A Libertarian Path Forward from COVID-19

Introduction

One year ago, we published “A Libertarian Approach to COVID-19” to outline libertarian ways to handle a novel respiratory virus that became a global pandemic. Lives would have been saved and losses would have been avoided if governments and policymakers had heeded our recommendations. Instead, political tribalism infected the discussion around economic and public health policy and gangs of partisans spent the intervening year dunking on each other for perceived mistakes.

Many of our friends and neighbors responded to the fear and anxiety about an uncontrolled pandemic by lashing out and falling for misinformation and conspiracy theories. Social media and social distancing came together to make it easier to go to dark places on the Internet without the reality check of physical personal interaction. Enough people believed enough untrue things that a mob stormed the Capitol building to block the 2020 electoral college vote from being counted on January 6, leaving multiple people dead. And there are still people who believe that cause was just and those actions justified.

As we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can see a light at the end of the tunnel that will bring our society back to normality, but we need to make sure we help our friends and neighbors come back into the light with the rest of us.

Dissolve Fear With Dialogue

Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.

Jonathan Swift

Whether it is a belief in global sex trafficking conspiracy rings or that the COVID-19 vaccines are more dangerous than COVID-19 itself, false beliefs are rampant in our micro targeted social media communities. As social media companies work to slow the spread of misinformation, conspiracy theorists see confirmation that their beliefs must be forbidden knowledge which big corporations seek to suppress. Every criticism is seen as confirmation, driving people further down their rabbit holes in increasingly small circles. How do we encourage our friends and neighbors to come back to reality as we come out of the relative isolation of the pandemic?

Rather than shaming or fighting these false beliefs, the way to bring people back to reality is to genuinely ask them questions about what they believe and why. Asking for more details and specifics about vague claims can help bring them into a concrete reality. If someone says that “they” are trying to force COVID-19 vaccine passports on our country, ask them who specifically is proposing such a thing. Like a shadow in a dark room at night, the feared thing goes away under the light of cursory examination.

If they are making an incredible claim, ask what evidence they have for that belief. If they have good facts or data that can help us know more about the world, wouldn’t we want to know it? If they question the credibility of official sources of data or statistics, ask which sources of data and statistics they rely on to make decisions. Skepticism is healthy, but without any trusted source of facts, it is very difficult to make good decisions that are supported by evidence.

Give Vaccines to Everyone Who Wants One

The COVID-19 pandemic is the worst infectious pandemic the United States has experienced in over a century: more than 31,000,000 confirmed cases have claimed the lives of over 564,000 people in the United States (~1.82% observed case fatality rate). Vaccine distribution is going as quickly as possible for a system operating under the distortions created by government regulation of distribution and regulatory approval: more than 124,000,000 people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and more than 77,000,000 are now fully vaccinated. Most people are eager to get vaccinated, with some individuals going to extraordinary lengths to do so, driving hundreds of miles and camping out around known distribution centers to get a dose that might otherwise go to waste.

To its credit, the Biden administration has set aggressive distribution targets and moved quickly to loosen the restrictions on who can receive a vaccine to the point that anyone over the age of 16 is eligible to receive a vaccine here in New Hampshire, with it being just two weeks ago that I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a distribution center in Concord, just days after distribution was opened up to people over 40 years of age.

Focusing on getting vaccines out to those who want them has two benefits: it provides something to people who voluntarily choose to receive it, which is much easier to do than to try to convince people to get something they don’t want. It also reduces the stress level of those who are hesitant to get a vaccine by not feeding into their concerns that the government and/or big corporations are going to force them to get a medical treatment they don’t want.

Be Clear About Risks and Benefits

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Robert A. Heinlein, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

There are many people in society who have a distrust of vaccines and vaccination. For some people this is a skepticism that can be addressed with evidence, for others it’s a reflex built up over time that isn’t easily dispelled by evidence. Regardless of what is driving people, it is important to patiently provide honest facts and data about the risks and benefits of vaccination and compare those to the risks of infection without a vaccination. 

