The insipid libertarian memes of COVID-19

What a time to be alive. The libertarian right is suddenly rediscovering their balls after years of watching the GOP’s steady entrenchment of presidential power under Trump. And their memes are here to tell you — tyranny is upon us!

Perhaps you’ve seen some of these floating around your social media newsfeed, or at least seen a version of them. You may ask, how do I know these are specifically libertarian memes? Well, like all memes, ownership is fluid — but I will say I did take them from popular posts in libertarian Facebook groups and Reddit. Even if the creators were not libertarian themselves (perhaps Russian?), the audiences sure ended up being so.

There are far too many memes to repudiate comprehensively, let alone in a Medium post, but I thought I’d grab a few recurrent ones I’ve seen. When given even a dash of scrutiny, the memes find themselves collapsing faster than Trump’s poll numbers.

The “I don’t know what quarantine means” meme

America’s school system has failed again! This meme doesn’t know what “quarantine” means, and for some reason the creator didn’t bother to Google the dictionary definition. Quarantine is not just about sick people — it’s also about exposed people. Because COVID-19 is so virulent (with an r-nought of perhaps up to 5.7, meaning it’s super spreadable) and also often asymptomatic, we 1). have to assume it’s been spread a lot more than it has been and 2). a lot of people have it and we don’t know it.

Hence the widespread measures that look like quarantines — the public health strategy assumes that a lot of people have been exposed, and it’s so many that there is no viable neighborhood by neighborhood strategy, let alone an individual by individual one.

The meme also just totally ignores modern quarantine practices: immigrants and cargo crews coming into the United States are routinely quarantined if it’s believed they may have been exposed to some kind of infectious disease; often, the threshold is as simple as “Been anywhere near Ebola lately?” Many of them are healthy. Most of all, this has been standard practice since the word “quarantine” was invented in the 14th or 15th century.

At its core, quarantine is about individual rights — the rights of millions of people not to get sick and die. The exchange is the temporary suspension of movement for others. And that’s the real problem here: it’s not just that the meme doesn’t understand quarantine, it’s that it’s arguing that the temporary interruption of daily life for some is pure tyranny. My God, what if I can’t visit the Olive Garden for unlimited breadsticks for a few months?

The “I want to bring back gilded age depressions” meme

Woof here! This meme suggests that businesses affected by COVID-19 lockdowns should be slaughtered like the sickened wild hogs they are. There are a few libertarian fetishes tickled by this meme: hunting, blood, and disproportionate punishment for personal failure. In the 21st century, the only ones who survive should be the ones who trick their fellow citizens into purchasing artificially scarce goods and services.

Of course, this meme’s underlying principles are based on an often fatal combination of myth and fantasy. The myth is that businesses are entirely responsible for their own success and not part of an interconnected economic and political system in which even good ideas do not immediately achieve success. The fantasy is that adopting Darwinian capitalism would somehow be a better world, and not revert the U.S. back into the late 19th century’s murderous cycle of booms and depressions rather than America’s current cycle of booms and recessions.

The “I don’t understand how laws work” meme

Ah yes, proof positive that we are but on the cusp of totalitarianism. Apparently, this really did happen — but the meme is still stupid. According to reports, the man was part of a group told to disperse; everyone else did, but because this guy is probably a dick, he refused to. So he was arrested.

And yet this libertarian meme makes it out as if this is 1). widespread and 2). not reasonable. First of all, we don’t have any evidence that police across the nation are arresting thousands of people for lockdown violations, and the arrests that are happening are resulting in fines, not concentration camps. It’s like the meme’s creator thinks that Hitler’s rise to power was paved with traffic tickets.

So to answer the meme’s question, yes, it’s about a virus, because law enforcement had a non-compliant individual violating a reasonable anti-pandemic order multiple times and had no choice but to end social distancing to ensure the order still had any meaning. Pretty sure tanks didn’t roll out the next day in LA.

The “I’m really bad at history” one

Here’s the problem with historical comparisons: they most often tell you how things are not repeating themselves. You can do the broad strokes things (Rome got so corrupt it fell apart, so corruption is bad), but when you get into specific policies, let alone your news of the day, you’re gonna end up looking dumb.

The idea behind this meme is that the tyranny of the British in 1776 is somehow the same as the tyranny of public health officials in 2020. But boy does that ignore a lot of history — including all the times public health officials used to quarantine our asses before vaccines were invented for pandemics like measles, polio, and the Spanish flu. Somehow that all gets ignored, in addition to the very big fact that the American Revolution wasn’t even remotely fought over Britain’s right to impose quarantines during pandemics.

Instead, this is just lazy libertarian ahistorical math: one tyranny is the same as all the others. It says something foolish and wrong, and contributes nothing to the public debate happening over how the U.S. should approach COVID-19.

That surely won’t stop more from coming, though. The best we can do is lambast them.

Not hot takes on history, culture, geopolitics, politics, and occasional ghost stories. Please love me. (See also

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