Big Government Libertarians & Biomedical Tentacles

The libertarian movement “consists of a loose network of libertarian and free-market think-tanks, national ones that include lobbying groups, who gravitate inside the Beltway, and state or regional think-tanks, who necessarily remain in the heartland in body if not alas in spirit. There are now legal organizations that allegedly pursue cases in behalf of liberty and against government tyranny”[1]. As Rothbard notes regarding issues like NAFTA, welfare and taxation, this type of libertarianism became little more than a lobbying arm for big businesses and elements of the government apparatus. Rather than a serious critique of the status quo (the size and scope of government, the capacity to exit, the lobbying power of businesses), it devolves into low tax liberalism that defends established interests. Replacing the income tax with a sales tax or flat tax does nothing to challenge the power of the state, but rather redistributes the tax burden onto a wider range of the working and middle classes. Privatisation usually empowers a cadre of individuals deeply intertwined with the state in the first place rather than introducing market forces into sclerotic bureaucracies.

Libertarians in the Policy-Making Network

What these libertarian think tanks and policy institutes are doing is contributing to and currying favour with the wider policy-making network, another element of the government apparatus that is interconnected with civil society (the third sector), local and regional councils (business councils, chambers of commerce, local ordinances, mayoralties, regional conglomerations, etc.), and national bureaucracies (quangos, civil services, departments, sub-departments, lobbying outfits, etc.). In relation to low tax liberalism, this is the development of a hegemony that ascribes “a significant role to the state”. It constructs and maintains markets, defends “property rights” (particularly intellectual property) and represses forms of dissent that cause market instability or question the validity of the status quo[2] (thus Thatcher’s famous quote of there being no alternative).

Libertarianism becomes mixed up in business interests and lobbying, providing research that provides tacit and explicit support for business friendly policies while failing to criticise the underlying framework of relations that govern these businesses in the first place. This is evident in the development of the Kochtopus (Charles & David Koch’s various lobbying efforts and foundations), which in the 70s and 80s quickly took over the US Libertarian Party[3] and moved it toward low tax liberalism. From the 90s onward, it used similar methods to fund and control various “libertarian” think tanks, as well as lobbying politicians of all stripes to promote its vision of lower taxes, less regulation and greater private property rights, all the while trampling over such rights through their company’s environmental destruction[4], use of government contracts and extensive lobbying[5]. As a result, libertarianism has become synonymous with crooks using the state to maintain stability and hegemony.

Such financial and ideological relationships between established corporations and libertarian think tanks extend beyond the Koch brothers. The Atlas Network is a meta-think tank set up by Antony Fisher (a founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs) to provide funding opportunities for free market think tanks to set up in multiple national and international contexts, seeding these ideas into policy-making networks. Funding has originated from a variety of international firms in diverse sectors (pharmaceuticals, energy, tobacco, finance) and local firms in the places these think tanks are set up. “Fisher’s entrepreneurial background and his MPS connections gave him good access to business leaders. Investor John Templeton, a number of other bankers, and General Electric were among the early donors. Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, Shell, ExxonMobil, British American Tobacco, and Philip Morris are among the Fortune 500 corporations that joined the generous donor front. Both transnational capital and local economic groups or family firms ensure a comfortable financial basis for Atlas-affiliated think tanks in every region of the world. In spite of the frequent claims to independence from state funds, Atlas members have received funding from the US State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), for example”[6].

British free market think tanks further demonstrate such relationships. The Institute of Economic Affairs has routinely engaged in pay-for-play research, where corporate donors have the ability substantially affect the structure and presentation of research they fund, which is then undisclosed and presented as independent research in media outlets. They have received funding from interested parties for pro-tax avoidance[7], pro-GMO and pro-gambling arguments, as well as providing access to ministers and civil servants in return for donations[8].

For all the talk of principle that the IEA promoted when defending their actions around corporate lobbying, there is very little that is libertarian about being deeply enmeshed in regulatory and governmental bureaucracies. While they argue they are making the libertarian case from inside the tent, the increasingly expansive powers and remits of these structures suggests that whatever affect “low tax liberalism” is having, it isn’t to meaningfully decrease the power of the state or provide alternatives to coercive power structures. Other British think tanks (including the IEA) were also involved in the Stockholm Network in the early 2000s[9]. This network was effectively a lobbying front for pharmaceutical companies that argued for strengthening IP protection (and thus coercive state control), loosening medical regulations (without specifying how medical fraud and negligence could be prevented) and speeding up approval processes.

