November 2, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Liberal individualism is often interpreted as an ideology based on the belief that individuals are atomistic egoists, each of whom single-mindedly pursues only maximum material gain and sensual satisfaction for himself or herself. Each person, in this interpretation, engages with people outside of his or her immediate family exclusively for reasons shallow and prudential – most notably, to trade in impersonal ways that materially enrich the person. Liberal individualists are accused of being blind to higher human desires, such as for community and a sense of purpose more elevated than the gratification of one’s narrow material desires.

This interpretation of liberal individualism could not be more mistaken. Liberal individualists understand, of course, that it’s in the nature of each human to be self-interested – that is, interested in himself or herself (and family) to a degree greater than he or she is interested in strangers. But in this philosophy the word “individualism” refers chiefly to the recommended locus of decision-making: the individual, as opposed to the collective. Liberal individualists understand that when each (adult) person is given maximum scope to choose and to pursue his or her own goals, limited only by the requirement that everyone enjoy this same freedom, an intricate and vast social order emerges out of the myriad different voluntary interactions that individuals choose to have with each other.

This social order is unplanned and unplannable, and it encourages a wide and ever-expanding variety of creative human interactions well beyond prudential arms’-length commercial exchange. F.A. Hayek called it “the Great Society.” He explained – as did Adam Smith and other liberal individualists – that such a society is possible only insofar as individuals remain free. Restrict that freedom and society shrinks. And because society also becomes poorer as it shrinks, its members become less able not only to satisfy their material needs, but also their higher aspirations.

Thus arises a terrible irony: retreating from liberal individualism toward collectivism reduces each person’s connections with, and dependence on, other persons. As the state constrains each person’s freedom to interact with others, fewer such interactions occur. As each person becomes more engaged with, and dependent on, government, each person becomes less engaged with, and dependent on, society.

Yet compared to the Great Society even a behemoth government is minuscule and its operation far more bound by formal strictures. And so as liberal individualism and its Great Society give way to collectivism, each person must rely relatively more on his or her own wits, effort, and resources as he or she is forced to rely less on the knowledge, effort, and resources of the hundreds of millions of strangers who produce and exchange in the global market. Under collectivism, each of us is more detached from humanity; each of us is more isolated and helpless.

Covid collectivism – whose champions apparently are unaware that Covid’s very real dangers are overwhelmingly confined to the old and ill – is creating such isolated individuals.

The Monstrous Individualism of Covid Collectivism

Most obviously, Covid collectivists command individuals to keep their physical distance from each other, and in many cases to remain largely confined to their homes. These commands take little, if any, account of the extremely different risk profiles of different age groups. The one-size-fits-all diktats ignore relevant distinctions among flesh-and-blood individuals.

Under the tyranny of Covid collectivism, those of us fortunate enough to remain employed often work from home, locked out of our workplaces and prohibited from mingling physically with coworkers. At the end of each day, many of the places that we once frequented for recreation, meals, entertainment, or simple camaraderie are shut down or under orders to limit occupancy. So we are more prone to remain at home, alone.

We prepare more home-cooked meals rather than go to restaurants. We perform more do-it-yourself home repairs and improvements rather than employ specialists. We exercise alone rather than with others at gyms. Zooming in to their classes from home, children no longer see teachers and classmates face-to-face. With stadiums and other arenas locked down to fans, more of us watch sporting events at home. And we often do so alone because Covid collectivism, when not commanding us to avoid large gatherings even in private residences, scares many of us away from being with friends and extended family even when we and our family are among the great majority who are at very low risk of suffering from Covid.

Ditto for cultural events. Because of Covid collectivism, people now “attend” online, home alone, musical concerts and plays performed in empty auditoria and theaters.

And of course we travel much less.

Even when we’re in the physical presence of others, masks obliterate vast amounts of the communication that we humans conduct with our facial muscles. Further, masks combine with our keeping our “social distance” from each other – and with the now-ubiquitous plexiglass – to make even verbal communications muffled and garbled. Personal interactions under such impersonal and unnatural circumstances render our engagement with each other more shallow, more narrow, and less rich and emotionally enriching.

Covid collectivism is fast spawning the detached, isolated, lonely, sullen, and antisocial individuals that collectivists have for so long mistakenly accused liberal individualism of spawning.

Homo Avoidcovidus

There’s another, especially eerie way in which the very real dysfunctional individuals created by Covid collectivism are like the fictional atomistic individuals who collectivists falsely allege are at the heart of liberal individualism. It’s this: the individuals created by Covid collectivism are single-mindedly obsessed with one thing; namely, avoiding Covid. And people who fail to obsessively pursue this goal are instructed that their failure marks them as bad people – indeed, as people who deserve to be scorned and punished.

Differences in risk profiles and risk preferences are ignored. Everyone must avoid Covid at all costs.

While economists often use homo economicus as a simplifying assumption when theorizing, no serious economist has ever insisted that real-world individuals actually fit the description of homo economicus – a dreary fictional sociopath who obsessively aims to maximize his narrow material well-being. Much less have serious thinkers ever recommended that real-world individuals transform themselves into homo economici. Covid collectivists, in contrast, believe that homo avoidcovidus is actually descriptive of many individuals and, when not descriptive, prescriptive.

Homo avoidcovidus seeks to maximize one narrow thing and that thing only: avoidance of Covid-19. Just as the caricature homo economicus is willing, say, to risk disintegration of his family in order to earn a few extra dollars by working excessively, homo avoidcovidus is willing to sacrifice family connections, friendships, the quality of his children’s education and of his own work, the simple pleasure of being at restaurants and theaters with other persons; everything, for even slight reductions in his prospect of catching Covid. For homo avoidcovidus, nothing is ever as important, on any margin, as is avoiding Covid. As long as the prospect of catching Covid is greater than zero, all steps to avoid it are justified in the puny mind of homo avoidcovidus.

Such are the gruesome monsters hatched by Covid collectivism. This deeply illiberal collectivist ideology thrives on irrational fear brought on by unusually poor information. And it refuses to acknowledge that Covid-19’s dangers, while indeed real, are not as great as suggested by daily screaming headlines, and are heavily confined to infirm groups on whom preventive attention should be, but isn’t, focused.

It’s time for a revolt against Covid collectivism.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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