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Coronavirus (21): Lockdowns, Libertarians, and Liberation

[On Facebook, I posted the following introduction to this essay: This is the twenty-first installment in my discussion of the Coronavirus and its implications. It is as much a self-critique as it is a critique of other points of view; it is also an examination of the fault lines I have witnessed over the years that have torn at the soul of libertarian thinking. It started out as a piece that aired my disgust with some of the attitudes I've encountered; it ended as an appeal to human empathy.]

On February 16, 1967, NBC aired the twenty-second episode in Season 1 of "Star Trek"; it was called "Space Seed," known to Trekkies as the episode that introduced the world to the character Khan Noonien Singh, he who would come back with fury in the 1982 film, "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."

For those who aren't familiar with this episode, the Starship Enterprise intercepts the SS Botany Bay, a spacecraft with 84 humans aboard, in suspended animation. Only 72 of them survive, including Khan, all of them products of a selective breeding program that led to the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. Khan led these genetic superhumans to conquer one third of the world, until they were driven to abandon planet Earth.

Toward the beginning of the episode, when all the facts of the unfolding mystery of Botany Bay have not yet been made clear, there's an interesting exchange between Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) and the ever-logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy):

Kirk: So much for my theory. I'm still waiting to hear yours.

Spock: Even a theory requires some facts, Captain. So far, I have none.

Kirk: And that irritates you, Mr. Spock?

Spock: Irritation?

Kirk: Yeah.

Spock: I am not capable of that emotion.

Kirk: My apologies, Mr. Spock. You suspect some danger, then?

Spock: Insufficient facts always invite danger, Captain.

Kirk: Well, better get some facts.

I recently saw this episode after many years, and just shook my head, thinking of how timely that advice is in the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic.

While I'm going to do my best to deal with "some facts," I am not a Vulcan. As a human being, I am very much prone to feeling "irritation." This post is going to express a lot of irritation. But it is a cathartic exercise, one that I hope will go a long way toward healing some of the divisions I've seen among many people who call themselves "libertarians." Rather than "disown" such an emotion, I'm just going to get it off my chest. A wise psychologist once told me: "Don't keep anything in! Give the other guy the ulcer!"

Well, I don't wish any ulcers on anybody, anymore than I wish that the "naysayers" among us get coronavirus and die just to prove a point.

Since I started blogging explicitly about coronavirus (and this is the twenty-first post on that subject, beginning with a March 14, 2020 entry), I have lost count of the number of times that I have found myself irritated---or downright outraged---over the kinds of things I have heard coming out of the mouths of self-described libertarians.

In this post, I am focused primarily on libertarian responses to the virus because that is the community with which I've been associated for the bulk of my professional and intellectual life, albeit advocating a "dialectical libertarianism" that has always tried to push my colleagues and friends toward a greater understanding of the larger context within which human freedom flourishes---or dies. But this confession of my irritation with some folks is as much a therapeutic exercise that I urge everyone to embrace, no matter where you stand on the current debate. Better self-understanding goes hand-in-hand with a better understanding of those with whom you disagree. It also tends to shed more light than heat. And, Lord knows, we've had a lot of heat over these last two months.

For the record, I'll just state the obvious: As a radical libertarian (or radical liberal, in the classical sense), I am typically irritated with folks on both the socialist left and the nationalist right who have never met a crisis they would not use as a means of increasing government power in the spheres of their respective interest for "the common good." But critique must begin at home. And since I find so much discord in my libertarian home, I feel the need for even greater self-examination. I won't allow irritation with others to cloud my vision of their humanity or their very real concerns.

Pandemics as the Pretext for Advancing Statism

Nevertheless, as part of this therapeutic exercise, I wish to make explicit the very first time I began to feel a level of irritation with some of my libertarian colleagues. It came from those who first declared it a hoax or an exaggeration, being used by those in power who sought to augment the power of the state over our lives. To be generous, many of these folks come from a "good" place; they are understandably concerned with the history of corrupt entanglements that mark the state-science nexus, which has given us every instrument of mass terror and every weapon of mass destruction in the modern era. They see that with advancing government control over our society in the name of an emergency, there comes a form of militarization that starts to infect the body politic in ways that are just as insidious as the virus itself.