The Cato Institute (the quintessential beltway libertarian outfit) have also been involved in these pay-for-play relations between lobbying firms and think tanks, where even without direct funding we see research that is represented as independent have connections with firms and lobbies pushing for particular outcomes, as in the immigration debate. “To be sure, Bier’s ideological leanings would place him in Kapoor’s camp regardless of whether the president of IV (Immigration Voice) was paying him for favorable research. Moreover, Cato doesn’t go to great lengths to hide its incestuous relationship with organizations like IV, as Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow at Cato, sits on IV’s advisory board. Still, Cato presents itself as providing independent policy research. Kapoor’s allegations raise concerns about the integrity, independence, and transparency of this research, which can have an outsized influence on policy debates”[10].

In a similar vein, the State Policy Network coordinates funding and organisational support for a network of think tanks across the United States[11]. Each of these think tanks produces policy recommendations into each state’s iteration of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying organisation that provides model legislation for state legislatures and brings together politicians and corporate lobbyists who organise such legislation without any public accountability. A vast array of corporations (much of the Fortune 500) participate in these legislative sessions and provide funding to associated think tanks. Here, pay-to-play evolves from policy-making to legislation.

Big Government Ideology

Ideological affinity and financial relations are not mutually exclusive here. The relations between researchers and lobbyists exists within ideological networks, where political congruence is required to be influential within them. It is not because they are paid that they believe this, but that in believing this they are paid and thus increase their influence and status. It fits the model of intra-competitive networks[12], that produce these incestuous relations between state-based power and the autonomous elements that come from and circle around it. “It gives the idea of objectivity and openness for debate, functioning as a cover for the interests behind. And on the other hand, it gives members and followers the opportunity to network on many levels”[13].

By increasing their links with corporate entities, they both increase their status while bolstering the profits of their donors, who benefit from regulatory action that reduces their financial burdens (tax rates, regulatory compliance, lobbying payoffs). To become part of these policy-making networks, a particular language must be spoken that never questions the underlying power structures beyond superficial criticisms. Central tenets of corporate power, low tax and “small state” are completely off-limits. As Rothbard noted in the NAFTA debates, when one took a position that NAFTA represented regulated trade completely in hoc to established interests (so much for creative destruction), he was criticised as too purist. Principles have their limits, and those limits are clearly seen in relations between think tanks, donors and the governing apparatus.

Through the template set by foundations and think tank networks, an ideological instantiation of libertarianism that Rothbard describes as low tax or market liberalism is constructed that is highly defensive of the neoliberal status quo (globalisation, privatisation, etc.), happy to entrench state power so long as it is directed to market stabilisation and preserving the property rights of existing corporations. It is year zero thinking that denies the extent of state power in the construction of these markets and corporations, from the infrastructure projects (roads, canals, ports, airports) and military protection (of waterways, trade routes and customs points) to the start-up investments in technologies that undergird multiple sectors including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, air travel, and logistics.

The year zero thinking of big government libertarians is evident in the way they deploy libertarian principles from the point of the status quo, rather than historically understanding the emergence of the power structures and choice architectures governance has constructed that constrain the very freedom, the freedom of exit from coercive institutions, that libertarianism strives for. As a result, everything is decontextualised and placed within ideal types. Corporations and modern competition become the apotheosis of liberty as they represent “free enterprise”, despite their creation by government mandates and legislation that libertarians would oppose. When they’re challenged, they row back their arguments, instead saying we can only extend libertarian principles in the existing strictures. Yet under the aegis of neoliberal policy, states have increased in the size and scope of their power, corporations have rigged markets through stringent lobbying for discriminate tax breaks, IP rights and tacit subsidies, and free market think tanks have stood between the two, connecting them through various network relations.

It is a motte and bailey strategy, where libertarians want to conceive existing economic arrangements as grounded in free market principles, thus claiming the successes of globalisation like poverty reduction and international trade as outcomes of their ideology. However, when it is pointed out that many of these “successes” were funded or actively constructed by national governments and coercive apparatuses, they retreat to the motte of claiming the status quo is the best we have and that we can only work within the limits it sets. They both the claim the successes but disown the negatives.

Biomedical Libertarianism

In the COVID pandemic and the government response to it, such limits of principles were evident in these various think tanks, researchers and donors’ responses to the crisis. In a situation where government power has expanded substantially and centralised solutions have been enforced coercively, big government libertarians have prevaricated and flip-flopped between scrutinising and supporting lockdowns and mandates, as well as uncritically supporting mass vaccination drives and praising pharmaceutical companies responsible for the manufacture of vaccines.

