In a grudging concession to ‘the libertarians’, to whom he attributes the slow easing of the coronavirus lockdown, Ismail Lagardien reveals much about the gulf between his ideology and reality. He really ought to know better.
Last week, my wife sent me a link to an article she felt I had to read.
‘Do you worship at the shrine of Gareth Cliff?’ she demanded to know.
I would have answered, but I was on air with the Blessed and Enlightened Master Cliff, alongside Siya Sangweni and Kanthan Pillay, listening to Pillay express regret that people didn’t build shrines to him.
‘The libertarians have won a battle – but death will win the war,’ read the headline of the article. Lagardien, a political economist, writes:
‘The Democratic Alliance, and the libertarians have won a battle, in the sense that they have effected a de-escalation of the government’s war against the Covid-19 pandemic. However, their victory may result in a compulsory escalation of this war on the virus in the coming weeks and months. That is when the DA and libertarians – fellow travellers – will pivot, and blame government for the inevitable devastation. In short, government has capitulated, given in to the DA, its acolytes and those who pray at Gareth Cliff’s shrine.
‘I use libertarians as a portmanteau concept to include institutions like the Free Market Foundation, the South African Institute of Race Relations, and the functional intellectuals around Gareth Cliff, South Africa’s version of Rush Limbaugh, (here’s a sample of Limbaugh’s followers on the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown) who have created a reality that effectively places profit before people. So, they’ve won in the sense that “the economy” is starting to open (it’s “commonsensical” because nobody can contest the idea that people need to put food on the table), and parts of the lockdown have been lifted, and people may now be able to take their poodles to parlours or show off their Chihuahua’s new jersey. They have their “freedom” and “liberty” back.’
It is doubtful that libertarians have won anything. The lockdown was always intended to be a temporary measure, designed to ‘flatten the curve’ of the coronavirus pandemic to prevent public health services from being overwhelmed. It never was meant to suppress the pandemic altogether.
As it is, the lockdown has ‘de-escalated’ far more slowly than anyone expected, and while many of us called for an end to the lockdown as early as April, we still live under very substantial restrictions today, some of which appear to be entirely arbitrary. That is hardly a win.
If government was at all inclined to capitulate to the DA or anyone else, they would have lifted the absurd ban on tobacco products a long time ago.
Intended simply as a smear
Those who argued for a faster re-opening of the economy did not ‘place profit before people’. Since one must assume a passing familiarity with economics from a graduate of the London School of Economics, as Lagardien is, this must be intended simply as a smear.
He belittles the concern about ‘the economy’, as if it is somehow divorced from human action. In fact, the economy consists in its entirety of the production of the means to live, and the voluntary exchange that makes that production more efficient. Without profits, people die of hunger, exposure, and disease.
‘Obsessed as they are with “the market” and the “stock exchange” they are, at the best of times, too vacuous to warrant much reflection,’ writes Lagardien, quoting some professor.
Yet the market is nothing other than the exchanges in which people engage to furnish themselves with their needs and wants. The market is how people put food on the table.
The stock exchange might seem like a playground for the rich, far removed from the daily concerns of ordinary people, but it isn’t, really. It is a mechanism for allocating capital to various enterprises, which in turn employ people to produce the needs and wants of their customers. Deprive companies of capital, and you also deprive its employees of jobs, and its customers of goods and services.
My ability to buy a half-loaf and a carton of fresh milk for my lunch is entirely dependent on the smooth functioning of the stock exchange and the market.
Lagardien seems to know all this, since he himself says that it is a false binary to think of ‘the people or the economy’. He recognises the functions of the economy in providing people with the means to feed, house and clothe themselves.
This makes it all the more confusing that he uses that same false binary to suggest that those who seek to reopen the economy ‘place profit before people’.
There are strict non-interventionists on the libertarian fringe. Perhaps Lagardien was trying to attack those, while attributing their views to everyone to the right of Mao.
However, most people who argued for reopening the economy acknowledged the need for the initial lockdown, and sought to reopen all of the economy except those activities that cannot be safely conducted under adequate infection control protocols.
Even those who opposed the initial lockdown argued that a public-health response was necessary, and regulatory measures to control infection were reasonable. All they said was that the cost to the economy ought to be minimised.
After all, the economy is not only what puts bread on the table, but also what pays for healthcare. If we severely damage the economy, how much worse off will we be when the next – potentially far worse – disease pandemic comes around?
