by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 13
May 2020

The new battle line in libertarian thought

Toby Young has been outspoken in his opposition to lockdown

Stay alert! Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? A definite hint of derring-do.

Real life, though, is far from adventurous. Forget ‘stay alert’, for most of us it’s still ‘stay at home’.

Lockdown may have loosened, but not in a fun way. More of us can go to work now. We can all take as much outdoor exercise as we like. I haven’t seen the guidance on eating dust, but I dare say it’s off the ration. Seeing friends and family, however, remains heavily restricted.

We think of ourselves as a liberty-loving nation, but seven weeks in and we’re still extraordinarily compliant. The protests we’ve seen in America have not been echoed here. Strangest of all, we’ve had remarkably little dissent from the UK’s small, but normally energetic, band of libertarian wonks.

With the economy crushed beneath state controls like we’ve never seen, where are the howls of rage from the free marketeers? The more thoughtful libertarians realised early on that Covid-19 was to be taken seriously. “This time the warnings are not overdone” warned Matt Ridley back in March. Sam Bowman, senior fellow at Adam Smith Institute, was an early advocate of massive state intervention to prop-up the economy during lockdown. They had counterparts in America, like the economist Tyler Cowen, who made the case for special measures in these exceptional circumstances.

However, there’s a very different kind of libertarian, one whose reaction to all of this is more visceral than rational — driven by outrage that law-abiding citizens should find themselves under effective house arrest.

Some of these individuals wouldn’t call themselves libertarians at all — and would see the “ancient liberties” they defend as being rooted in tradition not modernity. Others are more orthodox in their ideology, but still populist in style.

In any case, it is from these types that we see most of the outspoken opposition to lockdown. Examples include Toby Young, Peter Hitchens and Laura Perrins.

Of course, like most ideological divides, we’re talking about a spectrum here as opposed to discrete categories. There’s a continuum between the rationalists and the visceralists. Furthermore, thanks to growing scepticism about the epidemiological models driving government policy, the two ends of the spectrum are coming closer together. Gut reaction finds vindication in rational doubt and vice versa.

I should also make it clear that I’m not disparaging the visceralists for their heartfelt anguish. Our reaction to the lockdown should be one of horror, anger and grief. Even, if like me, you consider it to be necessary, we still ought to be appalled by what we’ve had to resort to.


  • May 16, 2020
    But was the lockdown necessary, or was it a massive overreaction? It was necessary from a political perspective, because the government would not have survived if there had been just one picture of a dead body in a hospital corridor; but it was probably unnecessary for epidemiological reasons.... Read more

  • May 14, 2020
    What it appears we should be focusing on is whether this action taken by our government - without proper parliamentary debate, or even a vote - is actually occurring in a country that is any longer a free country or democracy. There has for example already now been a successful overturning of the... Read more

  • May 13, 2020
    I'd say that pointing out that: a) lockdown demonstrably makes the virus worse, not better; and b) that it actively promotes economic collapse, which in turn will destroy the very NHS it's supposed to save, is really pretty bloody rational, thank you very much. Read more

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