Christopher Snowdon of the IEA has demonstrated such flip-flopping from the original lockdown to the Alpha wave. During the original lockdown, in “Liberty After the Lockdown”[14], Snowdon notes that the sole justification for the first lockdown in the UK (that was extended beyond its original timeframe) was to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, with any other goals (waiting for a vaccine or for the elimination of the virus) being irrelevant. He further noted that the ambiguous nature of public health measures during the pandemic allowed the government to move the goalposts surrounding such measures, with the potential for the Coronavirus Act and other emergency measures to endure beyond viral peaks. However, from a blogpost from February 2021[15] Snowdon writes “we have multiple vaccines now. Unlike in March and November, it can no longer be argued that lockdowns merely delay the inevitable. Lockdowns do work if you have a destination”. Suddenly, lockdowns are justifiable in view of vaccines. The goalposts moved and scepticism turned into approval. And a centralised, government-led narrative was bought into.

Both pieces demonstrate the naivety of big government libertarianism and its association with concentrated power. By failing to note the lessons of Higgs or Agamben in the way crises are exploited and the state of exception becomes the norm, Snowdon makes calls for the coronavirus legislation to be repealed once its original objective has been met, all while recognising such objectives are highly ambiguous and substantially created by government policies in the first place. The inability or unwillingness to recognise the stochasticity of COVID’s viral spread as well as the unqualified adulation for vaccines suggests a substantial blind spot in Snowdon’s thinking on this issue. The baseline infection rate is not the only measure through which to understand coronavirus’s spread, with the transmission dynamics or K rate just as important to determining how COVID spreads can be prevented or limited through less coercive and unitary methods (similar to Sweden’s strategy). The pure focus on case rates itself has become farcical with widespread vaccine and natural immunity in the most recent pandemic wave.

In invoking the harm principle, there seems to be little recognition of the trade-offs lockdowns and mandates inculcate, as well as the precedent they set going forward for public health and other policy arenas. What does the harm principle actually entail in this situation? How can it be limited so as not to invoke a zero COVID approach? There is limited recognition not just of the costs of lockdown, but of the way in which state power can be controlled so as to prevent the permanent expansion of state power through public health authorities. When Snowdon discusses the sunset clauses built into the Coronavirus Act or the potential for parliamentary scrutiny, it ignores the substantial coercive power housed in unaccountable groups like SAGE and various health subcommittees that dominate the narrative around coronavirus legislation, as well as the media in stoking fears and shaping the presentation of statistics.

The Cato Institute has through various op-eds, bulletins and essays provided vociferous defences of pharmaceutical companies in their use of intellectual property for mRNA sequences in the vaccines, as well as following the line that “jabs are, after all, the fastest way out of this pandemic, and hesitancy is hindering the rollout”[16]. James Bacchus wrote a piece pushing against IP waivers for vaccine formulas, pulling out the old trope of how IP is required by pharmaceutical companies to maintain R&D investment levels and produce innovation (with this innovation never being specified). “In the new pandemic world, perhaps an even more vital factor is the creation of knowledge, which adds enormously to ‘the wealth of nations.’ Digital and other economic growth in the 21st century is increasingly ideas‐​based and knowledge intensive. Without IP rights as incentives, there would be less new knowledge and thus less innovation”[17].

This again demonstrates the year zero thinking of these libertarian think tanks, failing to look at the matter of IP from first principles and instead taking the status quo as free enterprise. It ignores the substantial government investment into these vaccines in the first place, from research to accelerated approvals. It also ignores the model of biomedical research, such as how many large pharmaceutical companies rely on smaller competitors for innovative research, either buying them out (as per the Silicon Valley model of “technological innovation”) or sublicensing their products (as Moderna have done for mRNA technologies). The lack of an evidentiary basis for a link between IP and innovation is telling in the way this piece was able to go to publication. For all its talk of emotive language in the distribution and licensing of vaccines, it itself relies on the mysticism of IP, quoting as evidence institutes that are themselves lobbyists for stronger IP rights and failing to describe the business models of biomedical companies. But of course the reason such a poor piece of work was published was because its serves the ideological agenda of Cato’s backers and funders, turning libertarianism toward a corporate ideology that receives backing from companies like Pfizer[18] and links up with business lobbyist groups like the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations and the American Benefits Council (previously joining them in plaintiff action against Obamacare provisions[19]).

