COVID-19 Restrictions Are Driving Libertarians Up the Wall

'What is this nonsense about telling us we can’t gather in the street, or we can’t have a party in our house, or we can’t go to a restaurant?'

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A Trump supporter sits on the steps of the State Capitol with her family as a protest against the presidential election results winds down in Lansing, Michigan in November. She's holding a flag that says "Do not tread on me"
Credit: David Goldman/AP
Itay Meirson
Itay Meirson

Two is good. Two’s enough. But sometimes you need the third to inject new life, to stir things up. You can enjoy a video game in two dimensions, but the third dimension will activate something else in your head. The rule works for jokes, too: Two lunatics are walking on the street – they could have gone on walking for hours – but suddenly a third lunatic appears, and now everything is possible. The third dimension tips the scales, changes the picture – sometimes completely, but even if not, it provides a context for the two primary dimensions.

In the two-dimensional American political world of liberalism vs. conservatism, libertarianism is the third dimension. If it’s closer to conservatism, the reasons are historical, not substantive: Both sprang up in the 1950s from the same anti-communist and anti-New Deal tree, so genetically they’re cousins. In any event, the singularity of this third dimension can be illustrated by means of an anecdote that libertarians have liked to tell themselves since the 1980s. It’s about a not-entirely hypothetical issue that is distinctly representative of that decade: Is it proper for two gay people to walk hand in hand in a public park? The conservative will say it’s not – those weirdos can do whatever like in their own home, he’ll explain, but in a public park it’s their obligation to abide by accepted cultural codes. The liberal will take a different view. From his perspective, it’s definitely proper for the two to hold hands in a public park, because equal rights and opportunities are meaningful only when they are given public expression.

And then comes the turn of the libertarian. Well, sir/ma’am, do you think it’s proper for gay people to walk hand in hand in a public park? The confused libertarian will let the question simmer for a second or two, and then, gazing at you with alien-like eyes, ask: What do you mean by “public” park?

Public parks, he knows well, don’t create themselves. Their existence is the result of a long chain of actions funded by taxpayers’ money: planning, construction, digging, sowing, planting, paving, drainage, benches, maintenance, irrigation, cleaning, guarding, lighting, electricity. In his view, it’s best for all of us if the park is in the hands of a private entrepreneur who will take care of all those matters at his own expense. If the park turns out to be well cultivated and inviting, the café and the balloon stands there will thrive, the owner will make good money and the locals will enjoy a pleasant place of leisure. If the park ends up teeming with homeless people, syringes and used condoms – like many public parks in American cities – the clients will vote with their feet and the business will close down like a failed supermarket. Ultimately it’s the entrepreneur-owner who will decide whether the entrance to the park will be free or cost money, and also whether hand-holding gay people will be welcome there. After all it’s his park; he decides.

Privatize everything

Ethics aside, the libertarian will continue, let’s talk practicalities. Whom would you count on to run the park better? A creative, industrious entrepreneur whose income depends on the its success? Or Shmulik, the assistant to the deputy coordinator of the maintenance unit of the projects directorate in the administrative branch of the municipal beautification department in city hall? You already know the answer. The same goes for roads, and airports, hospitals and schools. Why should the answer be different in those cases?

Privatize, the libertarian will urge, privatize everything. Not only services and products but also natural resources like mountains, forests, deserts, rivers, lakes, the seashore and the waters of the ocean itself. Contrary to the notions of Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley – ideological rivals in libertarian eyes, but in practice the former is a “Marxist abomination” and the latter is a “socialist anathema” – natural resources do not belong “to everyone,” they belong “to no one.” They are inherently property whose ownership hasn’t yet been determined, so the public mistakenly thinks they own them all.

There are numberless shades and streams within the libertarian movement: objectivism, anarcho-capitalism, agorism, autarchism, constitutionalism, paleolibertarianism. And all those pretty words cover barely a quarter of the folks who classify themselves as libertarians. Most libertarians are simply libertarians, and they all espouse one common principle: If there’s justification for the state’s existence, it’s neither in being vigilant about protecting public morality (as conservatives think), nor in actively encouraging equality between citizens (as liberals think), but in preserving the individual’s freedoms. Period.

