Since 2015, we’ve been debating whether nationalism and national conservatism have anything to offer America. The COVID-19 crisis has clarified that debate. There’s a lot of heady talk these days that the nationalists and populists have been proven right, now. The nation-state is still the primary actor in a great crisis, and it will interrupt, alter, and simply ignore the international conventions that make markets run smoothly, that keep travelers and businessmen passing through borders. Nation-states will interdict and piratically seize needed medical supplies, filching them even from friends who paid fair and square.
Some other things are clear too. China seems to be proving that economic liberalization does not imply or oblige political liberalization.
And contemplating America’s lack of access to key pharmaceuticals, and even medical equipment, some analysts are reviving long-dead concepts such as “autarky,” meaning economic independence and self-sufficiency.
But this national conservative would like to acknowledge loud and clear that the COVID-19 crisis is also a libertarian moment. Just as nations seek out self-sufficiency, so too do individuals. And an individualist streak has been necessary for probing and rejecting the dubious or outright fraudulent advice of public-health authorities, corrupted by either Chicoms or groupthink.
And libertarian insights are finally being applied to good effect. For instance, even in a national emergency, we need competition. The temporary monopoly of the federal government on developing a test for coronavirus was the greatest failure of all in the American response. Some university labs found creative ways to get around FDA and CDC red tape to develop their own tests. Eventually, regulations were relaxed and existing private labs developed better and faster tests, and even began developing COVID testing platforms that could grow to meet the insane demands of this crisis. An absolute free-for all of test development would have been much better, allowing private firms to race against the virus and compete with each other for the glory of beating it.
That’s not the only regulatory net that had to be cut. State departments of health, in the race to find hospital space and ventilators, cut all kinds of regulations that make health care more expensive and cumbersome to deliver. Patients could share ventilators in a crisis. Licensing red tape that would normally stop advanced medical students or retired doctors and nurses from working on the medical front lines was waived away to relieve exhausted workforces.
The crisis has tended to show the strength of nimble and flexible governments such as those of Taiwan and Singapore. These aren’t libertarian paradises by any means, but their bureaucracy tends to be lighter-touch in practice. And under the pressure of the virus, other governments are adapting to do the same. FDA regulations that impede the development of new drugs and vaccines and authorize research trials have also been amended or waived in recent weeks.
A pandemic involving a “novel” virus is also a perfect argument for the implementation of “right to try” laws. For years libertarians have been advocating that people suffering from truly acute conditions and facing mortal peril should have a right to try drugs and therapies that are still in development or remain unapproved for general use. Some would push it toward allowing access to try some radical therapies at the bleeding edge of medical speculation. We are seeing a light-touch version of this as doctors and patients scramble to come up with treatment protocols for COVID-19 where none exist.
Perhaps more controversially, the normal FDA regulations could be waived to allow for more radical treatment, even experimentation on humans. The ethical rules that prevent large payments, or prevent risk-takers from filling the ranks of clinical trials, make sense in the normal course of events but less so in a global pandemic, where nearly everyone is making a sacrifice for public health.
Lockdowns sit uneasily with libertarian instincts. But it would have been better if more libertarians were advising Congress in its attempt to compensate Americans for the economic shutdown imposed by governors in the name of public health. The overall relief bill tried too hard to micromanage relationships between employers and employees, and it has been marred by all the pushing and pulling on private actors with incentives. If Congress tries to tackle it again, it should just use the power of the purse to give directly to private actors. Help businesses pay their fixed costs, but let them decide which employees they want to incentivize to stay on. Or let individuals decide how to use the money themselves, whether they buy Netflix subscriptions or stock up on books and digital classes to deal with the sudden onset of home schooling.
Finally, it’s a libertarian moment because a pandemic urges the masses toward groupthink, vindictive scapegoating, and hysteria. The cool-headed and sometimes cussed contrarianism of libertarians is an important balm or check on public hysteria.