Economic Theory

Some classical liberal thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic


Apart from concerns for our neighbours, friends, families and mankind, it goes without saying that the current pandemic and the responses of individuals, families, communities and governments pose challenges for thinkers of different political and economic traditions, especially classical liberals.

Among classical liberals there is a natural scepticism of government intervention, but to different degrees.  As IEA author Eamonn Butler writes: “Classical liberals disagree about the exact role of the state, but generally wish to limit the use of force, whether by individuals or governments. They call for states that are small and kept in bounds by known rules”.

However, with so much uncertainty and contradictory advice around, it is during times of crisis that most people unite in placing their trust in government. So far, most people in most countries have followed advice and instructions from governments.

When announcing the £350 billion package of loans and grants to help businesses cope with the reduced demand, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced that now is “not a time for ideology”. There are two main issues of concern: the economic consequences and the societal consequences.

There will be companies that will go bust and there will be pleas for taxpayer bailouts. One view is that billionaire business owners such as Virgin boss Richard Branson asking for government money should have prepared their companies for unforeseen circumstances or taken out some form of insurance and can’t expect taxpayers to bail them out. Besides, if airlines do go bust, once flights resume a willing buyer will come along, buy the planes and equipment, take on staff and new airlines will emerge. However, there are in fact no or few classical liberals arguing for no government intervention. Ryan Bourne of the Cato Institute argues that “there’s much more rationale for targeted measures that help otherwise viable businesses from going under or provide a degree of security for workers or contractors who would otherwise have perverse incentives to continue working even if sick”.

Does this mean classical liberals have abandoned classical liberalism? Not quite. As Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution writes, “In ordinary times, the classical liberal approach favours strong property rights and limited government. But it is less widely known that this same theory, like virtually every other general political approach, advocates strong government controls in any emergency situation that poses an immediate peril to life and and health”.

The other concern that classical liberals have is over threats to our civil liberties. As Len Shackleton writes about the proposal to isolate those aged 70-plus, “we should be wary of arbitrary restrictions and turning the country into a police state on Chinese lines”. He concedes that “we will no doubt try to do what the government advises”. While the government will announce any restrictions as temporary, we should also be aware of Milton Friedman’s warning that “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program”.

Does this mean that that big government is here to stay? Not necessarily. Fortunately, there are other measures the government has announced that offer a glimmer of hope. For example, the UK government has announced it will change planning permissions to allow restaurants and pubs to offer takeaways and deliveries. This and similar emergency measures have prompted the #neverneeded campaign on social media asking why these regulations were ever needed.

The pandemic is also bringing people together to ask not necessarily what government can do, but what we can all do for our communities. For example, community activist and founder of Crowdpatch, Simon Krystman, is hosting the Covid-19 club to crowdsource help for people vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus in local communities.

As with any unusual situation or emergency, there will be questions for classical liberals and others, but the outbreak also reminds us that while we may or may not view the world through ideological frameworks, in times of crises we can expect to see the very best and unfortunately, the worst of humanity. The challenge is to be supportive of the very best of government action, while being aware of the worst.

Syed Kamall is the former Academic and Research Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs and a Professor of Politics and International Relations at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.


4 thoughts on “Some classical liberal thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic”

  1. Posted 21/03/2020 at 10:44 | Permalink

    How about ‘billionaire business owners’ spending their billions to prop up their own businesses? Most of us fellow humans find we can live quite comfortably on thousands rather than millions or billions and many of us manage on considerably less. Given the opportunity for radical changes in society, could this be the time for a generous re-distribution of excessive wealth? My final question is ‘why not?’

  2. Posted 21/03/2020 at 16:09 | Permalink

    We should never let Johson get away this this nonsense: I.e.:………….. I lived in Hackney, London: more dangerous that serving in the army in Iraq / Afghanistan etc. at the time. I was stabbed, & actually treated myself in hospital as no staff were available.

    Almost everyone I knew there had been attacked with weapons. Clapton High Rd. was known as the world’s worst “Murder Mile” for murders, stabbings etc. Was the Gov. concerned about our Health & welfare?………

    The Gov. didn’t give a rat’s bottom about us or anyone else. Are we supposed to believe that they are now suddenly concerned about us catching “a virus?”.

    Call me an Olde Fashioned cynic, (that’s OK B’coz I’m an olde fashioned cynic!), but I don’t believe a word of this nonsense.

    As far as BoLL*** Johnson is concerned, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could kick his sorry backside

    I think his next ploy will be to restrict access to the web, using some ruse: i.e.: “pple spreading conspiracy theories”.

    But, it’s the Gov. that’s paniced pple by their ridiculous restrictions:…..restrictions that do not apply to Gov. ministers themselves. (https://bit.ly/33BD3JP)

  3. Posted 23/03/2020 at 05:37 | Permalink

    Not forgetting that government taxes were originally temporary, to fund a war.

  4. Posted 12/04/2020 at 14:26 | Permalink

    @anom commenter “Are we supposed to believe that they are now suddenly concerned about us catching ‘a virus?’ … I don’t believe a word of this nonsense.”

    What absolute drivel. The lockdown is clearly saving lives as demonstrated in other countries who are now seeing a decrease in numbers since similar measures were introduced.

    Ridiculous restrictions? Again absolute drivel!

    “Call me old fashioned but i don’t believe the government are helping with the virus because I had to treat my own stab wound so why would they help with a virus that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people”

    It’s people like you why more needless lives will be taken. Stay Home, Stay Safe.

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