Liberals vs Libertarians: How a deranged battle of ideas raged over Covid restrictions. By Ian Dunt

Posted on February 22 2022

Liberals vs Libertarians: How a deranged battle of ideas raged over Covid restrictions. By Ian Dunt - Canbury Press

A strange shift took place in 2020. Britain reported its first case of covid

on 31 January, the day it left the EU. The news agenda is rarely so

monolithic or fast changing. It felt like a chapter break in current affairs.

The story which had dominated headlines for four years suddenly changed,

seemingly overnight, and was replaced by another that would dominate the

next few years.


All over the world, the lights went out. Countless millions of people went

into lockdown. For reasons which no-one can clearly explain, many of them

seemed to spend the time baking sourdough bread. And perhaps weirdest of

all, the nationalist politicians of the UK and US, who had spent the previous

years supporting Donald Trump and Brexit, suddenly began to portray

themselves as great defenders of liberty.


It was deranged. At certain moments it felt like we’d stepped into some

kind of topsy-turvy fantasy world. Under Boris Johnson, the Conservatives

had delivered a remorselessly authoritarian agenda. They ended free

movement and tried to dismantle the post-war liberal world order. The

Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was photographed on immigration raids

in London as part of an anti-refugee drive. A new policing bill aimed at

Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion allowed law enforcement to

close down protests if the noise might ‘alarm’ a single passer-by. Attacks

continued on the BBC and the judiciary. And yet suddenly government MPs

were speaking the language of freedom.


‘The danger is that government starts to believe that these fundamental

civil liberties belong to ministers to grant to us or withhold,’ Tory MP

Graham Brady said about the lockdown provisions. ‘They do not. They

belong, as of right, to British citizens.’ He was backed by fellow MP and

prominent Brexiter Steve Baker. ‘If the Conservative party does not stand for

freedom under the rule of law, it stands for nothing,’ he said. ‘We have got

to recapture a spirit of freedom.’


The same anti-lockdown message was pumped out by many of the

media commentators and newspapers which had been the most vociferous

supporters of Brexit. Nigel Farage even rebranded his Brexit party under

an anti-lockdown banner. In the US, President Trump sang from the

same hymn sheet, albeit with a greater degree of illiteracy and emotional



On both sides of the Atlantic, these demands were ultimately ignored.

But the resistance to state action delayed or undermined the anti-pandemic

response. When US states locked down, Trump took to Twitter to demand

protestors ‘liberate’ them. Within three days the number of anti-lockdown

protests doubled and nearly 100,000 more Americans had tested positive

for coronavirus.


Britain’s Prime Minister was particularly susceptible to the rhetoric about

liberty. The media dutifully informed us that this was because Boris Johnson

believed in Britain as a ‘land of liberty.’ His ‘whole political identity’, the

journalist Rachel Sylvester wrote in The Times, ‘has always been as an

optimistic, fun-loving, freedom-seeking libertarian.’ He ‘is instinctively

libertarian,’ LBC’s Westminster correspondent Ben Kentish said. He had

‘libertarian instincts,’ according to the Evening Standard’s Joe Murphy. He

therefore repeatedly made anti-covid decisions around three weeks too late,

giving the virus vital time to spread exponentially, at the cost of thousands

of lives. The newfound love of liberty wasn’t just weird. It was deadly.


What exactly was going on here? What is libertarianism? How had

rhetoric that sounded vaguely liberal suddenly been embraced by those

who had just spent years trying to destroy it? And was there any liberal

justification for what they were saying?


These are difficult questions to answer, because the politicians and

journalists we’re talking about are not philosophers. On quite a basic level,

they don’t know what they are talking about. They do not understand

liberalism, or libertarianism, or arguably much else besides. They claim to

defend ideas that they do not comprehend, and belittle them in the process.


But liberalism and libertarianism still have questions to answer. There

are things, deep in the theory, which explain how it can get all mangled

and mutilated in this way. And those attributes go right back, to two of the

key failures in the liberal story: the fundamentalism of market-knows-best

ideology and the persistent seduction of the community of the free.




People often ask exactly what libertarianism is. Several terms get used

interchangeably: laissez-faire liberalism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism,

right-wing liberalism and libertarianism.


