A Libertarian Approach to COVID-19

Introduction

As the entire world faces the challenge of an infectious pandemic, there have been people insisting that there are no libertarians in a pandemic and that what we really need in this time of crisis is more central government authority to respond to a deadly disease spreading through every country around the world and every state in the union. At the same time, some libertarians have taken contrarianism to new levels, finding ever more tenuous reasons to deny or minimize the severity of the pandemic. We aim to provide the information and policy guidance that thoughtful libertarian elected officials and candidates need to show that a rational libertarian approach to this issue will get us through the crisis while minimizing the loss of life, liberty, and prosperity. We should all be libertarians in a pandemic.

Scientific Background 

While it is a rare candidate or official who also happens to be a virologist or epidemiologist, the fundamental math and science behind the spread of infectious diseases are critical to make good public policy recommendations and provide accurate information to the people. This section summarizes what the disease is, how it spreads, and how it can be slowed or stopped. Much of the information in this section comes from Dr. Michael Lin’s presentation available here.

The current pandemic is a novel coronavirus that made the jump from animals to humans somewhere in China in late 2019. Unlike seasonal influenza or the common cold, a novel virus is one that has no immunity in any human population and for which there are no existing vaccinations. Some amount of herd immunity and antibodies are what slow the spread of those more common respiratory diseases.

SARS-CoV-2 is the technical name of the virus. It is genetically similar to SARS that appeared in 2003, but behaves differently in an infected person. The disease associated with a viral infection with SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 infection can lead to COVID-19, as HIV infection can lead to AIDS.

A person infected with SARS-CoV-2 can be completely without symptoms for up to a week during the incubation period and still spreading the virus to others through droplets from coughing or sneezing. This virus can live on surfaces for a period of up to three days and if a person touches their face with their hands, can be transmitted in that way, though the more common method of transmission appears to be in aerosol or droplet form in the air, especially in a confined space like a small room or vehicle. Studies have shown that people have a higher viral load prior to showing symptoms, with the viral load decreasing after symptoms present themselves. Studies have also shown that many children and young people can be infected and spread the virus without ever showing any symptoms.

If a serious case of COVID-19 develops in a person, it can take 14-21 days for the person to fully recover. If the case requires hospitalization and/or intensive care, that bed and equipment are not likely to be available for at least two weeks, which prevents the hospital from using that bed and equipment on the next patient who comes in the door. Efforts to “flatten the curve” are an attempt to keep the number of serious cases at any one time under the overall capacity of the healthcare system.

Because the virus is most commonly spread through the air from people being close together and breathing in virus particles, “social distancing” measures of staying more than six feet away from others, wearing masks in public, not shaking hands, and avoiding crowds have been implemented to slow the spread of the virus. This reduces the reproduction rate (R0 – pronounced “R-nought”), which appears to be approximately 3 with normal behavior, meaning that an infected person would infect an average of three other people. If the R0 can be reduced to 1, the number of infections at any one time flattens out and becomes relatively constant. Without that reduction in spread, growth of infections follows an exponential curve. Exponential growth is difficult to explain, but this short video does a very good job.

Other than general “social distancing,” the other way to stop or slow an infectious disease is to isolate infected individuals and those they have come into contact with until they have either contracted the disease and resolved their infection or until they can be sure to have not contracted the disease. This is known as “test and trace.” Effective “test and trace” requires good contact tracking, which can be gathered by asking a person where they have been and who they have interacted with and contacting those people. This is made easier with access to cell phone location data, though there are privacy concerns that exist with the use of that data by public health authorities. Scientists at MIT are developing a system that allows people to maintain their own location and contact data, but keep it private until they choose to share it with health authorities.

Because this virus is novel, it is likely to be resident in human populations for years, if not eventually become endemic like seasonal influenza. As doctors and scientists see more patients and learn more about the SARS-CoV-2, a vaccine can be developed and more effective treatments can be developed that will reduce the fatality rate, but as Dr. Michael Osterholm of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Prevention says, this is not like a blizzard where we can all hunker down until the storm is over, this is like winter, where we will need to adapt to continue our lives as safely as possible. Dr. Osterholm sat for an interview with Joe Rogan in early March.

Guiding Principles

Facts are Your Friends in a Pandemic

No matter your political persuasion, all policy in dealing with an infectious pandemic should be made based on the best scientific data and information available at the time and should be updated based on new information. There have been many papers and estimates made during the early stages of this crisis that have been overtaken by new data and observations; that should be expected, but politicians should avoid clinging to earlier decisions to avoid embarrassment or having to admit a mistake.
Government officials should share all of the data and information they have with the public. The American people are resilient and adaptable and can handle clear information and guidance, even if it’s hard to hear. Good crisis communications strategy applies here: get all the facts out early and never lie. Mistakes can be forgiven, lies cannot.

