Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation
Originally published (in unedited form) on Notablog

On February 16, 1967, NBC aired the twenty-second episode in Season 1 of “Star Trek“; it was called “Space Seed,” known to Trekkies as the episode that introduced the world to the character Khan Noonien Singh, he who would come back with fury in the 1982 film, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

For those who aren’t familiar with this episode, the Starship Enterprise intercepts the SS Botany Bay, a spacecraft with 84 humans aboard, in suspended animation. Only 72 of them survive, including Khan, all of them products of a selective breeding program that led to the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. Khan led these genetic superhumans to conquer one third of the world, until they were driven to abandon planet Earth.

Toward the beginning of the episode, when all the facts of the unfolding mystery of Botany Bay have not yet been made clear, there’s an interesting exchange between Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) and the ever-logical VulcanMr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy):

Kirk: So much for my theory. I’m still waiting to hear yours.

Spock: Even a theory requires some facts, Captain. So far, I have none.

Kirk: And that irritates you, Mr. Spock?

Spock: Irritation?

Kirk: Yeah.

Spock: I am not capable of that emotion.

Kirk: My apologies, Mr. Spock. You suspect some danger, then?

Spock: Insufficient facts always invite danger, Captain.

Kirk: Well, better get some facts.

I recently saw this episode after many years, and just shook my head, thinking of how timely that advice is in the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic.

While I’m going to do my best to deal with “some facts,” I am not a Vulcan. As a human being, I am very much prone to feeling “irritation.” This post is going to express a lot of irritation. But it is a cathartic exercise, one that I hope will go a long way toward healing some of the divisions I’ve seen among many people who call themselves “libertarians.” Rather than “disown” such an emotion, I’m just going to get it off my chest. A wise psychologist once told me: “Don’t keep anything in! Give the other guy the ulcer!”

Well, I don’t wish any ulcers on anybody, any more than I wish that the “naysayers” among us get coronavirus and die just to prove a point.

Since I started blogging explicitly about coronavirus, I have lost count of the number of times that I have found myself irritated—or downright outraged—over the kinds of things I have heard coming out of the mouths of self-described libertarians.

In this post, I am focused primarily on libertarian responses to the virus because that is the community with which I’ve been associated for the bulk of my professional and intellectual life, albeit advocating a “dialectical libertarianism” that has always tried to push my colleagues and friends toward a greater understanding of the larger context within which human freedom flourishes—or dies. But this confession of my irritation with some folks is as much a therapeutic exercise that I urge everyone to embrace, no matter where you stand on the current debate. Better self-understanding goes hand-in-hand with a better understanding of those with whom you disagree. It also tends to shed more light than heat. And, Lord knows, we’ve had a lot of heat over these last two months.

For the record, I’ll just state the obvious: As a radical libertarian (or radical liberal, in the classical sense), I am typically irritated with folks on both the socialist left and the nationalist right who have never met a crisis they would not use as a means of increasing government power in the spheres of their respective interest for “the common good.” But critique must begin at home. And since I find so much discord in my libertarian home, I feel the need for even greater self-examination. I won’t allow irritation with others to cloud my vision of their humanity or their very real concerns.

Pandemics as the Pretext for Advancing Statism

Nevertheless, as part of this therapeutic exercise, I wish to make explicit the very first time I began to feel a level of irritation with some of my libertarian colleagues. It came from those who first declared it a hoax or an exaggeration, being used by those in power who sought to augment the power of the state over our lives. To be generous, many of these folks come from a “good” place; they are understandably concerned with the history of corrupt entanglements that mark the state-science nexus, which has given us every instrument of mass terror and every weapon of mass destruction in the modern era. They see that with advancing government control over our society in the name of an emergency, there comes a form of militarization that starts to infect the body politic in ways that are just as insidious as the virus itself.

I am deeply aware of the importance of this issue. As I pointed out in my second Notablog entry on the coronavirus, “Disease and Dictatorship”:

First, there is a need to put all this into a larger context with regard to the policies of the Chinese government [which dealt with the first outbreak of the virus in the city of Wuhan]. This is the same government that has maintained concentration camps (euphemistically described as ‘re-education camps’) for nearly two million Muslims, while waging war on those seeking freedom from Beijing’s control over the people of Hong Kong. So the ‘Chinese model’ continues to be an authoritarian one, whether it is used to contain people or pandemics. I don’t know all the answers on how to confront a pandemic, but clearly the draconian measures enacted by some of those in power will have an impact that far outlasts the containment of any disease. Most governments have referred to this as a war, but all wars have always been accompanied by a vast increase in the role of the state in ways that never quite go-back to ‘pre-war’ levels. This isn’t a call to anarchy (at least not yet…)—but it is a call to vigilance on behalf of human liberty, even in the face of a dreaded disease.