Rights accrue only to individuals – not to groups or sectors – and the only right that deserves to be protected by the state is the individual’s right to enter into contracts with another individual, without interference and based on free will. The “right to housing,” the “right to a living” or the “right to health” do not exist; they are inventions of meddlesome leftists who think they hold the moral high ground. The only rights that exist are, respectively, the right to buy a house if someone is willing to sell it, the right to be considered for a job if someone is willing to provide it, and the right to see a doctor if he’s willing to receive you. There are no “women’s rights,” “Blacks’ rights” or “teachers’ rights,” only individual rights for each woman, each Black person and each teacher.

Where in the U.S. Constitution is it written that the state is empowered to decide what’s good and what’s bad, what’s moral and what’s not? Where in the seminal texts of America’s founding fathers do we find the state’s right to decide what you are permitted or forbidden to put into your mouth? Nevertheless, in the name of the twisted and collectivist concept of the “public good,” the progressive crazies established the Food and Drug Administration and thereby enacted laws that ban the sale of food products unless their package is adorned with an array of seals and warnings about cancer or overeating. What the hell business is it of the state how much sodium there is in a 100 grams of cornflakes?

An armed group called the “Liberty Boys” and the anti-government “Boogaloo Bois” at a protest in Oregon, in January.Credit: ALISHA JUCEVIC/Reuters

In the America of libertarians, you have the right to do everything, no exceptions – other than participating in actions that infringe on the right of others to do everything they want, no exceptions. Anyone who doesn’t want health insurance needn’t purchase it, anyone who doesn’t want to use a seat belt in a car isn’t required to buckle up, anyone who’s anti-drugs should simply not use them, anyone who’s opposed to gay marriage shouldn’t marry a gay person. And in the real America, there are governmental programs, reforms, subsidies, quotas, laws, regulations, restrictions, supervision, more federal authorities, more inspectors, more experts, more campaigns, more “war on poverty,” more “war on racism” or war on crime or on gambling or on drinking or on obesity – or on what right- and left-wing nags think are bad for the “public.”

And just as the state wants to educate us, so too it wants to educate the world, which means: more wars, more conscription, more widows, more pensions for widows, more defense spending, more emergency laws, more federal agencies, more regulations, more Department of Homeland Security, more silencing of opponents, more police state. And above all, lots and lots more taxes to pay for all that toxic madness – taxes meaning booty that the state commandeers, in violent acts that are organized and monstrously effective, involving money that belongs to innocent citizens. Every month, every year, every lifetime.

Every libertarian knows that a true patriot is one who hates the state. And also Congress, which keeps the state running with all that stolen money. And also the president – in fact, the less that nudnik does, the better off we all are. I have a libertarian friend who’s convinced that the greatest American president was William Henry Harrison, who was elected in 1840, came down with pneumonia during his inauguration, died a month later and thus became the only president who succeeded in not doing any damage.

Libertarians are afraid of the state in the same way they hate it. The level of anxiety and of conspiracy theories they concoct about it always match the level of power displayed by the state. The more omnipresent the FBI, the more stories there are about the human experiments it carries out; the further away NASA gets into space, the more out-there theories there are about an intergalactic plot and the use of laser beams against citizens. This being so, every initiative (progressive or conservative) that heightens the state’s power, necessarily also fires up the people who dream of seeing Washington sink into the swampland from which it arose two centuries ago. Yes, they have rifles, too. A whole bunch of rifles.

February 2020. Coronavirus. Now go tell these people that because of a mysterious virus, they’re not allowed to open their business or leave home. Now go send in the cops to fine these people for not wearing masks or not maintaining a distance of 6 feet from one another, as required. And there’s also a vaccine – approved by the FDA, who else? If Dr. Anthony Fauci just dares to appear at their door with syringe drawn and requests their vein, that will be the end of him and of whoever sent him. When these people got their first rifle from Grandma, for their fifth birthday, it wasn’t in order to practice shooting at people’s legs.