There’s no agreed set definition of what’s what. In this book, I used the

term laissez-faire as an umbrella term for all these schools of thought for

three reasons. It’s the traditional terminology, it works in a historic and

modern context, and it gets to the heart of the idea. ‘Let things be’ isn’t just

an approach to the economy. It also encapsulates the broader approach,

which doesn’t really peer into society or ask about the disadvantages certain

individuals or groups face, but instead confines itself to maximising freedom

without challenging existing power structures.


Some people believe that these terms can be delineated from each other.

Neoliberalism, for instance, is usually a vague catch-all smear against

liberalism from the left. But a few modern thinkers have tried to turn it into a

coherent set of beliefs – namely that the state should be liberal and capitalist,

with limited but safeguarded democracy, and a very modest welfare state.

Libertarianism, on the other hand, is a belief in strong individual and

property rights, with a commitment to civil liberties and a willingness to

lobby for still-controversial policies like drug legalisation and open borders.


But honestly, separating out these terms is hard work. It’s arguable how

much distinguishes these positions or why accepting one would not lead you

inevitably towards the conclusions of the others. They often say more about

the person using them than they do the ideas they represent. Libertarians

usually think of themselves as more free-wheeling rebel types. Laissez-faire

liberals tend to think of themselves as more respectable intellectuals.


But what we can say with certainty is this: All these schools of thoughts

share the fundamental view that the market knows best and the state should

stay out of its way.


They are therefore distinct from the egalitarian, shake-things-up tradition

of Harriet Taylor, John Stuart Mill and Maynard Keynes, who did not

believe there was a universal solution to the question of the state versus

the market. In How To Be A Liberal, I called this radical liberalism, but

you could also call it egalitarian liberalism, social liberalism, left-wing

liberalism, progressive liberalism, or social democracy. Again, all these

terms are undefined and mean different things to different people, but they

all gather around the same basic idea: a mixed economy in which the state

and the market are treated as both a threat and a potential source of human



Radical liberals looked deeply around them. They asked not just how to

make people free in the world as it is, but how they might be more free if

we were to change it. Why did those without property, or women, or nonwhites

seem to always have so much less freedom? What could be done

about it?


It was easier for radical liberals to answer these questions because

they had a more complex view of the state. They believed it could be an

opportunity. It could be harnessed to make people more free, for instance by

enforcing anti-discrimination legislation.


By contrast, laissez-faire treated the state almost exclusively as a threat.


No matter the differences between them, all liberals had to agree to some

core ideas : individual liberty, the separation of powers, the use of reason

and so on. This was the non-negotiable Old Testament stuff, which you

really must accept to be classified as a liberal of any kind.


And yet that didn’t happen. In fact, these core principles were jettisoned.

In the end, only the market remained. And it was this process which helps

explain how the respectable liberal theory of laissez-faire turned into the

gibbering hysterical dogma spouted by authoritarian politicians during the

coronavirus pandemic.




You can see this process quite clearly in the story of what happened to

Friedrich Hayek when he visited South America.


It’s a horrible story. Hayek was a decent man, who made important

contributions to economics and the liberal tradition. He was, in my view,

utterly wrong in nearly every instance of his thinking, but that does not

diminish his record or his character. And yet this is the story of how he betrayed

himself and the core principles of liberalism. It’s vital to understanding how

laissez-faire degraded into the type of rhetoric we see today.


It began on 24 October 1970, when the socialist Salvador Allende

became president of Chile. He substantially nationalised the banking sector

and fixed the prices of over 3,000 goods. By 1973, inflation was starting to

run out of control.


On 11 September, the hammer came down. Chile’s armed forces

and national police force overthrew the democratically-elected socialist

government. As the presidential palace was bombarded by the Chilean air

force, Allende made a last statement to the country. ‘At least my memory

will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to his country,’ he said.

‘These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in

vain.’ Then he committed suicide.


That was how the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet began.

Congress was closed down. Opponents of the government – predominantly

socialists – were systematically persecuted. Thousands of people were killed

or disappeared. Family members were rarely even told why their loved one

had been murdered by the state. They were often denied the chance to see

the body or give it a decent burial.