Scott Lincicome, on writing about vaccine rollout policies and Operation Warp Speed[20], suggests that the effect of government funding was minimal in the success of the rollout, and that as Pfizer has become the dominant manufacturer in Western countries, the free market has been the main method for pharmaceutical companies to produce and market vaccines as Pfizer refused government funding from Operation Warp Speed and built their production infrastructure independently. What it fails to note is that both Moderna and Pfizer have been able to negotiate extremely favourable contracts that include the ability to increase the price-per-dose at a later stage, particularly with the rollout of boosters[21]. This is entirely facilitated by the taxpayer. The actual research behind the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was also bankrolled by taxpayer funds, with BioNTech itself a product of German government R&D subsidies[22]. Further, mRNA therapies are products of wider government funding, with Moderna having close links to BARDA and DARPA who provided substantial capital alongside the NIH[23]. To what extent this constitutes the power of the market versus oligopolisation and government collusion shows how facile big government libertarianism’s view is of market power.

In Charles Silver and David A. Hyman’s op-ed[24] we see the magic bullet idea of vaccines, with the nonsensical idea that those who don’t take the vaccine pay the costs of their treatments. “Initially, the consequences of the COVID epidemic were beyond anyone’s control. But now that effective vaccines are available, the calamity is of our own making. Hospitals are again overwhelmed and people, nearly all of whom are unvaccinated, are again getting sick and dying in droves. It is time to stop subsidizing bad behavior”. How that works at a wider scale, with other viruses like flu, isn’t explained. The only comparison they make is to smokers who get lung cancer, which doesn’t stack up to scrutiny as dangerous healthy behaviours could also fall under this rubric. The only way this argument would work is if the vaccines were substantively effective in preventing transmission and/or breakthrough cases.

As cases soar in many vaccinated countries, and there is no substantive relation between vaccination and case rates[25], and breakthrough infections begin to predominate amongst hospitalisations as UK HSA[26] and Irish data[27] show, this argument is untenable and effectively acts as a cover for vaccination and the companies that provide them, giving them a constant revenue stream as the most important aspect of this pandemic is the monetisation of its outcomes, rather than the provision of a range of effective treatments. Such authors could easily argue that as vaccine’s immune protection wains quickly after 8-12 weeks, boosters should also constitute such a regime of making the unvaccinated pay their own way (as well as constantly changing the definition of unvaccinated). There is no endpoint and maybe that is the point, as it becomes an easy method to both profit off of vaccines and profit off of the unvaccinated.

Robert A. Levy’s piece on vaccine mandates[28] shows further blind spots to Cato’s position on the pandemic. It makes unsubstantiated claims that if vaccine take-up had been higher, viral mutations would have been slowed down, which with waning efficacy and minimal denting to transmission rates for the Delta and Omicron variants is nonsensical. Viruses mutate no matter the vector. And in listing out alternatives to the vaccine mandate, at no point does he note that allowing the virus to spread, producing widespread natural immunity while providing protection to the vulnerable through targeted vaccination and contact tracing, as well as expanding hospital’s surge capacities and providing a wider range of remedies, may be an alternative to vaccine passports and mandates. In writing lines like “we are in the midst of a health emergency, which means that suitably modified, narrowly‐​tailored, time‐​limited rules may be justified” I question not just Levy’s libertarianism but his intelligence. Where have time-limited rules that extensively expand the scope of government-based demographic control ever been appreciably rolled back. The wider control that vaccine passports and mandates engender provide no significant control over the virus. So long as cases can spread amongst the wider population (regardless of vaccination status), there will always be the capacity for viral mutations and infections. Vaccine passes simply serve as a mechanism for coercive power and discrimination that will easily become arbitrary. The more fundamental question becomes with pieces like this, that lack evidence or a substantive argument, is what purpose do they serve? Why are they posted prominently on Cato’s commentary section?

The Adam Smith Institute, in their report “Life with Covid: Boosting Vaccines, Injecting Resilience and Protecting Liberty”[29], concede ground to public health authorities and pharmaceutical companies to reshape everyday life and define the new normal post-pandemic. By buying into the magic bullet theory of vaccines, they allow for endless boosters alongside “soft” public health measures to mould normal life. All their talk of “sufficient resilience” revolves around platforms for vaccine distribution and getting through vaccine hesitancy. There is little mention of the potential for variants to evade vaccine immunity or the potential problems of endless boosters that could come from ADE[30] or from their focus on the spike protein to exclusion of other elements of the virus. As the Omicron variant becomes dominant and escapes vaccine immunity (particularly around transmissibility), vaccine platforms provide little protection unless booster doses are almost constant, which is both logistically difficult (as well as extremely expensive) but also ignorant of the functioning of immunity in relation to infection and vaccines. As even the booster is only 75% effective against Omicron transmission, the case for vaccine platforms as resilience is minimal.