In the America of libertarians, you have the right to do everything, no exceptions – other than participating in actions that infringe on the right of others to do everything they want, no exceptions.

Who are “these people,” actually? Who are the libertarians? How many of them are there? The answer to the last question is that no one really knows. Of course, it’s also necessary to point out that not all libertarians are paranoids or devotees or conspiracy theories, and not all QAnon folks are libertarians. And when we consider the Libertarian Party – how do we know whether it’s a party of serious ideologues or just a bunch of screaming crazies? We don’t know.

In any event, the estimates of self-defined libertarians range from between 7 percent and 22 percent of the population of the United States. But like all estimates of this type, the numbers don’t say very much. Depends how you count. What’s certain is that the answer doesn’t lie in the percentage of support for the Libertarian Party – most libertarians vote Republican.

Moreover, in the annual surveys, in which every libertarian research institute likes to take pride, the discussion is usually not about the numbers but about the definition. Their obsession with the question of who is a libertarian even outdoes the obsession of a certain country with the question of who is a Jew.

Having failed to solve the question of how many there are, we can proceed to fail to solve the question of who they are. There are wild animals among them and also noble souls, there are slaves to the Church and total atheists, Nazis and Jews, people who hate gratuitously and those who love gratuitously. If you go to look for them in that tenuous place that Boaz Bismuth, editor of the Israeli freebie Israel Hayom, likes to call “the field,” you run into a problem. In most cases, the search will end with an addled lowlife sporting Viking horns on his head – and though people like that photograph nicely together, they’re often incapable of roaring even one sentence that’s grammatically coherent, let alone coherent in any other way.

In the past year, that disturbed and photogenic wing, with Confederate flags and yellow Gadsden banners – those bearing the curled snake and the inscription “Don’t tread on me” – have challenged every U.S. state that has a Democratic governor. The aggressiveness they displayed and the amount of folks they brought into the streets reached record numbers in Michigan last April, in demonstrations against the COVID-19 lockdown and social-distancing restrictions imposed by the progressive governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

A QAnon believer at a pro-Trump rally, in November. Credit: Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

Libertarians who read books are far more interesting people. There are quite a few of that sort on Capitol Hill, and in contrast to the gangs of hewers of wood who took it over for a few hours on January 6, they have entry passes. One of them is the Republican senator from Kentucky Rand Paul, a direct product of the Tea Party project of a decade ago. His father, Ron Paul, a former member of the House of Representatives, is apparently the most influential libertarian in America in this century, and he reached that lofty status as a libertarian troll in the conservative forest of the Republican Party.

The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Rand Paul is the most prominent spokesperson of the libertarians who place at the center of the discussion the monstrous aid packages doled out by the government during the coronavirus crisis – something in the neighborhood of $2 trillion. He did not toe the line with the automatic Republican support for President Donald Trump’s plan. Shortly before last Christmas, he delivered an instructive speech in Congress against the “free money for everyone” plan. His aim was to demonstrate how dulled Americans’ senses have become in light of the grotesque numbers being bandied about. A trillion, for heaven’s sake! A trillion is a lot more than a billion, he said, and a billion is already far too much.

Rand Paul: “A billion seconds ago was 1988 and Ronald Reagan was still president. A billion minutes ago, Jesus walked the shore of the Sea of Galilee. A billion hours ago, man still lived in caves. But a billion dollars ago – as spent by the federal government – that was just 80 minutes ago. That is right, the federal government spends a billion dollars every 80 minutes.” Rand was the man of the hour, and all thanks to a media adviser who played around for a few minutes with the calculator app on his iPhone.

