There are no libertarians in a pandemic

Monday, January 25th, 2021

There are no libertarians in a pandemic,” Atlantic writer Derek Thompson quipped — and then, Jacob Grier notes, the line was taken up by libertarians themselves as a sardonic response to numerous instances of government failure:

In fact, libertarian criticism of the regulatory state has been frequently vindicated. Libertarians have developed ideas for how to compensate those affected by business closures, take better advantage of testing, and develop and distribute vaccines more rapidly. Libertarians can also rightly condemn some of the worst actors in the pandemic, from anti-maskers violating private property rights to the prison system’s oversight of the nation’s largest outbreaks.

There are libertarians in a pandemic, and it turns out they have some good ideas and insightful critiques.


The American pandemic response was beset by government failure from the very beginning. In February of 2020, the most urgent priority in the United States was deploying COVID tests to identify cases, survey the extent of the virus’s spread, and attempt to contain it. Although the World Health Organization had already developed a working test, the Centers for Disease Control designed its own from scratch. The CDC test turned out to be unworkably flawed, reporting false positives even on distilled water.

Around the same time, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency. Ironically, one effect of this declaration was to forbid clinical labs from creating their own tests without first obtaining an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Bureaucratic hurdles — which included pointless requirements to send files by mail and to prove that the tests would not return false positives for MERS and the original SARS virus — slowed development. The early outbreak in Washington was uncovered in part by researchers simply defying the CDC to test samples without permission.


In the healthcare field, states responded by easing licensing requirements to allow medical personnel to practice across state lines and increase access to telehealth. In some states, ride-share companies expanded non-medical transportation and got into pharmaceutical delivery, thanks to waived regulations. The FDA relaxed enforcement of rules to speed the production of respiratory devices and personal protective equipment. The agency also allowed distillers to pivot from spirits to hand sanitizer, albeit with strict denaturing requirements that needlessly raised costs and reduced supply.

As indoor dining plummeted due to mandated closures and the risk of airborne transmission, the hospitality industry benefited immensely from cities allowing more use of outdoor spaces and expanding the legality of outdoor drinking, both of which made urban environments much more livable and fun. All of it went to show how unnecessarily prohibitive the rules had been before COVID. Alcohol has been deregulated in ways that would have been unimaginable a year ago, with states tearing down barriers to home delivery and allowing bars and restaurants to serve cocktails to-go. These changes are nice for consumers, but more importantly, they provide a lifeline to struggling businesses and hospitality workers.

As of August, Isabelle Morales of Americans for Tax Reform had documented more than 800 regulations waived in response to COVID. While some of these will eventually come back into force, the pandemic has revealed how regulations often inhibit flexibility. In many cases — consulting our doctors over the internet, enjoying outdoor spaces, getting cocktails with our takeout — we’re simply better off without them.


The largest COVID outbreaks in the United States are in our prisons and jails. Data collected by the Marshall Project and the Associated Press finds that 275,000 prisoners have been infected and that more than 1,700 have died. One in five prisoners has had the virus, about four times the rate in the general population. In some states more than half of the incarcerated population has been infected. These outbreaks can seed wider spread in surrounding communities.


Governments from New York to California to Florida have instituted and walked back outdoor restrictions such as shutting down beaches and closing parks and playgrounds.

Epidemiologist Julia Marcus noted early this summer that these heavy-handed approaches drive socializing indoors where the risk of transmission is higher and that coercive policing of social distancing disproportionately impacts minorities while undermining trust. A better approach would focus on harm reduction, recognizing humans’ social needs and encouraging the safest ways to meet them.

Relatedly, people will act independently to ignore restrictions when they perceive risk to be low and to mitigate danger when they perceive it to be high.


One of the most astonishing facts of this pandemic is that the Moderna vaccine was designed on January 13, 2020, before most of us had even heard of the then-novel coronavirus and before any American had died from it. Other vaccines followed very soon after. For nearly the entire run of the pandemic, which has taken 400,000 lives in the United States and more than two million globally, the tools were available to stop the disease, if only we’d known how to test, produce, and distribute them more rapidly.

Libertarians, as well as others on the ideological spectrum ranging from Peter Singer to Sally Satel, made the case for using human challenge trials to accelerate the testing of vaccine candidates. The website 1 Day Sooner signed up more than 38,000 volunteers to take part in them. Others, including many bioethicists, objected that volunteers could not give meaningful consent to the potential danger. Yet the risk of participating would likely be comparable to that of donating a kidney, another altruistic medical decision that ethicists discouraged in the recent past. Every day without a vaccine also shifts COVID risks onto healthcare workers and others in the general population, including those more vulnerable than likely trial volunteers. If human challenge trials can accelerate vaccine development, there’s a strong case for respecting the autonomous decisions of volunteers to take part in them.