Legitimate to seek to achieve multiple objectives
Those who sought to reopen the economy swiftly sought to preserve as much economic activity as possible, while also acting swiftly and decisively to ‘flatten the curve’ and prepare the healthcare sector for the influx of ill patients. They recognised that there is more to life than fighting a single disease, and that it is entirely legitimate to seek to achieve multiple objectives at the same time.
Instead of locking everything down except for essential goods and services, they sought a policy that would permit everything except for those activities that cannot be safely conducted.
Lagardien ties himself in knots trying to concede that an economy is necessary to sustain the basic needs of humanity, while trying to paint those of us who expressed concern for the economy as callous, cold-hearted moneygrubbers who care nothing for the poor and the sick.
‘In a couple of months from now, we will count the bodies and show them to the libertarians’ he says snidely.
His assumption appears to be that only the virus kills people, that the lockdown is entirely benign, and that it can be sustained for as long as it is needed to suppress the pandemic.
In reality, the lockdown has caused mass unemployment and greater poverty, which in turn leads to starvation, malnutrition, and other diseases, not to mention domestic violence and public disorder. Poverty kills, just as surely as the coronavirus does.
A group of actuaries and other experts, known as Pandemics Data and Analysis (Panda), calculated that the lockdown itself could cause almost thirty times more lost life-years than the pandemic might.
It’s not a question of lives versus profits, but a question of lives versus lives. The Institute for Race Relations (IRR), one of the organisations against whom Lagardien inveighs, has been saying so all along. It also proposed realistic alternatives to a hard lockdown that would achieve the objective of slowing the spread of the pandemic while doing the least possible harm to people’s lives and livelihoods.
Lagardien tries hard to denounce everyone that doesn’t subscribe to his own panicked view that only the government can save us from a coronavirus catastrophe, and must do so at any cost. He does this by employing the guilt-by-association fallacy.
Rush Limbaugh is an arch-conservative, which is most definitely not a libertarian ideology. Limbaugh arguably is racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, a rape apologist, a drug warrior, a war hawk, a protectionist and a Trump supporter.
Despicable attempt to vilify Cliff
I can’t speak for Gareth Cliff, but I doubt he shares many of these views. I certainly wouldn’t describe him as a conservative. Calling him ‘South Africa’s Rush Limbaugh’, and for good measure linking to some bigoted anti-gay comments made by someone who stood in for Limbaugh, is a despicable attempt to vilify Cliff.
The Democratic Alliance, despite its refreshing new interim leader, is not libertarian either. It has a classical liberal faction, but its mainstream policies are more akin to social democracy. Even within its own ranks some of its policies earned it the moniker ‘ANC-lite’. That’s hardly a label one would apply to libertarians.
Elsewhere, Lagardien lumps together ‘the alt-right, libertarians, liberty lovers, surfers, rationalists or classical liberals’.
The ‘alt-right’ is a right-wing movement largely centred around white nationalism and the challenges posed to conservative values by the left, the social justice movement, and political correctness. It is neither libertarian nor liberal, and has nothing at all in common with the DA, the IRR, the Free Market Foundation, or anyone else named by Lagardien.
I don’t know much about the political allegiances of surfers, but I doubt many would identify as libertarians or classical liberals, or be able to tell you the difference between the two. For that matter, I doubt Lagardien would be able to tell you the difference, either.
Classical liberalism is a broad church which advocates democracy and free enterprise, and accepts that there is a ‘social contract’ under which government plays a legitimate role in regulating business, protecting consumers, using taxation to fund a variety of public goods and services, and providing a social safety net. Traditionally, liberals have supported unionisation and supported government measures to improve the lot of the working class, the poor, and the oppressed.
Life, liberty and property
Libertarians believe in individual rights as the sole justification for a government, and that such a government exists only to protect life, liberty and property. They would argue that everything else – including improving the living conditions of the poor – will flow from that.
There is some overlap between the two, but whereas libertarians sit somewhere between anarchism and the night-watchman state, classical liberals cover the spectrum between small-government libertarians and centrist democrats who lean towards limited government and free enterprise. Neither are in any way like the conservative alt-right.
In his attempt to smear those who sought to save the economy from the worst impacts of the lockdown, Lagardien appears mired in confusion and self-contradiction.
Certainly, arguments can be made that further restrictions might be necessary to avoid the collapse of healthcare systems, especially in provinces like the Eastern Cape, where everything the government touches seems to turn to dust. Equally, arguments can be made for greater rationality in the lockdown regulations, or that lockdowns do more harm than good.
By railing against liberals and libertarians, however, Lagardien makes none of these arguments. Beyond disreputable cheap shots, he says nothing of substance.
[Picture: Adrien Delforge on Unsplash]]
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR