There Are No Libertarians in an Epidemic,” The Atlantic proudly declared in March. The message, echoed often since then, has been the same: classical liberals (henceforth in this essay simply referred to as “liberals”) have no place in this world. A global pandemic must be met with global action, which can only be coordinated by governments. Individualism and liberalism are unable to solve the problem because of externalities or just plain selfishness.
So writes George Mason University economist Jon Murphy in “Liberalism Was Born and Grew During Centuries of Pandemics,” American Institute for Economic Research, May 26.
Murphy, who often comments on this blog, goes on to document the fact that classical liberalism actually earned its wings during pandemics.
Liberalism, as we know it today, was formed not in recent times of peace and prosperity, but in the crucible of the 1600s and 1700s. Indeed, some authors trace liberalism’s roots all the way back to the fall of the Roman Empire (see Inventing the Individualby Larry Siedentop). The 1600s witnessed some of the most horrific religious wars the world has ever seen; it was a dangerous time, far in contrast to the relatively peaceful world we have now: the Thirty-Years War, repeated invasions by the Ottoman Empire, the Defenestration of Prague, the Bohemian Revolt, the English Civil War and English Restoration, just to name a few. Not to mention disasters like the Plague of Seville (about 25% of the population died) or the Great London Fire.
During these momentous events, Hugo Grotius was writing his treatise The Rights of War and Peace, one of the first great liberal works of political philosophy. John Locke was writing his Treatises. Samuel Pufendorf was working on his various jurisprudence treatises. The foundations and arguments for liberalism were being laid in response to the turbulent times as a means of considering peaceful coexistence.
The whole thing is worth reading.