This is a question that popped up very often on the web, to the extent that some people even declared the new pandemic era meant the “death of libertarianism”. What these people meant was that a libertarian society wouldn’t have had the tools to survive the pandemic. Is this true? Let’s find out.
Before we can even start it’s important to remind to non-libertarians and to some naive libertarians that the society that libertarians have in mind is not the panacea of all the evils of this world. It’s not a top-down project like the socialist one that as the goal has a future world without injustices and freedom for all. The libertarian society is not an heaven on Earth and it does not entails the foundation of the best most perfect world possible. The libertarian society is a bottom-up emergent system which maximise the freedom of the individuals. Life won’t magically be better for all or perfect and we will all be happy ever after. Some things will be better than today’s society, some won’t. It’s difficult to evaluate the impact of a pandemic to a libertarian society. It is possible that the initial deaths might have been higher than in our current state society, but it’s also possible that the overall number of deaths might have been lower in the long term.
How is that possible?
Libertarian societies are granular highly decentralised societies. As such each community reacts to unknown events in different ways and with the eventual exchange of information they can learn from what had worked and what not. Communities do not react to the pandemic in the same way because the viruses behave differently depending on many factors: climate, population density, demographics (population age), genetic factors, population’s culture, type of pollution, etc.
From this we derive the following:
First: A virus is highly lethal in a very dense city during rigid winters while it’s less lethal in the rural province in the summer. But states and the WHO treat every region of the planet and every population as the same. Using the same policies everywhere does not make any sense given the differences listed above.
Second: in a libertarian society there is only private property, meaning that the owners can discriminate the access to the properties as they wish. The moment a deadly pandemic is discovered libertarian communities would have immediately closed access to any individual coming from outside and they would have put tests/quarantine processes in place. On the contrary, we have seen the governments keeping hot-spots opened and used a centralised response to the pandemic. Italy was the first to experience this outside of China and its reaction was a highly centralised one. Once Lombardy was badly hit by the first pandemic outbreak, Italy imposed lockdown to the whole country, even to remote communities in the mountains or in the islands hundreds of kilometers away. Some local governors, like the one in the Sardinia island, begged the central government to let them impose local quarantine procedures but Rome refused. If the other regions would have had the power to block the access to people from Lombardy they would have had more time to prepare.
Third: governors can impose lockdowns and any sort of mandate, even irrational, against the scientific consensus ones, because they pay no consequences for their actions. As Hans Hermann Hoppe put it: “They dont have to think long & hard about the consequences & side effects of their actions, but can instead make “spontaneous” decisions, as they aren’t personally liable for the consequences of their edicts. They can burden other people with the costs of their actions”. As such a top-down approach like the one in a state society is inherently failing to solve the pandemic issue, because it incentivises and rewards bad behaviour.
Fourth: medicine and pharma are inherently slow to react in a state-based society. We saw this firts-hand when govenrments relaxed hundreds or rules in the hope to speed the recruitment of new doctors/nurses and the development of vaccines. In a libertarian society, hospitals would have been very fast to adapt to the new situation, recruiting nurses and doctors in a matter of days instead of months. Because there wouldn’t have been a centralised minister of health they could have tested different drugs or methods during the first few months and the ones more effective could have been then used all over the rest of the territory. Because there is no intellectual property granted by the State to pharma companies through patents, pharma research could have been cheaper, faster and evenyl distributed among the many companies that would have thrived in a non-monopolistic paten-granted society.
Fifth: each property owner or community elected-committee would have imposed its own rules of access. Some would have asked mask to be worn, others negative-test, others quarantine rules or a mix of all of them. Others would have left access opened at their own risk and individuals or charities would have shielded the old and the frail ones. Soon, communities would have learned what have worked and what not and if the virus was so deadly that its lethality was counterbalancing the need to keep activites open then many communities would have imposed discrimination of access to their territory. We can probably hypothesised that young and healthy communities would have imposed less restrictions while old ones would have imposed much stricter rules.
In conclusion, a libertarian reaction to the pandemic would have probably been incredibly fast, and in some communities more efficient than the current one. However, other communities would have been slower than the current ones.
It would have meant less deaths in general? Maybe in the long run but some communities would have probably seen a high lethality rate at the beginning. Some communities would have imposed restriction to access and mask/quarantine mandates, while others wouldn’t. By its nature it would have been a heterogeneous and complex reaction.
We could say with a high degree of certainty that treatments/vaccines would have probably been faster and cheaper.
So, the pandemic does not mean the death of libertaranism, on the contrary it’s the further demonstration of systemic and inherent failure of state-based societies.