I am deeply aware of the importance of this issue. As I pointed out in my second Notablog entry on the coronavirus, "Disease and Dictatorship":

First, there is a need to put all this into a larger context with regard to the policies of the Chinese government [which dealt with the first outbreak of the virus in the city of Wuhan]. This is the same government that has maintained concentration camps (euphemistically described as "re-education camps") for nearly two million Muslims, while waging war on those seeking freedom from Beijing's control over the people of Hong Kong. So the "Chinese model" continues to be an authoritarian one, whether it is used to contain people or pandemics. I don't know all the answers on how to confront a pandemic, but clearly the draconian measures enacted by some of those in power will have an impact that far outlasts the containment of any disease. Most governments have referred to this as a war, but all wars have always been accompanied by a vast increase in the role of the state in ways that never quite go-back to "pre-war" levels. This isn't a call to anarchy (at least not yet...)---but it is a call to vigilance on behalf of human liberty, even in the face of a dreaded disease.

Indeed, as my friend Pete Boettke recently reminded us, it was in volume three of Law, Legislation, and Liberty that F. A. Hayek warned:

"Emergencies" have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded---and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed such emergency powers to see to it that the emergency persists.

The Problem of Confirmation Bias

But there was something about the early response to the coronavirus as a "hoax" or an "exaggeration" that was eerily familiar to me. Back in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was killing off a generation of gay men in the West (while ravaging a largely heterosexual population in Africa), some libertarians (including those influenced by Ayn Rand), ever fearful of those who proposed a growing governmental role in both medical research and in locking down bathhouses that were transmission belts for promiscuous, unsafe sex, grabbed onto the work of the molecular biologist Peter Duesberg, who played a major role in what became known as the AIDS denialism controversy. Duesberg was among those dissenting scientists who argued that there was no connection between HIV and AIDS, and that gay men were dying en masse because of recreational and pharmaceutical drug use, and then, later, by the use of AZT, an early antiviral treatment to combat those with symptoms of the disease.

If the scientific community had accepted Duesberg's theories, hundreds of thousands of people would be dead today. The blood supply would never have been secured, since HIV screening of blood donors would never have become public policy, and countless thousands of people receiving blood transfusions would have been infected by HIV and would have subsequently died from opportunistic infections. A whole array of "cocktail" drugs were developed that have targeted HIV, the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and they have been effective in keeping people alive, reducing their viral load down to undetectable levels, boosting their T-cell counts, and allowing them to go on to live normal, productive, and creative lives. Still, safe sex remains the mantra of the day.

So, while many libertarians have been at the forefront of rolling back the state's interference in people's personal lives, advocating the elimination of discriminatory anti-sodomy and marriage laws, there were some libertarians who, early on, in the AIDS epidemic, grabbed onto Duesberg's theories as scientific proof that the whole HIV/AIDS thing was a pretext for the expansion of the state-science nexus. Confirmation bias is an especially strong urge for anyone with strong convictions. All the more reason to constantly check one's premises, as Rand once urged.

My own libertarian approach has always had a dialectical hue---which means that I try not to jump to conclusions with ideological blinders, without first addressing the real conditions that exist, and placing them within a larger context. No state can wipe the canvas clean; the historical attempts to do so have left oceans of human blood in their wake.

And yet, each of us is part of the very canvas on which we wish to leave our mark. This must be recognized especially by those of us who offer a political vision for a noncoercive society free of oppression.

So I can't wipe my own canvas clean. Just as I remain a hard-core libertarian, I am also a New Yorker to my core. And I've seen up close and personal the death and destruction that this virus has caused to the people in my state and in the city of my birth, the city where I will stay until the day I die---because no terrorists, no viruses, will ever drive me away from the place I call home. It is deeply saddening to see my hometown re-discovering, yet again, what it means to be crowned "Ground Zero."

When New York first earned the "Ground Zero" distinction, back on September 11, 2001, the ideological fissures in the libertarian movement were just as apparent. Neoconservatives were leading the way, not merely to strike back at those responsible for the terrorist attacks, but to begin a "nation-building" crusade, with no regard for the cultural or historical context of the countries impacted by their wrongheaded policies. What followed was a vast expansion of the National Security State through the Patriot Act (opposed by only three Republicans in the House of Representatives), which continues to be used in ways unrelated to "Homeland Security," further eroding civil liberties in this country. An unjustified war in Iraq destabilized the entire region, leading to unintended consequences that will be with us for generations to come.

