The mask and social distancing refusers who claim to be libertarians don’t seem to understand what a libertarian is. Let’s check with John Stuart Mill, a primary authority on the topic, and one of history’s most influential moral philosophers. Mill argued strongly for the rights of the individual against authority, including against “the tyranny of the majority” in a democracy: even if most people make one choice, we must preserve the freedom of individuals who make another.
And that’s where the refusers’ knowledge of libertarianism apparently stops. To them, libertarianism seems to mean “I can do whatever I want.”
That’s not what it means.
This is what Mill actually says in his canonical text from 1859, On Liberty:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control… That principle is, that… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
If refusing to follow COVID safety measures only posed a risk to the refuser, Mill would be right there:
His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise.
But given the risk of “harm to others,” in reality there would be a whole lot of social distance between Mill and our refuser:
The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.
Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Mill’s and another libertarian leading light, stated this same argument as the “law of equal liberty” in 1851’s Social Statics, drawing on John Locke and a long line of other antecedents:
Every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty to every other man.
There’s always a temptation to use highflown language to justify lowdown behavior. But sadly no, COVID refusers, the fancy word “libertarianism” doesn’t justify plain old selfishness.