A third group of libertarians – in addition to the hewers of wood and the readers of books – encompasses a broad and very active group of people who actually write and publish. Books, articles, blogs, newsletters, podcasts. These are highly educated libertarians, the intellectual core of certain research institutes and magazines, people adorned with academic degrees, super-informed and super-involved. The first thing they do every morning is to open The New York Times, check if it’s a day when Paul Krugman’s column runs – he’s the social-democratic economist whom they most love to hate – then roll the paper into a ball and hurl it into the garbage with over-the-top dramatics.

These folks are adept at offering the libertarian response to day-to-day events within hours, and since February 2020 most of them have been operating in a continuous breaking-news format. In his podcast, Israeli-American commentator Yaron Brook, a former director of the Ayn Rand Institute and the most in-demand and articulate spokesperson of Randian libertarianism, solved the burning issue of spring 2020: the shortage of ventilating machines. The private entrepreneur built America with his own two hands, he asserted in his pedagogical, haranguing style; if you’ll only let him leave his house and manufacture ventilators, he will extricate America from the crisis within weeks.

Every libertarian knows that a true patriot is one who hates the state. And also Congress, which keeps the state running with all that stolen money. And also the president – in fact, the less that nudnik does, the better off we all are.

Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at the most widely read libertarian magazine, Reason, chose not to emphasize the self-evident though also unacceptable – the restrictions as such on individual freedoms – but rather the places where those restrictions cross the boundary of arbitrariness and logic. At the top of the list he placed Michigan’s Governor Whitmer, citing, among others of her decrees, the fact that she prohibited travel in motorboats but not in rowboats. Michigan, the so-called Land of 10,000 Lakes, was indeed one of the explosive battlegrounds of furious libertarians – with the active encouragement of the president, of course.

The long-term damage a crisis would inflict on individual liberties was the continuing theme of warnings by J.D. Tuccille. He recalled the “ratchet effect” formulated by libertarian historian Robert Higgs in the 1980s: During every national crisis, the state augments its strength, and when the crisis ends it backtracks only slightly. But the state never returns to its precise original dimensions, and thus from one crisis to the next, its “natural” and “normative” zero point stands at a more aggressive position in regard to personal liberties.

Less than three months after the outbreak of the crisis, the anarcho-capitalist historian Tom Woods published his e-book, “Your Facebook Friends Are Wrong about the Lockdown,” which followed another digital publication of Wood’s, “AOC Is Wrong,” referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York.

The rollout of the first vaccine shipments in late last fall, preceded only slightly the wave of libertarian attacks against the vaccination campaign. A report by the independent journalist Jeremy Hammond on his website, called “5 Horrifying Facts about the FDA Vaccine Approval Process,” contains all that’s needed to convince people that it would be preferable to be infected by the coronavirus than to be vaccinated against it. On the same issue, the libertarian candidate for governor of Montana this past November, Lyman Bishop, was asked in a radio program about his position on whether people should be obligated to get the vaccine. His reply: “In the face of any threat, our liberties and individual rights must come first. If they do not, then everything we have fought for and built over the last 200 years will be meaningless.” In the election he won 4 percent of the vote.

Walter Block.Credit: Gage Skidmore

Privatizing the moon

Between the libertarian movement’s Neanderthal types, politicians and intellectuals there’s also a fourth category. It’s called Walter Block – an extraordinarily cordial Jew, economist, free-market anarchist, who this summer will enter the ninth decade of his life. Block is one of those people who might, mid-speech, break into gales of laughter at something that’s amusing or ridiculously complicated, and instead of stopping momentarily to calm down, allows his laughter and words to intermingle until he runs out of breath.

Block is not among the founding fathers of the Libertarian movement, who put it on America’s intellectual and political map. (Carved on the libertarian Mount Rushmore are Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, Mary Rothbard, Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman.) But few living people are closer to that group than he. His chief advantage, in comparison to his distinguished forebears (with the possible exception of Nozick), is that he never bound himself to party power struggles, politicians or public campaigns. For 50 years, he’s been occupied with only one subject: theory.

