace it with ugly, innumerate pseudoscience? 

One sometimes sees a similar move in libertarian antiwar circles, where the best argument should be that a foreign dictatorship is bad—dictatorship is evil, you know—but that, for a wide variety of reasons, it’s usually not within the power of the United States to make things better. We commonly make things worse both over there and over here, and that’s why we shouldn’t intervene.

That would be a properly libertarian answer to neoconservative adventurism. The incorrect, embarrassing, but surprisingly popular answer is again one that effaces libertarianism. It’s to say that foreign dictators aren’t so bad after all, and that (for example) it’s thrilling to watch the South Vietnamese government fall. Or that the Taliban was the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Or that Saddam Hussein was really kind of a nice guy, just misunderstood I guess.

None of that needs to be affirmed to say that Vietnam was a mistake, Afghanistan was just barely an acceptable war, though not in its conduct, and that invading Iraq was an all too predictable debacle.

Or consider drugs. Every good libertarian believes that the choice to take a drug, whether medically, recreationally, or spiritually, should be an individual one, informed by individual beliefs, in consultation with doctors, therapists, and other advisors. Every good libertarian agrees that criminalization botches the whole process by making certain drugs more dangerous while doing nothing to keep them off the streets.

That’s a good argument. A bad argument—which I regret to say that I’ve seen—is that heroin, cocaine, and other addictive substances aren’t so dangerous after all. These drugs are dangerous, just exactly as dictators are evil, and viruses are deadly.

Beware, then, the theories that efface libertarianism: If they were true, then nobody would even need to consider the libertarian responses to real‐​world problems. But libertarian responses absolutely should be considered. They are stronger, perhaps, than we think them to be ourselves. Besides, we’re not always going to be the plucky outsiders with the oddball theory that changed the world, and you only get to make that claim maybe once in your life—twice if you’re right the first time—before it starts to look like a bad habit. The distinctive claim of the libertarian coalition, the thing that holds it all together, isn’t that there happens to be a different oddball theory to explain away each successive problem as it arises. Rather, it’s that we believe that people are better at meeting a wide variety of genuine and pressing problems when they are not coerced by the state.