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An Open Letter to Tyler Cowen


Happy Beethoven’s 250th Birthday!

But I write not about music but, instead, about your Marginal Revolution post of today titled “The ideological shift of the libertarian movement on pandemics.” You argue there that libertarians have shifted ideologically on the question of how governments should respond to lethal infectious pathogens. As evidence for this shift, you point to remarks offered in a 2014 Reason symposium held in response to Ebola.

You’re correct that all four symposium contributors are libertarian, and that Reason is a prominent libertarian organization. But nothing written by any of the symposium contributors is remotely at odds with today’s libertarian opposition to Covid-19 lockdowns.

Only two symposium participants – Ron Bailey and Declan McCullagh – talked about a general lockdown of a region; the other two participants discussed the merits and demerits of quarantining only those individuals who are infected. Quarantining of individuals identified as infected is a categorically different animal from the general lockdowns of whole populations that we’re suffering, and continue to suffer, in response to Covid.

Not even the most careful parsing of that symposium’s words will reveal as much as an inkling of support for keeping healthy people in modern society arbitrarily confined to their homes, children prevented from attending school, and restaurants and other places of businesses forcibly closed.

And even Ron’s and Declan’s contributions do not support your case. Ron’s justification for regional lockdowns is specific to very poor countries where there is a “lack of health care infrastructure.” He goes on: “In the U.S. folks who are ill with Ebola must be isolated, but coerced Ebola quarantine of symptomless people is not warranted.”

As for Declan, he never actually endorses regional lockdowns; he simply notes that such things have occasionally occurred in the past in Anglo-American contexts. His one example – tellingly, I believe – is of New York City in 1798.

Furthermore, every one of the participants except Ron explicitly warns of government overreaction or error, and even Ron’s entry features an implicit endorsement of these libertarian concerns.

Again, contrary to your claim, today’s libertarian opposition to Covid-19 lockdowns is not the result of a shift from an earlier, less-skeptical stance. Indeed, if there has been any libertarian shift on this issue it is that many libertarians who I would have been sure one year ago would have joined with persons such as Jim Bovard, Bryan Caplan, Jon Fortier, Veronique de Rugy, David Hart, David Henderson, Dan Klein, Phil Magness, Jeffrey Tucker, and myself in openly opposing these tyrannical lockdowns are, disappointingly, supporting them or, at least, refusing to openly oppose them.