If people are educated with clear information about what the virus is, how it spreads, and the steps they can take to prevent infecting others, they can make good decisions for themselves and others. Understanding the reasons behind public policy increases voluntary compliance and reduces the need for government orders and force.

Centralized Decision Making is a Deadly Bottleneck in a Crisis

The smartest people in the world still have 24 hours in their day to gather information and make decisions. A fast spreading virus doesn’t wait for government authorities to make decisions and the way governments make and execute decisions is slow and political at the best of times. When a central planner makes a poor choice, like only having a single type of test allowed in the United States as the CDC and FDA did at the beginning of the pandemic, it prevents other approaches from being tried and puts all of our bets on a single horse.

Politicians and bureaucrats have a tendency to want to be in control and project a sense of being in control, which may be appropriate in a different kind of crisis, but not when fighting an infectious disease. The best approach is to allow states, localities, private companies, and individuals to work to find the best solutions with openly shared data. See what works, do more of that. See what doesn’t, do less of that. Mistakes made at a lower level cost less in terms of lives and time than mistakes made for an entire country.

Focus On the Task at Hand

Governments are very good at taxing citizens and spending tax money. In a crisis, politicians are able to get laws and spending passed with the urgency created by the crisis, regardless of whether the law is actually urgent. This crisis is a scientific, medical, and public health crisis. Any spending or government action should be focused on one conflict: humans against a virus. Everything else should be deferred as much as possible and other major public policy debates shifted to later.

The medical and scientific communities should have all barriers from their work removed and be provided as much support as possible in doing the work of treating patients and learning as much as possible about how it works to effectively combat it. Widespread testing should be the highest priority, both of active infections as well as serological testing to determine what percentage of the population has been exposed and has antibodies and some level of immunity to infection. This means drawing on tests, equipment, and resources from around the world and removing barriers to using tests and methods that have been effective in other countries.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Fred Rogers

There are two kinds of people in a crisis, those who are helping and those who aren’t. Be a helper. If you see other people who are helping, help them be more effective. There will be time enough after the crisis is under control to hold people accountable for bad behavior like denying the problem or trying to use the crisis for political advantage. Work together with anyone who is helping and work against any policy that does not benefit public health or safety.

Specific Policy Proposals

In this section, we will address specific policy proposals that should be implemented or removed to most effectively address the crisis with a maximum individual choice and a minimum loss of life.

Remove Sanctions on Other Countries

The virus doesn’t have politics. It’s not Chinese, American, Venezualan, or any other nationality. It is a true citizen of the world, and hostile to all of the human citizens of the world. Any American sanctions on any other country that prevents their access to import or export needed goods and services imposes unnecessary suffering on the people of those countries and enforcement of those sanctions takes valuable time and effort that could be used more productively to support efforts to combat the virus. This does not apply to weapons sanctions.

Eliminate Barriers to Widespread Testing

At best, agencies like the Food & Drug Administration prevent the deployment of medical devices and therapies until they can be sure that they will be “safe and effective.” While there may be an argument outside of a crisis for that kind of centralized authority, during a pandemic it is actively dangerous. The FDA has ordered doctors to stop testing for COVID-19 because the laboratory was not approved, blocked the importation of tests from overseas, and delayed approval of tests that could provide information. Dr. Helen Chu of the Seattle Flu Study was the first to detect community spread in the United States and continued to gather data over the order from the FDA to stop. She is a hero.

While we can’t go back in time, the government should step aside and allow any lab or company with the equipment to conduct tests, allow consumers to purchase rapid serological tests, and suspend restrictions on the importation of tests and personal protective equipment for the duration of the pandemic. It is better to have more data at a lower rate of certainty than to have no data until a bureaucratic approval process gives permission to gather it.

Don’t Restrict Movement With Curfews

Curfews may make sense if there are riots or violent criminals running around. They are counterproductive with a virus, since they force people to all come out at the same time, increasing crowding and the spread of the infection. Let people make informed choices about the best time to do their essential business and let individual businesses make choices about the best hours to do necessary cleaning or restrict shoppers to vulnerable populations.

Don’t Close Borders

There are active COVID-19 infections in every country in the world and every state in the country. The virus is here and community spread is ongoing. Travel restrictions and border shutdowns force thousands of people into crowded airports and other border entry points and cause panic, increasing the spread of the infection.

