2021年7月27日 星期二

The year and a half when liberty died

Taking hypocrisy to a whole new level.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
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By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

Once a year I teach a graduate seminar called "Economics of the Welfare State," covering topics ranging from retirement to health care to unemployment insurance, with a strong focus on international comparisons — because these are policy areas in which different countries have taken startlingly different paths. By the way, nobody does everything either wrong or right. For example, the United States does a pretty good job on retirement but a horrible job on health care, while France does the reverse.

Obviously I have political views on these issues, and my students know that, but I try as hard as I can both to distinguish my preferences from the evidence and to give a fair hearing to other views. In particular, I like to tell the students that on the really big issues, the argument is essentially a philosophical debate about values rather than policy analysis, and that there's a legitimate conservative position that no amount of wonkery can debunk.

But right now I'm wondering how I'll manage to give my potted version of political philosophy with a straight face.

I usually teach this stuff as a dispute between John Rawls and Robert Nozick. (A note to real philosophers: Yes, I know I'm drastically oversimplifying.) Rawls wrote a famous book titled "A Theory of Justice" in which he argued for a thought experiment: Imagine yourself being asked to choose a form of society to live in before knowing which role in that society you'd end up playing. You might be heir to a huge fortune, but you might be desperately poor. What kind of society would you choose?


Rawls argued, basically, that you'd go for a big welfare state, with highly progressive taxation and a strong social safety net. And most liberals are more or less Rawlsian — less in the sense that their sense of social justice disappears, or at least gets greatly attenuated, at the water's edge: A full-on Rawlsian would surely advocate massive foreign aid.

But leave that aside. What's the conservative position? I usually invoke Nozick's book "Anarchy, State, and Utopia," which centers on the concept of freedom of choice. In the Nozickian worldview people should have the right to act as they like, so long as it doesn't hurt others, and this principle of freedom should prevail even if you might prefer that some people have more and others less.

Nozick acknowledged that there would have to be some limits to libertarianism: Individuals can't simply refuse to pay the taxes that support national defense, nor does freedom of choice include the freedom to, say, dump toxic waste into a river. But the Nozickian view does call for a government as limited as possible, certainly much smaller than the big welfare states all advanced countries currently operate.

And I can't say that Nozick's view is wrong — nor can anyone say it's right. It all depends on your values.


But here's the thing: My usual effort to offer maximum sympathy to the conservative position falls apart completely when one tries to make sense of the U.S. right's response to Covid-19. Oh, people have used the usual words — we've been hearing a lot about freedom. But their actions have been so far from any defensible notion of libertarianism that they take hypocrisy to a whole new level.

I mean, suppose you declare that people should be free to make their own choices so long as others aren't hurt. How does this apply to refusing to wear a mask or get vaccinated? In both cases the actions taken in the name of liberty very much come at others' expense; indeed, the main point of mask-wearing has always been to protect other people, not yourself. And while sheer self-preservation should be a good enough reason to get vaccinated, refusing the shots for whatever reason is also putting other peoples' lives at risk by keeping the pandemic going.

It has also been amazing to watch many conservatives do a complete 180 on the rights of business owners. We've seen repeated court cases in which conservatives insisted that employers had the right to deny employees benefits based on the owners' religious beliefs, sellers could refuse to provide service to gay couples and so on. What you do with your business, the doctrine seemed to be, was up to you.

But in the pandemic we suddenly had conservative politicians trying to prohibit stores from requiring that their customers wear masks, trying to prohibit cruise ships from requiring that passengers be vaccinated, and so on. All that rhetoric of freedom suddenly didn't apply when it came to protecting public health.


OK, I'm not naïve: I've long argued that there are very few true libertarians in American politics, that the language of freedom is largely used to defend privilege. I also understand that the anti-vaccination campaign was driven in large part by cynical political calculation: There are politicians and media figures who consider it more important that President Biden fail than that their supporters/viewers live.

But for all my cynicism, I didn't think it would get this raw.

As it happens, it's looking as if the cynical political calculation has backfired — the Delta variant surge in low-vaccination states has become too obvious to ignore — and we're now seeing a desperate scramble by various politicians and media figures to get on the right side of the issue. And my guess is that over the next few months we'll get a de facto vaccine mandate enforced, not by law, but by employers terrified of becoming Covid hot spots.

But it has been quite an education. I'll continue to teach the logic of libertarian opposition to the welfare state. But I won't pretend that it represents any significant political force.

Quick Hits

Europe has closed the vaccination gap.

Not libertarians but reactionaries.

Before Covid, there was climate change.

Mask madness goes on.

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Facing the Music

There's lots of stuff we should be doing faster.YouTube

Still hoping to be able to see live music again.

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