‘They shot him on the road near our house,’ one parent told the

Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, years later. ‘I heard the shots,

and I came out and found his body. They yelled at me to go bury the dog

that had just been killed. That dog was my only son.’


A secret network of 17 torture camps was set up for political prisoners.

One of the most common methods of torture was to strap naked prisoners

to a metal bedframe and then attach electrodes to their genitals, or open

wounds, through which they fed electricity. Other prisoners were beaten,

or had their limbs broken or amputated. Others were forced to lick dirt

off the floor, or eat excrement.


Several detention sites were used solely for sexual abuse. Almost every

single female prisoner was repeatedly raped. Often this was done in front

of their family members as a form of humiliation. Some women were

raped using dogs, or had spiders or live rats inserted in their genitalia.


During the military dictatorship, at least 2,095 people were

executed, 1,102 were disappeared, and 40,000 were subject to political

imprisonment, most of whom were tortured. Around 200,000 people

were forced into exile.


These events were extensively covered in the international press at the

time. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights sent a working

group to Chile which submitted two damning reports in 1975 and 1976.

Hayek was well aware of them. And yet he chose to visit Chile on two

separate occasions and praise its government.


The reason for this is simple. Pinochet followed the laissez-faire

economic model. He acted to get inflation under control and reestablish a

market economy, just as Hayek would have recommended.


Hayek’s first visit was in 1977. He was warned not to go by many

admirers, including some people he knew closely, like his former PhD

student Ralph Raico. ‘His visit to Chile was from the beginning a very

controversial affair,’ his biographer C.E. Cubitt said. ‘Many people were

unhappy about his going there, some of his friends pleading restraint,

others sending him letters of protest and warnings about the damage the

visit would do to his reputation.’ He ignored them.


He accepted honorary degrees, gave lectures, held press conferences, took

part in magazine interviews and met with Pinochet himself. He then visited

again in 1981. In that same year, the Mont P lerin Society decided to hold its

regional meeting in Chile. It was a stamp of approval from the body which

kept the laissez-faire dream alive during the Keynesian era.


Hayek never once made any reference to the human rights abuses that took

place in Chile. Instead, he praised Pinochet’s economic accomplishments,

emphasised that dictatorship might sometimes be necessary to accomplish

them, and vigorously attacked those in the Western press who criticised the



‘The effort the country is undertaking is an example for the world,’ he

said. ‘It is extraordinary. I am very surprised. I would have never expected

this degree of prosperity after hearing how the economy was three years

ago. I am amazed.’ He insisted that elections would sometimes need to be

halted in order to ensure market freedom. ‘I would say that, as long-term

institution, I am totally against dictatorships,’ he told a magazine. ‘But a

dictatorship may be a necessary system during a transitional period.’


In a moment of supreme moral failure, he wrote: ‘I have not been able

to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that

personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under



When the international press criticised the regime, he went after them. In

December 1981 the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published a cartoon

showing Pinochet on horseback, trampling over the people of his country

alongside the Polish dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski. Hayek fired off a critical

letter to the editor protesting ‘in the strongest possible terms.’ He finished:

‘You owe the Chilean government a humble apology for such twisting of

the facts.’


His support for the Chilean regime was so extensive that even Margaret

Thatcher, an ally of Pinochet, tried to dissuade him from his enthusiasm.

A letter from the British prime minister to Hayek celebrated the regime’s

‘striking example of economic reform’ but warned that ‘some of the measures

adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable.’


What exactly was going on here? How could Hayek, as a liberal, celebrate

‘personal freedom’ in a military dictatorship guilty of torture, rape and

political executions?


There are two explanations, both of which go to the heart of the laissez faire





The first lies in the role of economic freedom – the absolute primacy of

the price point in Hayek’s philosophy. He believed that this was the test

of all other forms of liberty. ‘Economic freedom cannot be separated from

other freedoms,’ he said. ‘The distinction between economic freedom and

intellectual or cultural freedom is artificial. There is no system that, deprived

of economic freedom, has been able to guarantee intellectual freedom.’


