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Covid Tyranny Is Not Rooted in True Liberalism

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(Don Boudreaux)


Matthew Crawford’s essay, on the whole, is superb and important. (For alerting me to it, I thank Russ Roberts.)

Editor, UnHerd


Matthew Crawford rightly decries covid fear-mongering and restrictions, yet he too quickly blames this dystopian turn on flaws inherent in liberalism (“Covid was liberalism’s endgame,” May 21).

It’s true that one branch of liberalism, embracing the notion that humankind can be perfected through reason and science, leads logically to the tyranny of society being treated – as it has so terribly been treated since March 2020 – as a science project. This branch is more accurately called “Progressivism.”

But another, truer branch of liberalism rejects this folly. The liberalism of Adam Smith, Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and F.A. Hayek – the wise liberalism of the American revolution rather than the conceited liberalism of the French – features at its core a steadfast fear of centralized power. Alongside this fear is an equally steadfast tolerance for individuals to be as free as possible in choosing the ends they pursue as well as in choosing the means for these pursuits.

Among the greatest fears of true liberals is the hell that awaits humanity at the end of every utopian quest. And so the promise of true liberalism never was heaven on earth. Instead, it’s the obtainable, much more modest – yet supremely important – goal of ensuring for each individual maximum possible scope to peacefully live as he or she chooses, with no ‘nudging’ allowed and with coercion used only to counter coercion. As summarized by Thomas Sowell, freedom under a truly liberal order “is, above all, the right of ordinary people to find elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their ‘betters.’”*

True liberalism would never have countenanced the tyranny that those who presumed themselves to be our ‘betters’ wrought over the past two years.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

* Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions (New York: Basic Books, 1980), page 383.


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