What About Essential *Liberty*?
The “Libertarian Moment” Has Arrived in Disguise
A recent study found that the average American believes that 9% of the population has died of COVID since the beginning of 2020. The actual percentage is around 0.04%, and just 0.005% of those under 55 years old.
If the public is so badly misinformed, how can they possibly make a rational assessment of their government’s response to COVID-19?
Early on during the pandemic, I made a point to limit my reading to a select group of the most rational writers and commentators, who take the balance of evidence in account when discussing the inevitable trade-offs of the current moment. No dogma or politicking – just evidence and even-handed analysis.
And remarkably, I have emerged optimistic about the future of liberty in the United States.
It’s true that from one angle it looks like a fearful population is once again succumbing to politicians’ scare tactics — willingly surrendering their rights in the name of safety and compassion.
“If it saves one life, it’s worth it,” is the nonsensical rallying cry of a bureaucrat trying to justify draconian lockdowns and new exercises in unconstitutional authority.
From another angle, however, the COVID-19 epidemic provides us with all of the civics lessons we need to make a forceful case for freedom, federalism, and the founding values of this country.
Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
The distinction between “essential” and “nonessential” businesses skips over the more important question of what constitutes our essential liberty?
From the income tax during World War I to the PATRIOT Act during the War on Terror, government has always used security as its justification for ratcheting up its power.
Could it be that this time they have overreached, and exposed the ineptitude of centralized responses to a complex crisis once and for all?
Signs of the Return of the Libertarian Moment
Consider the FDA’s handling of early testing — botching the manufacturing, and preventing third party innovation — or the CDC’s bungling on mask-wearing advice (first, insisting they don’t work, then mandating them everywhere except the bedroom and the shower). What could do more to discredit the administrative state?
In response to the widely-perceived failure of its slow bureaucratic process, the FDA fast-tracked certain promising treatments, paving the way for a more flexible approval process for new drugs. In a recent interview, Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution suggested cross-country drug approval as a sensible next step, which would let American doctors prescribe medicines that have already been vetted by European regulators, for example.
In health care, states have had to admit that out-of-state doctors and nurses can do the job just as well as in-state hospital workers, and that professionals in one field can still provide a great deal of care outside their licensed speciality. This could deal a permanent blow to occupational licensing, exposing it as the racket it is and giving thousands the right to work wherever they choose.
Liberal states like California seem to have finally discovered the virtues of federalism, where those “powers reserved to the states” can be used to buck the Trump Administration. Although California Governor Gavin Newsom has taken on his own unconstitutional “emergency powers,” the blueprint for divided sovereignty between states and federal government will persist — moving us towards the laboratories of democracy the founders envisioned.
Randal O’Toole points out how public transit — a major vector of COVID — is taking a hit, and for the first time could be conceivably phased out, saving taxpayers billions in federal subsidies for inefficient and outdated systems.
Working from home represents a certain kind of freedom, but the bigger shift— the exodus out of commercial real estate in cities — could sound a death knell for the center of the political machine supporting the Democratic Party.
Once that happens, the power of the public service unions, which derive their power from large cities, is diluted. This means pressure on pensions, as city budgets decline. The political power of the teacher’s union, the transport worker’s union, the prison guard’s union, the policemen’s union (very much in the news) — declines, which means power gets dispersed throughout the country.
As the California Teacher’s Associations takes its stand against school re-openings, we will see a surge in support for homeschool, charter schools, and alternatives to the government school system. The country is becoming, compliments of the virus, small-d “democratic” with power spread throughout the country.
In short, I find the virus to be a gift from God in the long run in terms of economic and political power being dispersed throughout the country.
While the media has been able to fool Americans into thinking they are in such grave danger that they must surrender their essential liberties, the ruse will not last forever.
It’s time for libertarians to assert their freedoms, and start exercising their essential liberty however they can. If you are looking to pierce the veil of fear for a friend or colleague who remains trapped by the sensationalist fear-mongering, send them a copy (or sample section) of my new book – Essential Liberty: Finding Freedom in a Post-COVID World.
It offers a much-needed dose of perspective to help readers balance concerns in a world of uncertainty, and to see the silver linings on the past several months that are paving the way for the Golden Age of Liberty. It was no doubt a dark and stormy day when Benjamin Franklin received his flash of inspiration about the connection between lightning and electricity.
We all know the story of Franklin telling a woman following the Constitutional Convention that the people were being given a Republic — if we can keep it. The founders knew that the American experiment in liberty required an educated and engaged population. Let us draw our own conclusions about the risks of COVID for ourselves, our customers, and our families, and resist one-size-fits-all lockdowns however we can.
The first principles of our country are within all of us. I believe that will get us through, but I implore people — do not take our essential liberty for granted. Cherish it and work hard to preserve it, especially through difficult times.