There further recommendations of speeding up vaccine approvals (while a common trope in “free market activism” for big pharma) can simply serve as a mechanism for abuse of trial data as has been common in the current drug approval process[31] and as happened with Pfizer’s vaccine trials[32]. Speeding up approval does little to reduce start up costs for pharmaceutical firms (thus maintaining oligopolisation) nor does it help the consumer, with many so-called health innovations either being caught in pre-trial research (as with many mRNA therapies) or barely getting past Phase 1 trials. In the areas of antibiotics in particular, there has been little movement in producing new treatments for decades, with the sector relying on IP rents from tweaked formulas and on government subsidies for research into antibiotic resistance (a product of such lack of innovation in the first place).

On vaccine passports, the authors show similar blind spots as they discourage government mandated vaccination but want to maintain “freedom of contract”. In other words, vaccination requirements and the denting of individual autonomy are fine so long as it is privately done. Never mind that nearly all major corporations are implementing such vaccine mandates[33] thus obviating any actual choice, as well as the fact that the encouraged testing regimes can be extremely expensive thus further encouraging mandates, so long as it preserves contractual freedom it is fine. Similarly, their support for continuing to use the types of data-gathering processes used during this pandemic suggest further acquiescence to public health authority, despite the shakiness of pandemic modelling[34] and the continual focus on case rates (which neither truly show the transmission dynamics of COVID nor allow for meaningful health interventions for sick patients). On disinformation, they talk of countering it by assuaging the concerns of those mistrustful of authority. This is the same authority libertarians tend to be distrustful of in the first place, as concentrated power breeds corruption, groupthink and unaccountability. For all the discussion of not making the temporary permanent, their recommendations allow for the permanence of this coercive infrastructure to remain. Whether it’s in a softer, more private form is irrelevant. Unaccountable authority is unaccountable authority.

Healthcare Policy & Corporate Networks

In buying into this frame of thinking, so-called opponents of vaccine passports and mandates allow the conditions for these things to fester. The growing data over vaccine efficacy drop off and the lack of substantial benefit to younger populations get ignored as the vaccine becomes the fastest, best or primary way out of the pandemic. This is why corporate libertarianism is so facile: it allows the conditions that erode liberties to continue tacitly rather than explicitly. And of course the question is why? Why are libertarians so easily compromised on their principles and so malleable to concentrated forms of power? It appears to be ideological and financial. Ideological in the sense that free market think tanks exist in wider network relations with the policy-making strata, effectively ingratiating themselves with state power and as a result being unable to question such power lest these relations end and their associated status and influence go with them.

There is a reason the media presents such think tanks as neutral arbiters and how they can consistently obfuscate their funding and how it influences their research. They exist in the same networks, the same dinner parties and lunches, the same lobbying outlets and sources as those used and frequented by media corporations (BBC, Sky, CNN, Fox), by the civil service and by legal and marketing firms. “The production of propaganda involves more than government and corporation ‘spin doctors’ and ‘PR’ agents, it also involves a variety of entities, including think tanks, NGOs, and even academia. It also involves actors from within the so-called ‘deep state’”[35]. This is why they are so malleable to the influence of corporations and the market-making power of government and policy-making bureaucracies. Such propaganda as policy has been extremely influential in the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors, encouraging the dominant paradigms of vertical integration, cost-cutting, internal marketisation, intellectual property and consumer healthcare (directly connecting the consumer to drugs and other products rather than via medical mediation).

This is reflected in pieces like this[36] by Diego Zuluaga which makes the case for reduced regulatory oversight in the drug approvals process. Zuluaga suggests that “whereas pharmaceutical development in previous decades largely focused on diseases afflicting vast numbers of people, enabling drug manufacturers to spread costs widely, many of the drugs needed today have only a limited number of potential beneficiaries, often smaller than the patient population for a particular condition” meaning that drug approval must change to reflect the increasingly niche requirements of disease profiles. However, the majority of disease within Western countries, particularly the US and UK, are related to weight, exercise and diet, with heart diseases, diabetes and immunosenescence being extremely common amongst all age groups. Even the diseases Zuluaga identifies as niche (Alzheimer’s and dementia for example) have strong links to these issues.