While most vaccines are for relatively rare, relatively mild, diseases, those people who choose not to get vaccinated seldom suffer ill effects and the rare negative side effects from vaccines are easy to magnify to confirm the reflexive belief that vaccines are more dangerous than the disease. This is confirmed through a process of motivated reasoning, where people who choose not to get vaccinated seek out doctors and scientists who will confirm the validity of their beliefs.

In any large group, there will be people who hold spurious beliefs. Doctors and scientists are a large group. Therefore, one can always find a doctor or scientist to provide credence to the spurious belief, and claim that the majority is hiding something. This claim becomes harder to maintain when there are millions of people receiving vaccines with very little in the way of risks or adverse reactions.

There have been well over 189,000,000 vaccine doses administered through April 12, 2021, with 3,005 deaths (0.00158%) reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) of those who received the vaccine. Friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances, are all getting the vaccine without ill effect. 

Acknowledging all the potential and observed risks without minimizing them is the best way to patiently provide the facts and statistics necessary to empower people to make good decisions for themselves and others with facts and evidence rather than pushing them into decisions. The facts are that the COVID-19 vaccine is (a) useful for people to avoid spreading COVID-19 without getting natural immunity or using personal protective equipment and (b) at least two orders of magnitude safer than contracting COVID-19 where it is hard to avoid.

Provide Positive Reinforcement for Considerate Behavior

One of the most prevalent fears being spread to justify fear of vaccination is that the government will create negative consequences for those who choose not to get a vaccination. The easiest way to reduce that fear is to focus on providing positive reinforcement to people who exhibit considerate behavior that protects themselves and others. We can use the example of voting, generally considered a social good, but not something made mandatory in the United States. Organizations and individuals provide positive reinforcement to people who choose to vote, whether by providing time off of work to vote, giving free items or discounts at businesses for people who vote, and providing social approval of voters. It is tempting to use negative reinforcement as well, but it feeds into a victim narrative that actually strengthens the resolve of those who choose not to engage in the considerate behavior.

Reject Government Mandates

The biggest fear that the reflexive people have is that they will be forced to vaccinate, but nobody has enough vaccines to start mandating them and no mandate is going to be legally enforceable under an emergency use authorization. The fear is fabricated from whole cloth.

Even though the fear is fabricated, the feeling of fear is real and powerful. We can’t fight that fear by attacking those who are feeling it, that just reinforces the fear and plays into the conspiratorial narrative. Rather, we should remain vigilant in opposition to government vaccine mandates and government vaccine passports. When proposals are floated to limit people’s individual medical freedom or to restrict their movement, those proposals should be examined closely and rejected on their own merits.

On closer examination, most of the proposals that people are most afraid of are not specific enough to be implemented or are the fanciful idea of a lone lawmaker or activist that is unlikely to move forward. Clearly analyzing the costs and benefits of these proposals will show that they would cost a great deal in government spending for very little marginal benefit beyond the normal rate of vaccine adoption in society. Playing into fears about the “mark of the beast,” that are perennial sellers in the vaccine skepticism movement does nothing but strengthen the narrative that there are shadowy forces trying to separate the dissenters from the rest of society for persecution.

Be Kind

When people who have avoided uncomfortable facts are confronted by them in an unavoidable way, they feel a very real psychological pain known as cognitive dissonance. There are different ways to react to cognitive dissonance, some healthy, some unhealthy. Be kind to people who are going to be dealing with learning that their fears weren’t real, that their choices weren’t sensible, and that they were wrong.

You can welcome them into the light or make them feel pain as they come out and push them back into a smaller, darker place.This is not abstract for me. When I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine on April 3, it was the first vaccine I received in my life, having been raised in a household that chose not to vaccinate for reasons of conscience. There are people in my life who I love who hold these reflexive views. They have made serious life choices to hold on to them, including changing locations, jobs, schools, friends, and religious leaders. They are looking for a place to feel safe.

It’s probably not abstract for you either. Some of you have probably pushed those people away, knowingly or unknowingly, as we dealt with a massive crisis that was external and mindless, where it couldn’t be made into someone’s “fault,” though that didn’t stop hacks from trying.

There are still people trying to divide our country, trying to assign blame to the red team or the blue team for the suffering caused by a novel infectious disease. It’s understandable, but unacceptable. Using pain to foment hate is the lowest form of demagoguery. Reject it.

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.