But in truth, he had largely forgotten about the other freedoms. It’s not

that he changed his theory. It was a question of salience. Over the course of

his life, economic freedom took on such a primary role that he didn’t really

care about, or even seem to notice, other forms of liberty, like the right to

life, or protection against arbitrary imprisonment by the state. The only

liberty he knew was the price mechanism. So when he celebrated ‘personal

freedom’ in Pinochet’s Chile, it was this liberty he had in mind. Because that,

in truth, was the only form of liberty Pinochet tolerated.


Many laissez-faire liberals are far more consistent than this. They believe

passionately in market freedom, but hold firm on other core liberal values.

And yet Hayek betrayed himself in his missionary zeal. His liberalism was

stripped of all but economic freedoms.


The second explanation lay in the age-old idea of the community of

the free, which had always plagued liberalism and in particular laissez-faire

liberalism. This was the idea that liberalism applied to some people

- typically middle class white males - and not to others.


Benjamin Constant, for instance, had spent pages celebrating the freedom

of the market, but did not seem to notice that the women around him faced

much more severe restrictions on their liberty than men. He did not care,

and in fact actively defended, the fact that people without property would

not be able to fully explore their individuality.


But as Taylor and Mill showed in their feminist work, liberalism

is a universalist creed. It demands that we do not just think of freedom

for ourselves, but for others too. It therefore requires a sustained act of

imagination, of empathy. It insists that we imagine what life might be like

for people who are different to us, by listening to them, noting their concerns,

exploring how their freedoms are limited, and then acting so that they can

flourish instead. It dictates that we move outside of our own experience.


This is a fundamentally moral task and a laborious one. It’s very easy

to imagine the freedoms which affect your own life. It is much harder to

imagine yourself in the position of others. Plenty of radical liberals have

failed at it. For laissez-faire liberals, it is more difficult still. Their let-things-be

mantra makes it harder to discern structural restraints to freedom in

society. And their vigilance against the state prevents them from seeing how

it might remove them.


That failure of moral imagination also explains Hayek’s comments in

Chile. It’s a watered down version of the community of the free. Of course,

Hayek would never have said that certain people in society were not entitled

to freedom. But he was unprepared, or unable, to take the imaginative leap

necessary to see that they were being deprived of that freedom.


He did not have to fear being raped in front of his family during an

interrogation. He did not have to worry about being disappeared, or

smuggled into a secret torture camp, or executed by the state. And anyway,

the people these abuses were inflicted on were socialists and communists,

individuals he would have opposed and whose lives he knew almost nothing



It was all so terribly far away from him.




Hayek and Milton Friedman, who also visited Chile, acted as transmission

agents for these ideas into the conservative movements of the US and the UK.


Friedman had close ties with Ronald Reagan’s White House and Downing

Street. Thatcher treated Hayek as a kind of latter-day saint.

Under no possible criteria could either of these world leaders be

considered liberals. Thatcher politicised the police force, promoted a no-holds-

barred law and order policy and discriminated against gay people. But

Hayek’s economic reductionism meant she didn’t need to be. All she needed

to believe in was the free market, without state interference. Which she did.

For Hayek, that was all that was required.


So these scraps of laissez-faire liberal justification clung to the Republican

and Tory parties as the decades wore on. They acted as easy justifications

for individual policies, without ever demanding any kind of coherent liberal



Then covid hit.


There was a lot of talk about the liberal implications of lockdown in 2020.

But in truth, this policy was perfectly easy to justify on liberal grounds. It was

an example of Taylor and Mill’s harm principle in action.


Coronavirus was spread by human interaction and it harmed people.

Those who were hospitalised or died lost all their freedom. They lost their

entire capacity to operate as autonomous individuals. If lockdowns had

not been imposed, the virus would have spread exponentially. Hundreds

of thousands of more people would have died. If those numbers rose to a

certain level, they would have fatally compromised national health services,

leading to outright disaster.


So the harm principle was enacted. It involved a terrible interference in

the rights of the individual – one which would have been unthinkable just

weeks beforehand. People were banned from leaving their own home except

for a few limited reasons. Lovers could not meet, protests could not be

held, grandparents could not see their grandkids. In no normal circumstance

would we ever tolerate such powers being handed to the state. But these

were not normal circumstances. They were Taylor and Mill’s formula on a

grand and appalling scale.


