Steve Baker, one of the British parliament’s leading libertarians, was nearly in tears as he addressed the House of Commons in support of a bill that once seemed unthinkable: a massive economic aid package in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Libertarian though I may be, this is the right thing to do but, my goodness, we ought not to allow this situation to endure one moment longer than is absolutely necessary to save lives and preserve jobs,” he said last month. “We are implementing tonight in this bill at least a dystopian society.”
Libertarian principles of self-reliance and minimal government have been around for centuries. But they are being tested as never before in a time when much of the world, and many of their adherents, see a clear role for government restriction on basic liberties.
From trillions of dollars in government aid to the enforced closings of schools and businesses around the world, the spread of the coronavirus has renewed a long-running debate among libertarians over such core beliefs as private enterprise and individual autonomy.
In speeches, blogs and other online postings they ask whether it’s appropriate — and in what ways — for the government to help those who have lost jobs and businesses. They wonder whether, and to what degree, government should regulate business and personal movement in the name of public health.
“Preventing the spread of infectious disease is within the legitimate functions of the minimal state, which most libertarians accept,” says Michael Heumer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, in Boulder.
“The minimal state’s functions include protecting people from physical threats posed by other people,” Heumer says. “That includes not only behavior that definitely causes physical harm, but also behavior that creates an unreasonable risk of harm to others. Obviously, what is an unreasonable risk is a matter of judgment.”
In Washington, David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, says, “I wouldn’t say we have trouble holding on to libertarian principles. We believe in the presumption of liberty. But that presumption can be overcome in particular circumstances. And that’s part of our understanding of liberty.”
Limited government and personal freedom have long held deep appeal among Americans, who in the name of libertarianism have embraced everything from the legalizing of drugs to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from abroad to the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service.