Libertarian Economists Running in Herds

Updated: Oct 23, 2020

Herd Immunity for the Egoist: Death for the Empathetic

Image: Commuters at the World Trade Center hub in New York in March. Credit...Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

The American Enterprise Institute, an Extreme Right Wing Libertarian Think Tank, sponsored a meeting on the notion of moving to herd immunity, Libertarian Economists at work. So, because it is about ideology rather than economic science, it is predictably about a substantive tipping of the balance toward the Ego based self-interest, the private interest (the Libertarian preference on every matter) on the matter of how to deal with the Coronavirus outbreak. Libertarian framing is to tip the balance away from Empathy based other (shared with others, the public)-interest, that which everyone can go along with. In historical context, Libertarian framing borrows one aspect of Enlightenment thinking, as represented in Smith (1776/1789), focusing on the essential need to encourage the arrogance of self-love (the self-interest).

And, to clarify: Empathy is the first step on the path to ethics --- a widely shared ethical system --- that Adam Smith saw as essential to a viable capitalism&democracy. And, the need for integration and jointness across empathy based ethics (shared other-interest) in Smith (1759/1790) and ego based arrogance (self-interest) in Smith (1776/1789) seems to be lost on Libertarians, although some would perhaps disagree.

The Libertarian notion of an ethic seems to be that any person who is inclined to form their own ethical system, even ignoring everyone else (which is actually unethical), and even ignoring science (another thing outside the own-self) is perfectly appropriate. I am especially reminded of the Libertarian Koch Brothers who have spent millions working to distort climate science, such that the carbon fuels industry from which they profit greatly, especially when none of the pollution (social) costs are paid, prospers. So, in this case, the Libertarian frame of reference works to destroy the Spaceship on which we all Travel together, but any kind of a mandate (e.g. carbon emission limits; air quality rules to deal with excessive releases of chemicals into the Spaceship system) is deemed totally unacceptable. A mandate of any kind is considered authoritarian. Well, perhaps if the Koch Brothers acted in consort with Science&Ethics there would be no need for a mandate? Crying "Liberty" seems a cry without merit in such a case.

Not wearing a mask to protect others from being exposed to the Coronavirus seems to be of that nature, too, both anti-science&unethical, albeit Libertarians seem to find a way to justify acting on said grounds. What am I missing?

Expanding a bit on the matter of the Libertarian seeing self-interest only as it pertains to the Coronavirus, the frame ignores the “rest of the story” as told by Smith (1759/1790). It was pointed out that said arrogance in being left to do as one wishes with respect to spreading a deadly disease, said self-interest, needed to be tempered by that which everyone could go along with --- which came out of the sentiments, out of empathy in modern terms --- the shared other-interest in Metaeconomics. The arrogance of spreading a deadly virus among the population on an elusive quest for herd immunity is not something everyone can go along with, unless you are an Ayn Rand Libertarian, where it is even considered unethical, and immoral, to consider the other-interest, that which is shared with others, in any sense. Rand saw only Ego.

The result of such framing, which is regularly revealed in the current US Administration, from the POTUS on down, as pointed to by Stolberg (2020):

… two senior administration officials, both speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to give their names, cited an October 4 petition titled The Great Barrington Declaration, which argues against lockdowns and calls for a reopening of businesses and schools. “Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” the declaration states, adding, “The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”

Intriguing that the Administration is pointing to the Declaration as the “… most compassionate approach…” in that, as Metaeconomics makes clear, it is nothing of the sort, as it is in main an Egoistic approach only, lacking in Empathy, with Empathy the essential starting point to Compassion, going through a bit of Sympathy on the way.

So, how do we make sense of the argument? Well, Metaeconomics to the rescue, as illustrated in Figure 1.