Indeed, as my friend Pete Boettke recently reminded us, it was in volume three of Law, Legislation, and Liberty that F. A. Hayek warned:

“Emergencies” have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded—and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed such emergency powers to see to it that the emergency persists.”

The Problem of Confirmation Bias

But there was something about the early response to the coronavirus as a “hoax” or an “exaggeration” that was eerily familiar to me. Back in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was killing off a generation of gay men in the West (while ravaging a largely heterosexual population in Africa), some libertarians (including those influenced by Ayn Rand), ever fearful of those who proposed a growing governmental role in both medical research and in locking down bathhouses that were transmission belts for promiscuous, unsafe sex, grabbed onto the work of the molecular biologist Peter Duesberg, who played a major role in what became known as the AIDS denialism controversy. Duesberg was among those dissenting scientists who argued that there was no connection between HIV and AIDS, and that gay men were dying en masse because of recreational and pharmaceutical drug use, and then, later, by the use of AZT, an early antiviral treatment to combat those with symptoms of the disease.

If the scientific community had accepted Duesberg’s theories, hundreds of thousands of people would be dead today. The blood supply would never have been secured, since HIV screening of blood donors would never have become public policy, and countless thousands of people receiving blood transfusions would have been infected by HIV and would have subsequently died from opportunistic infections. A whole array of “cocktail” drugs were developed that have targeted HIV, the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and they have been effective in keeping people alive, reducing their viral load down to undetectable levels, boosting their T-cell counts, and allowing them to go on to live normal, productive, and creative lives. Still, safe sex remains the mantra of the day.

So, while many libertarians have been at the forefront of rolling back the state’s interference in people’s personal lives, advocating the elimination of discriminatory anti-sodomy and marriage laws, there were some libertarians who, early on, in the AIDS epidemic, grabbed onto Duesberg’s theories as scientific proof that the whole HIV/AIDS thing was a pretext for the expansion of the state-science nexus. Confirmation bias is an especially strong urge for anyone with strong convictions. All the more reason to constantly check one’s premises, as Rand once urged.

My own libertarian approach has always had a dialectical hue—which means that I try not to jump to conclusions with ideological blinders, without first addressing the real conditions that exist, and placing them within a larger context. No state can wipe the canvas clean; the historical attempts to do so have left oceans of human blood in their wake.

And yet, each of us is part of the very canvas on which we wish to leave our mark. This must be recognized especially by those of us who offer a political vision for a noncoercive society free of oppression.

So I can’t wipe my own canvas clean. Just as I remain a hard-core libertarian, I am also a New Yorker to my core. And I’ve seen up close and personal the death and destruction that this virus has caused to the people in my state and in the city of my birth, the city where I will stay until the day I die—because no terrorists, no viruses, will ever drive me away from the place I call home. It was deeply saddening to see my hometown re-discovering, yet again, what it meant to be crowned “Ground Zero” early in the pandemic.

When New York first earned the “Ground Zero” distinction, back on September 11, 2001, the ideological fissures in the libertarian movement were just as apparent. Neoconservatives were leading the way, not merely to strike back at those responsible for the terrorist attacks, but to begin a “nation-building” crusade, with no regard for the cultural or historical context of the countries impacted by their wrongheaded policies. What followed was a vast expansion of the National Security State through the PATRIOT Act (opposed by only three Republicans in the House of Representatives), which continues to be used in ways unrelated to “Homeland Security,” further eroding civil liberties in this country. An unjustified war in Iraq destabilized the entire region, leading to unintended consequences that will be with us for generations to come.

At the time, I found myself at odds with many libertarians of a more “Objectivist” bent who wanted to annihilate the Middle East with nuclear weapons, unconcerned with the side effects of, say, a nuclear winter. Times were tough for any libertarian, like myself, who argued that 9/11 was primarily a blow-back event brought about by years of brutal US intervention abroad, but who also condemned the mass murder of thousands of innocent civilians by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in their terrorist attacks on that tragic day. I supported targeted strikes against Al Qaeda, while also arguing that the United States should get the hell out of the Middle East and the rest of the world’s hot spots. I was called a “traitor” by many in Objectivist circles. It never phased these folks that Rand herself had opposed US entrance into World War II, and actively opposed US wars in Korea and Vietnam, the latter, while troops were on the ground, even counseling draftees to get good attorneys, because she was also opposed to military conscription. Unlike her progeny, she saw that there was a highly toxic, organic relationship between domestic interventionism at home and “pull-peddling” interventionism abroad.