Block, a professor or economics at Loyola University New Orleans, is like a physicist who stares for hours at a blackboard contemplating solutions to complex equations – with one difference: He deals not in quanta but in people, thought experiments from which inferences can be drawn about the nature of individual liberty. For example, imagine that someone is target-shooting and aiming a pistol at a tree in his yard. The neighbor, concerned that she’ll be hit by a stray bullet, asks him to stop. He refuses. What should happen next? What does common sense say? What does libertarian theory say? Whose right should prevail: The right of the shooter or the right of the person whose peace and safety have been disturbed? And what if the neighbor makes the same request while brandishing a kitchen knife? Or if she’s holding a toy knife? What if the shooter is deaf? And what if the neighbor hit the shooter’s son in the past?

Over decades, Walter Block has written hundreds of articles and millions of words, like a rabbi with prodigious Torah learning, on the laws of liberties and the precepts of rights as they pertain to situations like those. He has devoted many books to issues that apparently occupy only libertarians, and more precisely occupy the theoreticians among them. His 1976 book “Defending the Undefendable,” is essentially a long list, as repulsive as it is wonderful, of terrible actions that people might take, yet none of which is a violation of any clause of libertarian ethics. For example, he claims that pimping is a profession that is not necessarily immoral according to the libertarian perspective, because the business interaction between the pimp and the prostitute does not have to be one of coercion or exploitation. There are exploitative pimps, of course, but also exploitative plumbers, but no one will say that plumbing is an immoral profession. In another book he makes do with a lighter theme: the settlement and privatization of planets, moons and asteroids.

One has to see the passion that lights up Prof. Block’s eyes – as I did in a recent Zoom conversation – when he is occupied with hypothetical scenarios taken from everyday life in the age of the coronavirus. “The libertarian view is, anyone should do anything they want, except initiating violence against other people,” he says. “So what is this nonsense about telling us we can’t gather in the street, or we can’t have a party in our house, or we can’t go to a restaurant?

“This is one side of the libertarian debate. The other side is: During COVID, if I breathe out, I might kill you. Going out into the street without a mask is in effect shooting bullets – not bullets of lead but bullets of virus. From the libertarian point of view both are the same, because they can kill you.” 

Block speaks to me at length about an article he published several months ago – 31 pages of Talmudic hairsplitting – which suggests that because in the coronavirus era even a chance sneeze in the street might be considered “taking an offensive initiative,” the community of libertarian theoreticians is divided between “doves” and “hawks” on the question of which approach most deprives people’ of their rights: the lenient or the strict. The so-called doves claim that any government coercion regarding taking precautions, social distancing and wearing protective gear is contrary to the Libertarian principle of “not taking an offensive initiative” because it denies the right of a person to go out in the street without a mask. The hawks take the opposite view: They believe that people who go out in the street without a mask are taking an offensive initiative vis-à-vis passersby because they endanger their lives.

“My answer to libertarians is that you are both wrong, because you are both very definitive,” Block avers. “Some people say it [i.e., obligating people to wear masks] is absolutely a violation of rights, other are saying [that obligation] is a violation of rights, and I say we don’t know enough about COVID to be so definitive. We are undermining libertarianism by thinking that libertarianism gives you a special insight into an empirical issue, about how serious COVID is. As libertarians we don’t know. Our only expertise is what the law should be.” 

Before we part, Block tells me with excitement that his next book, which is due out very soon, will deal with the libertarian view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from a sympathetic viewpoint toward Israel. In his ideological milieu, where anti-Zionism is an almost de rigueur element of the worldview, this book, based on an article he wrote in 2016, should be particularly interesting.

By the way, anyone who reads that article already knows which way he’s heading. At a time when the whole world is talking about two options – a two-state solution or a one-state solution – Block will do everything to persuade us of the zero-state solution. On that issue, as on the issue of gays holding hands in a public park, the libertarian solution will remain on paper only. But it’s a paper that’s always fascinating to read.

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