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If you want liberty, aim for success (and vice versa)

Summary:
I don’t think I have to convince libertarians like myself that liberty often leads to more successful societies, but I’m not sure how many understand that the reverse is also true. It’s not possible to just wave a magic wand and call forth more liberty. Disasters such as war, depression and pandemics often lead to repressive government policies. Thus one way to promote a free society is to do the hard work promoting policies such as peace, prosperity and good public health. For much of the Covid pandemic (not all), citizens of Australia had more freedom than Americans to live life as they wished (except for international travel).  That’s not because the Australian government is more committed to freedom than the US government, rather it’s because there was little

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I don’t think I have to convince libertarians like myself that liberty often leads to more successful societies, but I’m not sure how many understand that the reverse is also true.

It’s not possible to just wave a magic wand and call forth more liberty. Disasters such as war, depression and pandemics often lead to repressive government policies. Thus one way to promote a free society is to do the hard work promoting policies such as peace, prosperity and good public health.

For much of the Covid pandemic (not all), citizens of Australia had more freedom than Americans to live life as they wished (except for international travel).  That’s not because the Australian government is more committed to freedom than the US government, rather it’s because there was little or no transmission of Covid in most of Australia over the past 18 months.  Now that Australia is being hit by the highly contagious delta variant, however, their government has imposed domestic travel restrictions that are more draconian than anything contemplated in the US.

Over the past 18 months, my views have been somewhat orthogonal to the two sides debating freedom vs. public health, with the right supposed favoring freedom and the left supposedly favoring public health.  (In practice, both sides often failed to understand how to achieve those goals.) My view is better described as freedom through public health.

Tyler Cowen has a very good post on the situation in Australia.  He makes some of the same points that I’ve been making:

I would stress that if Covid risk has you with your back against the wall and the government is forcing extremely restrictive measures on your citizenry, you should be implementing the following in an urgent manner:

a. Twice a week rapid antigen tests for everyone.  (Plenty of time to prep for this one.)

b. Much stronger incentives to vaccinate people more rapidly, including with the large stock (six million or so?) of AstraZeneca vaccines.  Demand side incentives, supply side incentives, whatever can be done.  Let’s throw the kitchen sink at this one.  But as it stands, I just don’t see the urgency.

c. Mobile monoclonal antibody units, as they are used in Florida (modest progress here).

First a bit of context.  One can sympathize with the Australia government in one respect.  Australia has avoided the high rates of death experienced by the US, Latin America and much of Europe.  And then they were hit by the highly contagious delta variant just at the point where they were tantalizing close to the finish line with vaccination:

If you want liberty, aim for success (and vice versa)

I’ve spent considerable time in both Australia and New Zealand, and the people in those countries seem more sensible than Americans.  Thus I expect their vaccination rates to exceed ours within a very short period of time.  But if their governments had placed a higher priority on vaccination earlier on, then they might have avoided much of the delta wave.  More specifically, they would have had fewer Covid deaths and less perceived need for restrictions on personal freedom.

Tyler alludes to the fact that the Australian government has been sitting on 6 million doses of highly effective AstraZeneca vaccine because of phony concerns about vaccination risk, which is a lot of doses for a country of only 25 million.  (Of course we also made many policy mistakes that led to needless deaths.)  Releasing those doses promotes both freedom and public health.

While America’s right claims to favor freedom, too often they act and speak in ways that reduce our freedoms.  In Florida, Governor DeSantis took away the freedom of businesses to set their own Covid policies.  More recently he put out a very harmful message on vaccines, which is also factually incorrect:

DeSantis claimed last week — as his state continued to experience a surge in the highly contagious delta variant ― that receiving the shot is “about your health and whether you want that protection or not” and “doesn’t impact me or anyone else.”

If DeSantis were merely trying to say that the decision to get vaccinated is a personal choice, then he’d be correct.  But what he actually said is false; high rates of vaccination do help society by slowing the spread of Covid.  Yes, most of the gains go to the person being vaccinated, but I personally feel that my freedoms are being restricted at least a little bit due to unfortunate government policies triggered by the decision by many other people not to get vaccinated, and my health risk is slightly higher.  That’s their right, but politicians should not be putting out false propaganda that a refusal to get vaccinated doesn’t hurt other members of society.  It does.  If politicians want to speak out on the issue, then do so in a constructive fashion. (Or just stay silent.)

The people that pushed us into WWI might not have believed that their action led to the loss of freedom of speech in America for a period of several years.  But in fact this foolish decision did lead directly to repressive actions by the federal government, including the imprisonment of people who spoke out against the war.  Conservative proponents of tight money in 1929 unwittingly ushered in a more statist policy regime in the 1930s.  Any government policy that creates war, economic depression, high rates of inflation, or a more severe pandemic will eventually lead to repressive government responses.

You may not like to think of it this way, but liberty is endogenous.  If it’s liberty that you seek, aim for success.  And yes, if it’s success that you seek, aim for liberty.  Those two sentences probably best encapsulate what I’ve been doing with my blogging over the past decade. Call it the neoliberal creed.

PS.  I’m not saying that politicians should scold people. I’m saying they should encourage people to get vaccinated by pointing out how it will help society as a whole.

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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