And while he is right to note the increased costs associated with trial requirements as contributing toward increased drug prices, this isn’t the whole picture. IP rents that maintain indefinite monopolies on particular drugs which have generic knockoffs (but which pharmaceutical companies lobby governments to prevent their importation, something “free market” think tanks have also backed) and taxpayer subsidisation of research which is increasingly funnelled into established pharmaceutical companies (as with vaccine research during the covid pandemic) also contribute substantially to these costs. Other healthcare recommendations that have come from these think tanks include greater cost-cutting and vertical integration, which have increased costs in both the NHS (through contractual complexity and price negotiations which favour the seller) and the American healthcare system[37] and reduced service coverage[38], thus increasing vulnerabilities in health systems.

Puff pieces like this demonstrate the argument I’m making, that poorly researched arguments are easily published when fitting a wider agenda of a pro-business climate. The very situation Zuluaga identifies is a demonstrable market failure i.e. increasing costs vs. patient needs, with palliative drugs filling the market instead which leads to situations like the American opioid crisis for pain and psychological relief. However, it is the approval process which is targeted as the real problem, despite the consistent scandals of drug companies illegally marketing drugs like Bexstra or Rispadale and the failures seen in antibiotic (with antibiotic resistance) and vaccine rollouts (the 1976 swine flu vaccine side effects). The idea of reducing the oversight and trial times seems at best a cosmetic fix to wider issues connecting drug supply to niche demand, with companies continually gaming the existing system.

Where approval processes have been sped up substantially, as with the COVID vaccine rollouts, we’ve seen a vaccine with strong trial data quickly lose efficacy as long-term data show rapid declines in antibody production (particularly amongst vulnerable groups) and high levels of breakthrough infection. These types of arguments provide cover for pharmaceutical companies, most of them reliant on or founded through forms of government funding or subsidy, to extort patients in extremely vulnerable situations and limit oversight of any kind. It is another example of year zero thinking where an idealised version of the market is simply transposed onto existing economic conditions.

The libertarian recommendations of greater individualisation within the provision of medicine and drugs, moving away from mass treatments and general recommendations toward a vertical, corporate structure can be seen in the development of healthcare structures throughout Western countries. The development of health consumer groups and clinical commissioning groups in the NHS or the greater variation in insurance packages within American healthcare (with mediation through HMOs) is representative of this move, from healthcare provision to health arbitration. The move toward greater contracting out by hospitals and reduction in general bed provision is also indicative of this move toward individualisation, assuming that greater “consumer” information and less need for mass health drives (for pandemics or endemic but deadly diseases like MMR or polio which have been largely driven out) inheres this system.

What has facilitated these ideological connections between big government libertarianism and the biosecurity infrastructure that COVID and vaccines have accelerated is the ideological and financial primacy of the profit motive for both think tanks and companies (and their associated lobbyists). The development through leaky vaccines, vaccine passports and booster updates of an “immunity as a service”[39] subscription protocol is fully in line with the profit motives of pharmaceutical companies and various other subsidiary economic sectors that rely on medical, personal and reputational information as their sources of income. Ruechel makes the connection between this protocol and other subscription services that have transformed so-called dead or inert capital into marketable services such as Uber, Netflix, BlackRock in the property market and agricultural companies who monopolise seed technologies and farmland. These various service platforms have been praised by the very same libertarian think tanks and researchers as innovative mechanisms for a new wave of capital investments.

Such an “innovation” through vaccine provision is simply the recognition among such corporate libertarians of the transformation of financial and capital relations in response to endemic crises related to legacy employment, wage stagnation and automation. The new currency of the market is information, and the provision of such through vaccine passports and their control through pharmaceutical protocols that extend the profit motive. The evidence was already there from the 2009 swine flu pandemic, where investigations showed a significant ramping up of the rhetoric related to how dangerous swine flu could be by pharmaceutical companies, media organisations and politicians. In marketing vaccines and other healthcare products they increased the profits for pharmaceutical companies in 2009-10 substantially (“$18 billion in additional revenues”). And in centring the response around worst-case scenarios, they also bolstered the power of public healthcare and biosecurity officials.

This ideological presupposition of profit and deregulation as the primary effort or effect of libertarian thought (rather than the extension of free exchange and new forms of political action outside the scope of coercive power) coincides with the more technocratic perspective of academic and think tank-based libertarians that ties with their funding arrangements. Such “libertarians” (or low tax liberals) are more congenial to vaccine mandates and less sceptical of public health powers. “While academic libertarians are generally supportive of vaccine mandates and other restrictions, ‘popular movement-based libertarians’ such as activists and members of Congress tend to oppose them, Zwolinski said”[40]. This is a key distinction that shows the delineations of the libertarian movement, with academic libertarianism tied with corporate funding through various industries (including pharmaceuticals with Pfizer’s links with ALEC and Cato and the wider PhRMA lobbying group). The funding relations and networks of big government libertarianism have created this distinction.