Such restrictions had to be imposed as briefly as possible, and with

vigilance. The legislation needed to be carefully written and subject to 

parliamentary scrutiny, which, by the way, it wasn’t. Governments had to

be watched to make sure they did not try and retain the powers they had

been lent, which they did. Police had to be observed to make sure they were

not overzealous in their application, which they were. But the actions had

to be taken regardless.


That’s when authoritarian politicians suddenly rediscovered their laissezfaire

principles. Just weeks earlier they’d been celebrating attacks on the

judiciary, the dismantling of the post-war liberal order, legislation silencing

protestors, vitriolic government attacks on the press, the end of free

movement, and putting immigrant children in cages. Now, suddenly they

executed a head-spinning change in rhetoric. They were concerned with

liberty again.


But just like Hayek in Chile, they didn’t really care about individual

freedom. That would have entailed the activation of the harm principle, and

led to lockdown. In reality, it was the freedom of the market.


This was, after all, the biggest single closure of economic activity in

our lifetime. Everything shut down: Shops, financial institutions, bars,

restaurants, family-run businesses and massive corporate offices.


That was what delivered the resounding shock, the howl of anguish and

disapproval. And you could see it in the language. ‘Nothing is shut down,

life & the economy go on,’ Trump tweeted in early March 2020, as the virus

spread over America. Shortly afterward he said of lockdown: ‘You can’t do

that with a country - especially the No. 1 economy anywhere in the world.’

Once the lockdowns began, he insisted: ‘America will again and soon be

open for business.’ Nearly every time he mentioned the issue, he concerned

himself with its effect on business, not lives.


And that was the binary that was used throughout: the economy versus

health. ‘We are fighting a two-front war,’ Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally,

said, ‘trying to destroy the virus while keeping the economy afloat.’ The

same frame of debate was present in the UK, where the so-called 1922

Committee of Tory backbenchers was trying to convince the prime minister

not to take firm action. They argued that a ‘safety-first’ approach would put

tens of thousands of businesses at risk of going under.


As it happened, it was a false binary. Those countries that locked

down fast suffered less economic damage because they managed to push

down the virus, allowing them to open back up quicker. But what’s

pertinent here isn’t the practicalities. It’s the principle. The movement

against lockdown was primarily interested in market freedom rather than

individual freedom.


The same applied with the community of the free. Tory and Republican

politicians were not, by and large, affected by the attacks they had

orchestrated on European free movement or Black Lives Matter protests.

They had never fled poverty or oppression and then been put in a cage

when they had made it to a ‘safe’ country. They’d never needed an abortion

and found that it had been restricted. They weren’t the ones police looked

for when targeting drug users.


So when the parties they were members of imposed restrictions on these

types of freedoms, it didn’t bother them. Like Hayek in Chile, they were

not prepared to make the imaginative leap into the lives of those affected.


But when the restriction on freedom was comprehensible to them, it

suddenly struck a chord. The pandemic response meant they were unable

to go out, or drink in a pub, or enter a shop without a mask. These were

restraints that they understood, that affected them. And therefore they

cared about them. It was within their sphere of comprehension.


You can’t call that liberalism, because it has no universal basis. They

weren’t really laissez-faire advocates, or libertarians. They were still the

same authoritarians they always were. But when they felt their world was

under threat, they reached for the nearest branch of respectable sounding

theory. And because of Hayek and Friedman’s transmission of laissez-faire

into conservatism in the 1970s and 80s, this was what they had to hand.


These events serve to show why liberalism, properly understood, is so

vital. Without its theoretical framework, we’re lost in the dark. Freedom is

just a self-interested word you use to justify yourself. It’s back to the days

of the Glorious Revolution, when James II argued for religious freedom

and the Whigs argued for political freedom without any comprehensive

assessment of what that actually meant.


Freedom is not easy. If we really believe in it, we believe in it for

everyone, not just those like us. We believe in it for things we dislike

as much as for things we approve of. It demands a leap of imagination,

a commitment to empathy. These are the signs that someone is

living up to liberal values. And they were pointedly absent from the

authoritarians who claimed to speak in its name during the pandemic.



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