At the time, I found myself at odds with many libertarians of a more "Objectivist" bent who wanted to annihilate the Middle East with nuclear weapons, unconcerned with the side effects of, say, a nuclear winter. Times were tough for any libertarian, like myself, who argued that 9/11 was primarily a blow-back event brought about by years of brutal US intervention abroad, but who also condemned the mass murder of thousands of innocent civilians by Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in their terrorist attacks on that tragic day. I supported targeted strikes against Al Qaeda, while also arguing that the United States should get the hell out of the Middle East and the rest of the world's hot spots. I was called a "traitor" by many in Objectivist circles. It never phased these folks that Rand herself had opposed US entrance into World War II, and actively opposed US wars in Korea and Vietnam, the latter, while troops were on the ground, even counseling draftees to get good attorneys, because she was also opposed to military conscription. Unlike her progeny, she saw that there was a highly toxic, organic relationship between domestic interventionism at home and "pull-peddling" interventionism abroad.

Ironically, one of those Objectivists who favored the war in Iraq was Robert Tracinski. Today, I find myself in greater agreement with Tracinski, especially in a recent, wide-ranging essay, which dissects the arguments of those who downplay the impact of COVID-19, people like Richard Epstein, Michael Fumento, Tucker Carlson, Britt Hume, Glenn Beck, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (whom I excoriated here) and various Objectivists. Tracinski criticizes those who argue that

"there are no libertarians in a pandemic,” the idea that the coronavirus response proves how much we need Big Government. ... But there has also been an attempt to portray the pandemic as an overblown hysteria, a hoax designed to impose dictatorship on us in the form of mandatory social isolation. The unstated premise is that if the pandemic were real, it actually would make the case for Big Government, so therefore it cannot be admitted to be a genuine threat. ... The basic facts are that this virus spreads more quickly and easily than the flu and is about ten times more deadly, with a mortality rate in the neighborhood of one to two percent. ... This is not the Black Death or Ebola, diseases with mortality rates of about 50%, and I have no doubt there are eras in history when a mortality rate of 2% would barely have been noticed. But we are very fortunate not to live in one of those eras. Given our high standards of medical care and low death rates from other causes, COVID-19 produces dramatic increases in mortality to levels far above the norm. And just in terms of absolute numbers, a morality rate of one to two percent means that its unchecked spread would be likely to produce a death toll in the millions in the US alone, in the span of just a year. By comparison, a little over 400,000 Americans died in all of World War II. I don't know by what standard a potential death toll greater than that of a major war would not be considered a catastrophe. ... The point is that this is not "fake news" coming from the left-wing media. It is really happening, and people we know are trying to tell us about it.

Facing Facts

In the face of growing evidence, it does seem that the "hoax" theory has ebbed in most libertarian circles. But there are still those who hang onto the belief that this whole "pandemic" (in scare quotes) is overblown and nothing to worry about, except for those older folks with pre-existing conditions (like me, for example), who are going to die at some point anyway (aren't we all?). It's the kind of stance that leads people to view libertarians as not having a single empathetic bone in their crippled bodies.

And some of these folks have claimed further that the New York statistics in particular are being artificially "inflated" to prolong the current lockdown. I addressed that issue directly in this post, and I have yet to receive a satisfactory response to it.

While it may take years to truly understand the full story of this virus, in the end, I must begin with the evidence of my own senses. As I related in that "Reality Check" post cited above, it was on the last day of February that I sat in an Emergency Room at Mount Sinai Brooklyn, dealing with some complications from a lifelong medical condition, and could not believe the growing volume of patients being ushered in for immediate care. The EMTs, doctors, and nurses, all expressed astonishment over the number of people who were reporting upper respiratory distress. The warning signs for COVID-19 precautions were plastered all over the ER that night; it was only a preamble to all that was to come. As it turned out, this was the day before the very first reported death in New York state attributed to COVID-19. Since that date, Mount Sinai Brooklyn has been overwhelmed.

I have spoken to scores of doctors, nurses, EMTs, and first responders, and neighbors from all over the tri-state area. The horror stories I'm being told by people I trust implicitly make the statistics pale by comparison. The bodies are piling up faster than the hospital morgues or the funeral homes can handle. In the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, not far from my neighborhood, friends of mine have complained about the odor of decomposing bodies being stored in U-Haul trucks outside the Andrew Cleckley Funeral Home on Utica Avenue. The news has reported that between "30 to 60 bodies were being stored in two U-Haul trucks outside the funeral home" in "unsanitary and undignified" conditions. This is the reality in New York.

But anecdotal evidence does not take the place of raw statistics. So let's discuss those statistics, because they will sober-up even the coldest utilitarian minds among us.

Today, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New York state are at a staggering 320,000+ and rising; the number of deaths attributed to the virus nears 25,000. And, of these, New York City accounts for nearly 19,000 deaths. New York state has a death rate of 126 per 100,000 people; the city itself has a death rate of 219 per 100,000. Even if some of my libertarian colleagues wish to dismiss 20% of these casualties because they are typically listed under the category of "probable" rather than "confirmed" deaths, that still means that in excess of 20,000 people in my home state are dead from this virus in two months. We need to put this in perspective because I'm tired of hearing how accidents kill more people in a year or how influenza and pneumonia kill more people in a year, and nobody talks about it. In a typical year, like, say, 2017, 7,687 people died in accidents and 4,517 people died from the flu and pneumonia in New York state. COVID-19 has now killed more than the annual total of these two leading causes of death combined in this state in just two months. It is therefore astonishing to me how any person would indict the state's healthcare system as somehow to blame for the horrific death toll---whatever problems that are inherent in that system---especially when it has been stretched to its limits, and its doctors, nurses, and first responders have worked heroically to treat and save so many lives.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, throughout the United States, there are over 1.1 million cases, and over 67,000 deaths. But Ryan McMaken drives home a crucial point that is fully cognizant of the catastrophe that has befallen New York and New Jersey, in particular. As of April 25, 2020, New York and New Jersey accounted for more than 51 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States. All the other states combined constituted less than 48.5 percent. "The difference becomes even more stark as we move west and south. New York's death rate is now 22 times as large as Florida's and 25 times that of Alabama. Many states now report total deaths per 100,000 that are one-thirtieth the size of New York's toll. ... Were New York a foreign country, the US's total death rate from COVID-19 would be cut by 36 percent." McMaken argues persuasively that "[t]his wide variation means that other variables---like population density or subway use---were more important. Our correlation coefficient for per-capita death rates vs. the population density was 44%. That suggests New York City might have benefited from its shutdown---but blindly copying New York's policies in places with low COVID-19 death rates, such as my native Wisconsin, doesn't make sense."

McMaken asks an important question, though: "Indeed, these numbers are so high that one wonders if deaths are even being counted properly, or if there is something about New York's medical infrastructure that is especially inferior. Perhaps New York is home to a particularly virulent strain of the disease. Perhaps the disease was in circulation for far longer than the experts insist is the case. The experts don't know the answers to these questions."

Sadly, some of the comments following McMaken's essay only escalated my irritation. Some commentators were practically gleeful that NYC was experiencing such a terrible loss of life---punishment, it appears, for allowing "illegal immigrants" into our domain as a "sanctuary city."

It should be noted that the first hotspot in New York state was not even in New York City proper. It was at a synagogue in New Rochelle. Cases swiftly navigated toward "Jew York City" (yes, that's what one "libertarian" told me before I hung up on him). So let's Blame the Jews! Or blame those damn Italians who came here in droves during and after the holidays to visit their families in New York City! Or blame the gays---who were also responsible for bringing us HIV/AIDS. Or let's just blame New York City itself and its "New York Values"---you know, values such as openness, cosmopolitanism, acceptance, tolerance.

When people attack this city for its virtues, they are attacking the American dream. They speak of liberty but they'd prefer to extinguish that Torch in the Harbor. New York has taken the brunt of this crisis because it is the city that people from all over the world want to visit. It is among the greatest cultural and economic accomplishments in human history. For this New Yorker, it's the greatest city on earth.

So let's examine some more facts that might help to explain why New York has been so badly hit. As we all know, the virus was first manifested in the city of Wuhan, China (and scientists continue to debate whether this was a transmission from another species or some kind of laboratory experiment gone wrong). The CDC reports that "after Chinese authorities halted travel from Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province on January 23, followed by US restrictions on non-US travelers from China issued on January 31 (effective February 2), air passenger journeys from China decreased 86%, from 505,560 in January to 70,072 in February. However, during February, 139,305 travelers arrived from Italy and 1.74 million from" other European countries, "where the outbreak was spreading widely and rapidly." The pandemic first hit Italy at the end of January, ramping up in February. (Interestingly, northern Italy has the largest concentration of Chinese people in all of Europe, many of them involved in business travel between China and Italy.) The vast majority of travelers from Italy and other European countries came to New York City. Gotham attracts an average of 65 million tourists each year---seeded primarily through the three major airports in the metropolitan area: Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia---and of these over 13.5 million came from overseas last year alone. During the holiday season, about 800,000 tourists per day flood into Rockefeller Center. Citing the CDC study, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stated: "When you look at the number of flights that came from Europe to ... New York and New Jersey during January, February, up to the close down, 13,000 flights bringing 2.2 million people" came into the metropolitan area. From February 5 through March 16, 2020 alone, nearly 4,000 flights from Europe landed in JFK and Newark Airports, a sobering statistic, given that the vast majority of coronavirus strains were identical to the ones from Europe. And there is growing evidence that mass transit (especially the subways) became one of the chief transmission belts for the spread of the virus. The subways handle between five and six million riders per day, and given that many Latinos and African Americans work at jobs that are least likely to be resituated remotely, it is no coincidence that these communities, which depend on the subways for transit to and from their places of employment, have been disproportionately hurt by this pandemic.

But during this pandemic, as in the days following 9/11, we are seeing once again how New Yorkers are helping their neighbors in every way they know how, and as safely as they can. We are not sheep being led to the slaughter. We are a rowdy bunch. And it didn't take a political lockdown for the vast majority of New Yorkers to respond to the facts of this pandemic. The overwhelming majority of us are social distancing or self-quarantining when symptomatic because it is the most rational thing to do under the conditions that exist here. But through it all, from the growing networks of mutual aid that deliver food to those in need to those working on the healthcare frontlines, this city is showing the guts for which it is known.

Through the concerted efforts of local authorities, healthcare workers, first responders, and the people of this city, things are improving. We are no longer seeing daily deaths hovering at the level of 800 per day. Hospitalizations are down. Intubations are down. New cases are down. And we are now seeing fewer than 300 individuals dying each day. Will there be a second wave? If I had a crystal ball, I'd be able to answer that question.

Opening Up

Moving forward, one of the key principles that must guide our commitment to fully re-opening our communities is that one size does not fit all. The New York "model" is not applicable to Alaska, where only 370 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been identified and only 9 people have died. Given that there are at least vestiges of federalism still in effect in this country, and that centralized institutions at the federal level often cannot respond with as much immediacy to the situation on the ground as do localized institutions (a Hayekian insight, so-to-speak, applied to governmental entities), different localities will muddle through in different ways, with different timelines. Some regions, like the Northeast corridor, will work in concert because they are far more interconnected in such ways that the actions of one state will invariably impact on other states within that region.

Yes, everything in this world is interconnected in the wider context. If somebody had told me that a December 2019 virus in Wuhan, China would have led to 25,000 deaths in New York by May 2020, I would never have believed it. But contexts are continually evolving over time.

Paying attention to context means paying attention to changing contexts. This is not some NORAD computer playing “Tic Tac Toe” (as in the 1983 film, "WarGames"), where the context never changes and the outcome is always a stalemate. Politicians on both sides of the aisle, who have bungled this from the very beginning, understand that they cannot kill the host, the social economy, upon which their very existence depends.

As Pete Boettke argues, a genuinely realist approach must navigate between the false alternatives of "Romance" and "Cynicism"---the Scylla and Charybdis---that we typically face in all crises that have led to an augmentation of government power:

Romance lead[s] us astray by framing political leaders as saintly geniuses, whereas Cynicism leads us astray by framing the system as completely corrupt and devoid of any hope for improvement. Nothing in the Humean dictum that in designing institutions of government we should assume all men are knaves is either descriptive or hopeless. In fact, the hope in that dictum comes from ... minimizing the loss function in the design from the possibility of knaves ascending to power. It is from constructing the institutional rules of our governance such that bad men can do least harm, rather than assuming that only the best and brightest among us will rise to leadership, or that whatever system of governance we talk about it will devolve into corruption and immorality.
Realism forces us to reason through the tricky incentives that actors face in making their decisions. Realism also forces us to place the theorist in the model itself. Why do theorists choose the theories that they do, why do they make the statements that they do. The old political science "law" that where you stand is a function of where you sit, is just as true for scientists and academics as it is for Senators and Congressmen.

I fully agree with Pete that this pandemic has become a "testing ground" for our biases and ideas. The first step toward freedom is liberation from our ideological blinders. That doesn't mean a renunciation of our core values and convictions. It is an admission that human beings are

fallible yet capable creatures that when given freedom from the oppression of servitude (Crown), dogma (Altar), violence (Sword), and poverty (Plough) ... unleash their creative energies and lead to improvement in not only the material conditions of humanity but physical, spiritual and interpersonal. True radical liberalism is an emancipation doctrine, and seeks to cultivate a social system that exhibits neither discrimination nor dominion, and promises a social system that strives to minimize human suffering while maximizing the chances for human flourishing.

***

On the wall next to my desk, I have a small plaque, gifted to me by my family doctor when I was a young boy, who had emerged from life-saving surgery, after suffering for fourteen years without any diagnosis. It's an "Indian Prayer" and it says: "Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

I have seen the pain caused by this pandemic on every level, though as someone who has had 60+ surgeries in his life to combat the side effects of my own illness, I naturally share an affinity with those who become sick, for any reason. I have seen neighbors to the right of me and neighbors to the left of me who are sick, dying, or dead.

But I am not oblivious to the other pain that is being experienced by people who are not sick. They too are my neighbors. They are out of work, their unemployment checks are held up, some of them are too "proud" or ashamed to even apply for food stamps, until they realize that they can't afford to feed their own children without some help.

The human costs of this pandemic run deep, among families that are grieving over the loss of loved ones, among those whose businesses may never recover, whose jobs may never reappear, and whose dreams have been aborted. I have seen too much suffering on both sides of this divide.

But if we are to make the case for a new radicalism, each of us must be willing to engage in self-critique, to make transparent and examine our own biases. This must be coupled with a willingness to embrace the very real human need for empathy, the ability to truly share and understand the struggles of other individuals, especially those with whom we may disagree.

Without that empathy, I fear that the things that divide us may become irreparable not just to the libertarian project, but to the ideal of human freedom that we seek.

Postscript: Thank you to Rad Geek for mentioning the Jeffrey Harris study cited here.

Also my thanks to Amir Abbasov for translating this blog essay into Azerbaijanian.

Postscript (12 May 2020): A few additional points were raised by this post on the Facebook Timeline; below are some of my comments in response to reader's questions. One reader wrote that the claim by Boettke and Hayek was "over stated. If there are plenty of ordinary cases where government handling of emergencies is not intended simply to augment state power, we can’t conclude that that’s the case in large scale extraordinary emergencies." I responded:

I would say that this is why we need to study history. Once again, it's evidence that must guide us, not an ideological blueprint. When I look at large-scale events in the twentieth century like World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, for example, it's pretty clear to me that each of these augmented state power enormously in the United States, and left institutions in place that allowed for further expansions of state power when the crises were over. In fact, the War Collectivism of World War I (part of the War Industries Board, which basically put in place a corporate state of sorts, while the country was on war footing), laid the basis of the corporatism of the New Deal programs, which were further centralized by the War Production Board in World War II. And the policy of "permanent war for permanent peace" throughout the post-war, Cold War era is what ultimately led even Dwight Eisenhower (hardly a radical libertarian) to warn of the excessive influence of a vast military-industrial complex. His 1961 farewell speech is worth quoting at length, for its insight into the ways in which this complex was distorting American social life:
"Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.
"Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.
"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
Pretty good for a Republican...