We can see this in the way lobbying organisations with deep links to libertarian think tanks, like ALEC or PhRMA, have put little focus on vaccine mandates (with many member corporations implementing them privately) and instead have focussed on opposing IP dilution around vaccines, maintaining high pricing on existing drug treatments and vaccines, limiting liability to prevent consumer action[41] and trying to maintain their public image[42] (which in the case of Pfizer is imperative as the company has a history of illegal marketing and trial data manipulation).

We can see it in the way lobbying organisations and foundations directly fund libertarian think tanks and research. PhRMA 2019 financial declaration[43] shows substantial donations to various “libertarian” groups including Americans for a Balanced Budget, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, the Center for Individual Freedom, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The latter of these groups is part of the State Policy Network, the think tank behind ALEC legislation that receives funding from the Koch brothers and is aligned with the Atlas Network, with both funding various “libertarian” think tanks with similar policy agendas. In funding individual research, the Templeton Foundation (one of a number of foundations that fund libertarian think tanks[44]) has supported Jason Brennan’s project on social entrepreneurship and business ethics[45] which links to his wider research[46] on the limits of democracy (such as its incentive problems) and technocratic solutions to governance, as in his theory of epistocracy.

The main thing to recognise within the aim of big government libertarianism is not the philosophical proposition of reducing government influence over the lives of individuals, but maintaining the hegemony of a business-led ideology and its associated policy-making. This can be conceived as attempting to preserve membership of intra-competitive networks i.e. ideologically centralised networks of power that circle influence amongst various bodies. By preserving such membership and influence, the specific contours of an ideology are not important. Rather, it is the maintenance of a general ideological power whereby, even with setbacks like coronavirus and its associated supply shock, the market (defined in the abstract) is central to the direction of policy-making.

In such a system, the state is more important and more central as it is the key through which policy-making as a fluid tool of governance is able to disengage from populist or decentralised mechanisms of power, preventing accountability and putting the actual acts of governance into the hands of the various committees and lobby groups. This is how the vaccine can become such a central aspect to how governments respond to COVID. Powerful pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer or AstraZeneca, which hold deep influence in multiple trade bodies and policy-making organisations[47], emplace their products and their ideas as central to the continuance of the business and market environments their lobbying efforts have helped foster. And in supporting the vaccine, it continues the trends toward globalisation and marketisation that Castells describes, a double movement characterised by “on the one hand, valuable segments of territories and people linked in the global networks of value making and wealth appropriation. On the other hand, everything, and everyone, which does not have value, according to what is valued in the networks, or ceases to have value, is switched off the networks, and ultimately discarded”[48]. The unvaccinated and the surplus labour populations constitute new demographics in this globalised discarding, attacked as lumpen populations that retard continuing economic development.

This isn’t a grand conspiracy, but simply the recognition of an ideological network that clearly seeks governmental power, not to dismantle it but to harness it and ingratiate within it. One of the great myths of neoliberalism is that it is a small-state ideology that seeks to subvert governments. Rather, it uses governmental power in targeted ways, divesting from public services toward looser regulatory agencies and technocratic structures. The neoliberal construction and use of markets is entirely reliant on the state, from intellectual property rights to targeted subsidies and regulatory collusion, blurring private and public. The pandemic response has been significantly representative of this, moving the decision-making to unaccountable biomedical powers and other commitological forms. Big government libertarianism is similarly enthralled with state power, aiming to co-opt and mould it, using coercion through more subtle mechanisms like nudges.

Network Politics

This also links to wider neoliberal deregulation, where we can see the affect it has had on health initiatives with the rise of the Gates Foundation alongside other billionaire donor groups as a trend toward the big government libertarian goals of private sector-led action. “It has to be emphasized that Bill Gates entered the scene during a period in which the structural context was particularly favorable. As discussed in Chapter 3, during the 1990s, neoliberal ideas had gained broad dominance, welcoming the private sector to take over previously public functions, and calling for the public sector to emulate business practices; this also applied to global health”[49]. However, this has also led to externalities from these initiatives. The development of a vertical model of treatment delivery and intervention have extended the use of vaccines in developing countries while failing to develop an autonomous healthcare structure alongside it, thus prioritising the most commercially viable route of intervention (i.e. HIV or Ebola) while wider, endemic diseases are less concentrated on.

