“There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic,” The Atlantic proudly declared in March. The message, echoed often since then, has been the same: classical liberals (henceforth in this essay simply referred to as “liberals”) have no place in this world. A global pandemic must be met with global action, which can only be coordinated by governments. Individualism and liberalism are unable to solve the problem because of externalities or just plain selfishness.
Socialism, whether it be the explicit form of the Left or the implicit form of the Right, is the only way forward. Combine this pandemic with a changing political world (the rise of China and increasing aggression of Russia), and liberalism must get relegated to the ash heap of history. It is a philosophy that has long outlived its usefulness and we need more modern, or post-modern, philosophies to guide the way.
Such critiques, however, badly misunderstand the history and formation of liberalism. Liberalism was not formed in the comfort of peace and security. It is true that, in recent times, peace and prosperity have generally ruled over the world. There hasn’t been a major war since the 1940s and the last threat of a major war was in the 1950s. Of course, there still have been wars and conflicts, some of which have lasted a long time (I have some students in my college classes now whose parents served in Afghanistan). There are students in high school and early college who have never known a world where the US wasn’t occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. But, in the grand scale of things, these conflicts have been small in scale. Nothing like the wars that existed in the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s.
With the near-century of relative peace and prosperity, brought on largely by the spread of liberal ideas, the critics of liberalism claim that those ideas must then rely on a peaceful world. That those liberal ideas cannot answer for political turmoil and epidemics. But that is confusing cause and effect.
Liberalism, as we know it today, was formed not in recent times of peace and prosperity, but in the crucible of the 1600s and 1700s. Indeed, some authors trace liberalism’s roots all the way back to the fall of the Roman Empire (see Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop). The 1600s witnessed some of the most horrific religious wars the world has ever seen; it was a dangerous time, far in contrast to the relatively peaceful world we have now: the Thirty Years War, repeated invasions by the Ottoman Empire, the Defenestration of Prague, the Bohemian Revolt, the English Civil War and English Restoration, just to name a few. Not to mention disasters like the Plague of Seville (about 25% of the population died) or the Great London Fire.
During these momentous events, Hugo Grotius was writing his treatise The Rights of War and Peace, one of the first great liberal works of political philosophy. John Locke was writing his Treatises. Samuel von Pufendorf was working on his various jurisprudence treatises. The foundations and arguments for liberalism were being laid in response to the turbulent times as a means of considering peaceful coexistence.
The 1700s were much of the same. There were the Jacobite uprisings and the political turmoil of England that concerned Adam Smith and David Hume very much. There was the American Revolution and French Revolution, which spawned much liberal writing and discourse, especially between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. The leading liberals of the time were actively engaging in the turmoil of their day, not hiding away from it. As deadly plagues swept through major cities, these thinkers continued to think and spread liberal ideas. And their ideas did spread as well.
The 1800s saw some of the most devastating plagues mankind has ever seen as cholera gripped much of the world. But that did not stop liberalism; instead, it strengthened it. As cholera ripped through SoHo in London in 1854, Richard Cobden was advocating for free trade to alleviate the poor. As governments rose and fell in France (some lasting just a few months), Frederic Bastiat was agitating for a more liberal and cosmopolitan France. The ideas and efforts of these two men would ultimately form one of the modern world’s first free trade agreements between England and France and lay the groundwork for these two age-old enemies to become staunch allies in the coming century.
As disease spread through the faulty sewers of London, AV Dicey was working on his Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, which would become the handbook for liberal rule of law study for centuries to come. Dicey, Cobden, and Bastiat all wrote, not in ignorance of the events surrounding them, but actively engaging in them.
The 1900s saw two major world wars and the rise of socialism. And during this period, modern liberal writers, such as FA Hayek and Ludwig von Mises were debating with socialists like Abba Learner and Oskar Lange on the practicability of socialism. The great Socialist Calculation Debate (as it was known) was won so strongly by the liberals that socialists had to change the definition of the word. As the flu raged around him, the unfortunately poorly known American jurisprudence scholar James Coolidge Carter was preparing his lectures on The Law: Its Origin, Growth, and Function (Carter would unfortunately die before he could give these lectures).
Over the course of these four turbulent centuries, liberalism grew and engaged with the times. The ideas, first relegated to the discussions of only learned men concerned with jurisprudence and political economy, become commonplace. As the aforementioned Dicey notes in his Lectures on the Relation Between Law and Public Opinion in the Nineteenth Century, liberalism was the prevailing force of thought in English law in the early 19th century, and much of that was due to public opinion.
COVID-19 has once again brought unique challenges to liberal thought. But COVID-19 ain’t our first plague. Liberalism survived and thrived despite the Great Seville Plague, the Broad Street Cholera Outbreak, the Spanish Flu, and countless other plagues and times of distress. Plagues are distressingly common in human history. What made some previous plagues unusual were not their rarity, but rather their devastation or timeline.
The Broad Street Outbreak, for example, was not devastating because it was cholera (London saw almost yearly outbreaks of cholera) or even due to its body count (other plagues hit London even harder), but because of the severity with which it killed. COVID-19, by early indications, is not the deadliest plague to ever hit the world; it may not even go down as a Top 10 contender. What makes it unique and scary is its novelty. But liberalism has dealt with novelty before.
Liberalism is not some fly-by-night feel-good philosophy that developed in a bubble free of war, disease, and unrest. It was forged in the crucible of the 1600s and 1700s. It has survived multiple plagues, outbreaks, world wars, academic fights, and political upheavals. To borrow and alter a phrase from David Henderson: liberalism is a hardy weed, not a delicate flower.