Ironically, one of those Objectivists who favored the war in Iraq was Robert Tracinski. Today, I find myself in greater agreement with Tracinski, especially in a recent, wide-ranging essay, which dissects the arguments of those who downplay the impact of COVID-19, people like Richard Epstein, Michael Fumento, Tucker Carlson, Britt Hume, Glenn Beck, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and various Objectivists. Tracinski criticizes those who argue that

“there are no libertarians in a pandemic,” the idea that the coronavirus response proves how much we need Big Government. … But there has also been an attempt to portray the pandemic as an overblown hysteria, a hoax designed to impose dictatorship on us in the form of mandatory social isolation. The unstated premise is that if the pandemic were real, it actually would make the case for Big Government, so therefore it cannot be admitted to be a genuine threat. … The basic facts are that this virus spreads more quickly and easily than the flu and is about ten times more deadly, with a mortality rate in the neighborhood of one to two percent. … This is not the Black Death or Ebola, diseases with mortality rates of about 50%, and I have no doubt there are eras in history when a mortality rate of 2% would barely have been noticed. But we are very fortunate not to live in one of those eras. Given our high standards of medical care and low death rates from other causes, COVID-19 produces dramatic increases in mortality to levels far above the norm. And just in terms of absolute numbers, a morality rate of one to two percent means that its unchecked spread would be likely to produce a death toll in the millions in the US alone, in the span of just a year. By comparison, a little over 400,000 Americans died in all of World War II. I don’t know by what standard a potential death toll greater than that of a major war would not be considered a catastrophe. … The point is that this is not “fake news” coming from the left-wing media. It is really happening, and people we know are trying to tell us about it.

In the face of growing evidence, it does seem that the “hoax” theory has ebbed in most libertarian circles. But there are still those who hang onto the belief that this whole “pandemic” (in scare quotes) is overblown and nothing to worry about, except for those older folks with pre-existing conditions (like me, for example), who are going to die at some point anyway (aren’t we all?). It’s the kind of stance that leads people to view libertarians as not having a single empathetic bone in their crippled bodies.


As Pete Boettke argues, a genuinely realist approach must navigate between the false alternatives of “Romance” and “Cynicism”—the Scylla and Charybdis—that we typically face in all crises that have led to an augmentation of government power:

Romance lead[s] us astray by framing political leaders as saintly geniuses, whereas Cynicism leads us astray by framing the system as completely corrupt and devoid of any hope for improvement. Nothing in the Humean dictum that in designing institutions of government we should assume all men are knaves is either descriptive or hopeless. In fact, the hope in that dictum comes from … minimizing the loss function in the design from the possibility of knaves ascending to power. It is from constructing the institutional rules of our governance such that bad men can do least harm, rather than assuming that only the best and brightest among us will rise to leadership, or that whatever system of governance we talk about it will devolve into corruption and immorality.

Realism forces us to reason through the tricky incentives that actors face in making their decisions. Realism also forces us to place the theorist in the model itself. Why do theorists choose the theories that they do, why do they make the statements that they do. The old political science “law” that where you stand is a function of where you sit, is just as true for scientists and academics as it is for Senators and Congressmen.

I fully agree with Pete that this pandemic has become a “testing ground” for our biases and ideas. The first step toward freedom is liberation from our ideological blinders. That doesn’t mean a renunciation of our core values and convictions. It is an admission that human beings are

fallible yet capable creatures that when given freedom from the oppression of servitude (Crown), dogma (Altar), violence (Sword), and poverty (Plough) … unleash their creative energies and lead to improvement in not only the material conditions of humanity but physical, spiritual and interpersonal. True radical liberalism is an emancipation doctrine, and seeks to cultivate a social system that exhibits neither discrimination nor dominion, and promises a social system that strives to minimize human suffering while maximizing the chances for human flourishing.


On the wall next to my desk, I have a small plaque, gifted to me by my family doctor when I was a young boy, who had emerged from life-saving surgery, after suffering for fourteen years without any diagnosis. It’s an “Indian Prayer” and it says: “Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.”

I have seen the pain caused by this pandemic on every level, though as someone who has had 60+ surgeries in his life to combat the side effects of my own illness, I naturally share an affinity with those who become sick, for any reason. I have seen neighbors to the right of me and neighbors to the left of me who are sick, dying, or dead.

But I am not oblivious to the other pain that is being experienced by people who are not sick. They too are my neighbors. They are out of work, their unemployment checks are held up, some of them are too “proud” or ashamed to even apply for food stamps, until they realize that they can’t afford to feed their own children without some help.

The human costs of this pandemic run deep, among families that are grieving over the loss of loved ones, among those whose businesses may never recover, whose jobs may never reappear, and whose dreams have been aborted. I have seen too much suffering on both sides of this divide.

But if we are to make the case for a new radicalism, each of us must be willing to engage in self-critique, to make transparent and examine our own biases. This must be coupled with a willingness to embrace the very real human need for empathy, the ability to truly share and understand the struggles of other individuals, especially those with whom we may disagree.

Without that empathy, I fear that the things that divide us may become irreparable not just to the libertarian project, but to the ideal of human freedom that we seek.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory