Liberals vs Libertarians: How a deranged battle of ideas raged over Covid restrictions. By Ian Dunt
Posted on February 22 2022
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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