The dreadfully slow rollout of vaccines embodies the perils of central planning. Despite the scarcity of doses, states are struggling to use their allocations. In some instances, unused doses are ending up in the trash. The most successful states and countries, such as Israel and Connecticut, have emphasized speed and flexibility over rigid adherence to vaccinating people in the “correct” order. Simple rules work better than elaborate plans and doses do more good in bodies than on shelves or in the garbage. Strict compliance with demands to vaccinate only certain groups threatens to undermine the goal of simply getting enough people vaccinated to reduce transmission.

While states struggle to put their vaccines to use, people are also queuing for hours in hope of securing near-expiration doses that would otherwise go to waste. This is a predictable outcome of setting a price ceiling of zero dollars.


Combatting the spread of infectious disease is a legitimate function of government under many libertarian conceptions, and the unprecedented scope of COVID justifies a lot of government activity that libertarians would find unreasonable in other circumstances.

Still, it’s worth contemplating what a more libertarian response to the pandemic would have looked like.

  • We would have had more and better testing available during the earliest outbreaks when that would have helped slow the spread of the disease.
  • We would have more and better testing now and the freedom to test ourselves at home, empowering us to discover when we are asymptomatic and contagious.
  • We would have more vaccines, faster, available to more people.
  • We would have smaller prison clusters, more people freed on compassionate release, and fewer of us imprisoned in the first place.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    There are very few libertarians in power. They seem to think winning elected office is somehow beneath them. Meanwhile, the people who love government power do what it takes to obtain that power.

    Libertarianism is not a political ideology. It is an anti-political ideology. To hate big government is to hate politics. It’s all about wanting to be left alone by everybody else. It’s kind of asocial when you think about it.

    The ancient Greeks had a word for that.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “… the unprecedented scope of COVID justifies a lot of government activity that libertarians would find unreasonable in other circumstances.”

    Most libertarians are educated enough to realize there is nothing “unprecedented” about a virus with health consequences similar to a bad flu year — the kind of thing humans have lived with for centuries without locking down their societies.

    What we have been exposed to is not a “pandemic”; is is a CASEDEMIC, in which healthy people are counted as “cases” when an unreliable test with a high percentage of False Positives designates them as infected .. or maybe having been infected and now recovered.

    Any libertarian worthy of the name has to base his assessments on the iron tests of evidence & the scientific method — and has to be prepared to adjust his assessment in the light of additional information.

    The initial panicked response from politicians & bureaucrats was understandable at the beginning, when all we had was videos of well-dressed working age Chinese males collapsing on the streets. (A kind of event that that has never been seen again, neither in China nor anywhere else in the world. Ever wonder why?)

    The damage done by the Political Class’s continued imposition of Lock Downs has far exceeded the harm done by the virus. Only in China is the economy booming and life is fairly close to normal. Ever wonder why?

  3. Kirk says:


    The COVID situation was political from start to finish; the Chinese leveraged their contacts and agents within the US government to erase Trump from American politics, and the disease was the tool.

    Fauci went against declared US government policy to finance what is termed “gain of function” research at the Wuhan facility. That was either released on purpose, or it got out due to the usual crappy Chinese attention to detail and care. Could also be due to the employees selling infected test animals, or sloppy work resulting in infected employees. Either way, the Chinese and their purchased agents within the US government leveraged the opportunity they created, and here we are.

    Looking at it objectively, from the outside? The response was always completely political. The CDC didn’t believe it was a big deal, as evidenced in how they responded with untrained personnel to deal with that Japanese cruise ship situation, didn’t deploy with necessary contamination gear, and then brought back the exposed while refusing to test any asymptomatic people for the disease. They also shut down that doctor in Seattle who was doing mass screenings, which would likely have shown that whatever the hell was going on, we had COVID here in the US long before January 2020.

    The whole thing was political from start to finish, and you could tell from the way they handled it. None of the CDC functionaries took this seriously, and there was no real sense of urgency to their actions. We only have a vaccine because Trump pushed through changes to the usual vaccine approval process–Normally, they’d still be in testing. Remains to be seen whether or not this was a good idea, but we’ll see.

    My money is on this whole deal being an opportunistic political deal from start to finish. The flu epidemic of 2009 is going to turn out to have killed more people, by the end of this all. I’d lay money on that… And, because it wasn’t highlighted and spun up in the news, nobody will ever know.

    Face the facts… The Republic is lost, and has been since the seventies. The bureaucrats and unelected staff run the show, while the congressional scum make money selling off America to its enemies. Biden just reopened the US power grid to Chinese companies again, and gee, won’t that work out wonderfully?

    To put it in technical terms, we are fucked.

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