The Libertarian path is at best 0G, and, supposedly representing enough protection for the vulnerable, like grocery shopping for and delivery to the elderly. Also, said vulnerable would only see relatives and friends outside, in open space (Northern Minnesota in January, anyone?). As with so many Libertarian solutions, it just does not seem practical to choose some path 0G, with the projection of thousands of people dying from “bringing it home” to grandma and grandpa. Notice, too, that a bit of self-sacrifice is essential in moving toward some path 0Z or 0Z'. Yet, as Krugman (2020) points out:

...some people are enraged by any suggestion that they should bear some inconvenience to protect the common good. Indeed, for reasons I don’t fully understand, the rage seems most intense when the inconvenience is trivial. Case in point: with around 5,000 Americans dying each week from Covid-19, Donald Trump seems obsessed with the problems he apparently has with low-flush toilets...

No sacrifice here: No empathy based other-interest to temper the self-interest, and, no self-control to apply that empathy to moving away from the egoistic-hedonistic-narcissistic frame.

The other extreme is a complete lockdown on the horizontal axis, or, even a heavy lockdown on path 0M. The Libertarians always take the extreme position, comparing their favored path 0G (or even the vertical axis, like in “Give me liberty to give you death” kind of framing) to some presumed extreme like 0M on the empathy side of the issue, as if that is the only possibility. Fortunately, real Humans would likely choose some reasoned path, like one of the 0Z or 0Z’ paths. Such a path is a tempered path, tempering the boundless arrogance of self-love (so prominent in the Libertarians, especially the Ayn Rand extremes; see Krugman on that issue, ). Like Adam Smith said it, go to the station of the impartial spectator, ponder the outcomes with some sentiment, which means to avoid path 0G, and then choose a new sentiments influenced path like 0Z or 0Z.’

And, why rush to path 0G right now, when vaccines and therapeutics are on the way, likely available by mid-2021? Libertarians also seem to lack in patience, with the need to maximize their egoistic-based self-interest right-now. It takes empathy, and the self-control to apply it, to put off immediate satisfaction, which takes time.

Yet, as Cowan (2020) says it, the:

“… Great Barrington strategy is a tempting one. Coming out of a libertarian think tank, it tries to procure maximum liberty for commerce and daily life. It is a seductive idea. Yet consistency of message is not an unalloyed good, even when the subject is liberty. And when there is a pandemic, one of the government’s most vital roles is to secure public goods, such as vaccines.”

The public goods are on path 0M. The private goods are on path 0G. A reasoned, sentiments/empathy based better path 0Z or 0Z’ represents a good balance in private&public-goods. Give grandma and grandpa a chance to live, too, and, for the less vulnerable, practice some patience and temperance of your primal drive to being extremely selfish, the latter apparently being the Libertarian reason for getting up in the morning. And, like a MetaEcon makes clear, libertarian paternalism perhaps works the best: Libertarian choosing as long as it does not damage anyone, including own-self: Other than funeral home directors, going for herd immunity does not necessarily help the Libertarian, either, when family member or friend dies out of the herd; a polluted atmosphere does not help the Koch Brothers, either, including Spaceship Earth systems. Paternalism represented in regulation, law, and mandate (even though Libertarians, often inaccurately, frame it as "Authoritarianism") is sometimes even essential to the own-self, especially when self-control fails. Examples: Koch Brothers not having the self-control to help take care of the Spaceship; or, a 20-year old not having the self-control to protect grandma from the Coronavirus; and, for the current Admin, the obvious lack of self-control from the POTUS on down, making it the weakest --- lack of self-control, lack of self-discipline, lack of self-command over egoism, hedonism, and narcissism is the essential feature of Human weakness --- Admin the US has ever experienced. Herd immunity out of weakness: Not.


Cowen, Tyler. A Dangerous Libertarian Strategy for Herd Immunity: The Great Barrington Declaration strikes the wrong tone and stresses the wrong points. Bloomberg Opinion, October 15, 2020.

Krugman, Paul. How Many Americans Will Ayn Rand Kill? New York Times, Digital Edition, October 22, 2020.

Smith, A. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by E. Cannan. New York: Random House, 1776/1789.

———. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D.D. and A.L. Macfie Raphael. Indianapolis, Indiana: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1759/1790.

Stolberg, S. G. White House Embraces a Declaration from Scientists that Opposes Lockdowns and Relies on ‘Herd Immunity.’ New York Times, Digital Edition, October 13, 2020.

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