Staff Columnist

What if there were libertarians in an epidemic?

They might tell us to suspend certain regulations in the government-health-care complex.

A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs, Wednesday
A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Lake Success, N.Y. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved faster testing protocols as the viral outbreak continues to spread worldwide. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

I woke up one day last week to learn I no longer exist.

The Atlantic published a commentary under the headline, “There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic.” This was a huge surprise, since I knew the coronavirus outbreak was spreading, yet there I sat in front of my computer screen, stubbornly clinging to my libertarianism.

In the article, White House reporter Peter Nicholas wrote about “the emptiness of these sorts of ideological labels.” Since President Donald Trump plans to intervene in the economy to fend off the downturn brought by the epidemic — just like President George Bush did following the 2008 financial crisis — it proves that laissez-faire economics has no place in a national emergency, Nicholas argued.

Reading that, I was doubly surprised. Unbeknown to me, Trump and Bush — two of the people most responsible expanding the federal government’s scope, ballooning the national debt and eroding our civil liberties — are actually standard-bearers of libertarianism, the movement to radically limit government.

Imagine for a moment it was possible for libertarians to exist during an epidemic. What advice would they have?

First, they would probably tell Trump to stop lying. Government dishonesty is a prime target for libertarians, and Trump’s misleading statements on this and other subjects are an affront to a functioning society.

While we’re at it, dispense with the secrecy. The Trump administration reportedly ordered coronavirus meetings to be classified, which slowed the spread of crucial information. In contrast, libertarians value transparency and openness in government.

Libertarians might recommend suspending certain regulations in the government-health-care complex.

Testing is a key factor in the early stages of an epidemic. It’s difficult to contain a problem if you don’t know where or how widespread it is. We know the federal government has badly fumbled that responsibility — the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention delayed testing by withholding permission from local labs.

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“Faced with a public health emergency on a scale potentially not seen in a century, the United States has not responded nimbly,” The New York Times reported in its story of a Seattle medical team who defied federal rules.

So far, the virus has hit some regions harder than others, so it would be nice if doctors and nurses could go to the places where they’re most needed. Unfortunately, most health care workers can’t cross state lines to work because they’re not licensed in other states.

Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed an executive order to temporarily loosen licensing restrictions for medical professionals. Under the emergency policy, workers licensed in other states can be approved to practice in Massachusetts in just one day.

If the COVID-19 outbreak is a sustained event like experts are warning, U.S. hospitals are unsuited to meet the expected demand. Workers in Wuhan, China built an emergency hospital in just 10 days.

Building new health facilities in most U.S. states is an extremely lengthy process, in part because of “certificate of need” laws. Such laws require the government to sign off on the necessity of new buildings, and would-be competitors can lobby against new projects. While the federal government eliminated its certificate of need requirements years ago, similar laws persist in most states, including Iowa.

Libertarians would also tell us not to use a national emergency to give special kickbacks and cutouts to corporations — like Trump is set to do with his economic stimulus plans, and like California Gov. Gavin Newsom did last week by agreeing to exempt Disney parks from the state’s ban on large gatherings.

Most libertarians are not anarchists. We (I’m snapping back into existence now) believe government should have a minimal role, but it should carry out that role effectively. Alongside private enterprise, governments have legitimate responsibilities in fighting the spread of infectious disease.

We should not cheer on maladministration hoping for the chance to rub our government overseers’ noses in the mess, but we should point out where collectivism is failing.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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