I added:

My post certainly sees the current pandemic as a large-scale extraordinary emergency, and it specifically warns against viewing this through the lens of "hoax" and "conspiracy" theories, which reduce this to a power-grab by the state. It also accepts the possibility that, like any emergency, this can be used as a pretext by political and economic actors in ways that could augment state power in the long-run, something that requires our vigilance. Still, it's clear to me that Boettke does not adopt the kind of strict dualism that one finds in too many libertarian discussions of this kind. He himself makes clear that we can't be led "astray by framing political leaders as saintly geniuses," or "by framing the system as completely corrupt and devoid of any hope for improvement," and that to assume that all political actors are "knaves is either descriptive or hopeless." He explicitly rejects the assumption that "whatever system of governance we talk about ... will devolve into corruption and immorality." Yes, he would prefer an institutional order "such that bad men can do least harm"---but who wouldn't?
I think that natural catastrophes certainly fall under the category of large-scale extraordinary emergencies; I think of things like earthquakes, Hurricane Katrina, even Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the tri-state area. And I think that given the conditions that exist, it was necessary for the institutions in place to step-up actions to save populations and property. I don't think it is necessarily the case that state action under those circumstances is a power-grab. I also think that a lot can be said for the extraordinary efforts made voluntarily by individuals and through networks of mutual aid, which saved the lives of countless numbers of people.

Postscript (25 May 2020): Irfan Khawaja addresses "Puzzles of the Pandemic: 'The Nursing Home Massacre'", in which some folks have blamed NJ Governor Murphy and NY Governor Mario Cuomo for having "spiked" the deaths in their respective states by returning from various hospitals recovering COVID-19 elderly patients to the nursing homes from which they came. I responded in the comments section:

Well, if you listen to the folks at Fox News, Cuomo, Murphy, etc. purposely sent patients, who previously lived in nursing homes and were subsequently hospitalized for and designated as having recovered from COVID-19, back into the nursing homes from which they came. The Fox Folks claim that this was some diabolical plot to kill off the elderly population and/or to inflate the death tallies in NY and NJ, since many of those who were designated as “recovered” were still capable of infecting others. But yes, aside from the Fox Folks, there are legitimate questions about the wisdom of the policy of sending these patients back to the nursing homes—though it is not at all clear that the infection rate within nursing homes was strictly a result of this policy. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the spike in nursing homes was as much the result of nursing home residents coming into contact with asymptomatic infected staff.
The initial policy was adopted because the hospitals in NY were being overrun and taxed to a catastrophic degree, and when the USS Comfort arrived, and the Javits Convention Center (along with four other centers in the outer boroughs) were set up, they were opened to take in patients who were not sick from Coronavirus; they were to be places where folks facing traumatic medical problems unrelated to the virus could be cared for under “virus-free” conditions. The private and public hospital network were to shoulder the burden of the growing population of sick and dying patients from the virus, while these other places (the Comfort, Javits, etc.) would provide medical care for those not infected with the virus, but in need of urgent medical care (so-called “elective” surgeries were all postponed, but, obviously, there are many other medical problems that people face, for which they require treatment, in medical facilities that are not death traps for those with underlying pre-existing conditions).
Though the official reversal came at the beginning of May, the policy actually started to change at the beginning of April. It was at that time that the Comfort and the Javits Center were finally opened up to care for the overflow of COVID-19 patients.
But, yes, the damage was done. And I suspect that’s what Cuomo’s mea culpa is about. He’s certainly not in agreement with the Fox Folks that his policy was designed to kill people; but it was a policy that was shaped by the exponential growths in hospitalizations and intubations that were happening in late March and early April, until the state hit a plateau of 800-1000 deaths per day. Once it became clear that the healthcare network, as taxed as it was, would not collapse, and that these other facilities could take in COVID-19 patients, the practice of sending recovering nursing home patients back into nursing homes started to change. And extra precautions were put into place at the beginning of May, as Michael indicates above.
Clearly, mistakes have been made at every level of government; but it’s a huge leap to characterize something that was a tragic mistake to viewing it as a criminal act. I live in NY; I’ve lost neighbors, a cousin, friends, and even cherished local proprietors, to this horrific disease. There’s a lot of blame to go around; those most at fault, however, were the folks who denied that there was even a virus at work, that the whole thing was a hoax, and that one could just wash it away with a little detergent or by mainlining bleach.

Finally, I note that yesterday (27 May 2020), the United States officially reached a grim milestone: Over 100,000 deaths from coronavirus-related illnesses. What can one say in the face of such a horrific statistic? Stay safe. Wear masks. Practice social distancing. The motto of the day remains "Better to be six feet apart, than six feet under."