Our economy is global and the supply chains depend on movement of goods and people. The free market and informed choice will limit travel and movement to what is essential.

Don’t Restrict Sale of Goods

Creating artificial limits on the sale of goods distorts the market and leads to scarcity. If people feel the government will stop them from buying things, they buy more of those things. This applies to guns, alcohol, cannabis, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, masks, and anything else. Allow prices to float, and companies will act rapidly to meet the demand.

Artificial restrictions on what goods can be sold puts the government in the position of deciding what businesses succeed or fail. Let stores open with appropriate physical distancing and safety measures and let individuals decide whether their purchases are essential. 

Don’t Let Government Control Industry

The Federal Government is slow to marshal the resources they already have. Using the Defense Production Act to put the President in charge of companies is the stupidest thing the government could do right now. Every business leader that can do so is trying to adapt to meet the needs of the current crisis, they aren’t helped by having a bureaucrat telling them how to run their business.

Test as Many as Possible, as Soon as Possible

Random sample testing of asymptomatic people gives a clearer picture of community spread and a sense of how far the population is from herd immunity. Big numbers look scary, but not knowing the extent of infection prevents people from making good choices. Information is power and keeps us safe.

State and local officials should not hesitate to violate Federal laws that prevent them from testing their constituents. Most states have laboratories and scientists that can do testing, but are held back by rules and regulations. If a law prevents you from saving a life, break it.

Release as Many Prisoners as Possible from Jail and Prison

An infectious respiratory virus spreads very quickly in a confined space with close quarters and shared air handling. This is true whether it’s a cruise ship, aircraft carrier, nursing home, or a jail. The virus makes no distinction between a correctional officer and an inmate. Government officials should work quickly to release as many prisoners as possible to alternative supervision that can maintain the appropriate physical distancing guidelines and reduce the spread of infection and protect the health and safety of inmates and correctional officers

Avoid Enforcing Restrictions with Arrest or Detention

Law enforcement officers interact in close proximity with people on a daily basis and are more likely to be “superspreaders” that can spread an infection in a community like wildfire. During the crisis, law enforcement should be focused on serious violent or property crimes, not in arresting people for noncompliance with social distancing orders. Arresting a person for paddleboarding alone in the ocean or for playing tee-ball in the park with his child is counterproductive, increasing resentment of authorities and risking further infection.

With any governmental order, there will be a certain amount of noncompliance. Elected officials should carefully consider whether resources spent in ensuring 100% compliance would be better used elsewhere if 85-90% compliance is already achieved. The lesson of traffic engineering is helpful here, where speed limits should be sent at the 85th percentile of normal traffic speed, codifying the good choices most people are already making, rather than creating an artificial rule that people will not abide by.

Let People Decide What is Essential

Every individual knows the most about their own life and what their own needs are. This doesn’t change during a pandemic, though they may need to be provided more information to make good choices. Even before government-mandated restrictions, people were starting to avoid bars, restaurants, cruise ships, and airplanes. Emergency orders should focus on safe behavior, such as not allowing crowds in close physical proximity, rather than creating artificial lists of “essential” businesses and workers. No Governor or Mayor knows what is essential to each of their constituents and when there is a list of who is allowed to go out, it requires law enforcement resources to enforce and creates winners and losers.

Conclusion

While the philosophy behind the recommendations is libertarian, it is informed by science and focused on minimizing the illness and death from the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans are strong and resilient and people come together to help each other in a crisis like this one. If we inform and empower people, they will be in the best position to adapt to our changed world and build a stronger economy and country moving forward.

Be safe and be well.

Nicholas Sarwark

Nicholas Sarwark

Nicholas Sarwark is Executive Director of the Libertarian Policy Institute. He has been Chairman of the Libertarian National Committee since 2014, and after re-election in 2018, is the first person to be elected to three consecutive terms in party history. As a deputy public defender in Colorado, he tried more than 30 cases before a jury and argued in front of the Colorado Supreme Court. After five years as full-time Vice President of an independent car dealership and loan company based in Phoenix, he stepped away from day-to-day operations of the family business in early 2019. In August 2019 he relocated to New Hampshire with his wife Valerie and their four children to fulfill a commitment as a Free State Project participant and be closer to legal, political and media opportunities on the East coast. His media appearances include Reason magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Slate, Salon, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as on “Kennedy” and “Stossel” on Fox Business, “Stossel on Reason,” the “Glenn Beck Program,” MSNBC, NPR, and many more.