Volume 19

Liberalism Tested: 'Actions prejudicial to the interests of others'

by Peter Boettke

Liberal principles of self-government are severely tested when faced with an existential threat like foreign attack, financial crises, and a global pandemic. COVID-19 represented such an existential threat to the liberal order. The pol-icy path followed as a consequence of such an emergency will either affirm liberal principles or represent their suspension. The paradox in the effort to save the liberal order by deviating from liberal principles is that we may in fact lose liberalism as a guiding principle in our economic, political, and social life even after the existential threat has been averted. A robust liberalism, on the other hand, would survive even an extreme stress test. A pandemic is a true public health issue with significant harms, but liberal principles would see the source of our ability to address the crisis in the adaptation and adjustments in social interaction (in personal behavior and in the ordinary business of life) that reduce spread. This is found in creative and clever scientists discovering new drugs to address the symptoms and ultimately a vaccine to eradicate a novel virus; in doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals applying their great skill and compassion to care for ill patients and discovering better protocols and medical treatments to prevent the ill from becoming critically ill; in the actors of civil society engaging in a variety of acts of charity to aid the most vulnerable among us; and in entrepreneurs discovering mitigation strategies so that the ordinary business of life can proceed in safety and good health. Liberalism, when tested, will find that the vibrancy of bottom-up solutions begins in communities and the intricate web of relationships between commercial society, civil society, and at all levels of the government, rather than in the top-down solutions of government command and control efforts.

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