“In practice, horizontal and vertical approaches matter both, and need to be integrated. Without functioning health systems, the prevention and treatment of specific diseases is impossible. At the very least, immunization, for example, requires a health infrastructure for the storing, distribution (‘cool chains’), and dispensing (nurses and doctors) of vaccines. But the role of external donors in these approaches differs. Assisting in the development of national health systems is more complex and therefore makes external oversight as well as outcome assessment quite complicated. Vertical initiatives, in contrast, seem to offer less opportunities for the diversion of donors’ resources, and their results, such as the number of vaccinations administered (and thus ‘lives saved’), are easier to quantify”[50]. Quantifiable results equals greater base level results while the externalities of such results (diversion of funds, concentration on more known diseases, greater donor control) are either seen as part of the results or are ignored. This ideological predisposition mirrors that of low tax liberalism in that in pushing private forms of political action (such as those related to health with the Gates Foundation), the state remains tacitly in the background, ready to subsidise costs or undergird externalities.

Billionaires thus constitute a section of a transnational capitalist class (or a vectoralist class as per Wark). While Hagel argues against this interpretation for so-called “social entrepreneurs” like Gates or Soros, he fails to adequately make the case that their economic and charitable interests substantively diverge. The nature of their charitable interventions have been to further a particular socio-economic model of aid delivery that aims to bring peoples within developing countries (whether Africa or the Eastern Bloc) into the market system of global capitalism.

Hagel believes that because Soros and Gates posit a more interventionist position regarding government involvement in the market (with both addressing market failures through their donor groups), they don’t constitute a part of a profiteering transnational class, thus taking a naïve view of neoliberalism that sees it as opposed to state involvement. The reality is that the state is a primary vector of action in neoliberalism, shaping outcomes and expectations on behalf of businesses and organisations within this globalised class structure or network. The state is fundamental to the goals of this wider network, creating policy-making spheres through which the various think tanks, lobbyists and donor groups can maintain influence and craft policy, instantiating the hegemony of a value structure premised on profit and globality (i.e. the expansion of profit as a global imperative that shouldn’t be curbed by individual government’s actions or policies except where deemed necessary by this very network). This is the same network big government libertarianism finds itself (and is funded through).

When analysing the full extent of think tanks’ funding[51], there is a lack of overt ideological differentiation in billionaire donations to think tanks, with the Gates Foundation and Soros-funded groups donating to institutes alongside the Koch and Scaife foundations showing a general trend amongst these think tanks – a shared commitment to the marketisation and interconnection of society with varied levels of government involvement. In other words, the maintenance of the status quo and the furtherance of globalised markets and technocracy into all corners of the globe.

It’s All Ideology

 “They’re in an ideological system where they’re not interested in a real debate”[52]. This sums up the very divides created within coronavirus debates, where the capacity for nuance regarding the effects and efficacy of things like lockdowns and vaccine mandates is eliminated. It is all ideology, whether viewed through the prism of safetyism or through a more liberal lens. The valuation mechanisms used to determine the costs and necessities of tackling a pandemic are never apolitical or purely technocratic, as they necessarily encompass the way individuals engage themselves in everyday life. The proliferation of corporate and neoliberal ideologies provide a cover for this supposedly evidence-based approach which eschews value in favour of hard data, all the while selecting the very data used to confirm their approaches. As stated before, the big government libertarians providing cover for pharmaceutical profiteering, sped-through trials and the accumulation of private power during the pandemic (through the prism of government in intellectual property over vaccine data and the tacit subsidisation of technologies to replace face-to-face interactions) do this not because they’re corrupted libertarians, but precisely because they wouldn’t be in the position to use their influence if they believed something else (as evidenced by the castigation of critics of these various policies and the nonsensical belief that governments like the UK have pursued populist or lockdown-sceptical positions).

It is structured so that the network relationships policy-making fosters run their way from demand to supply, from think tank-produced reports being used as evidence by politicians to their representation in the media as impartial policy advice. “Such commentary – be it published on think tanks’ own websites, on blogs, or via social, electronic and print media – continues to be something of a blind spot for critical analysts of the think tank world. In particular, the supply-demand relationships between think tanks and journalists and editors, and how both engage in symbiotic exchange, merits more analysis”[53]. These networks exist to serve their own interests and the interests of those who fund and facilitate them. “The ideas they have sold tell a story about the importance of principles of freedom and liberty and against progressivism or collectivism. However, their inner dealings with government portray a company concerned with maintaining a certain type of socialism, one exclusively kept for the rich. That means doing whatever they have to do to influence all sides of the debate”[54].

The central problem with big government libertarianism is its inability to conceive of individual autonomy as a guiding principle. Whether it be autonomy from the government or the market, neither is possible under the policy initiatives of these libertarian think tanks. Thus the reason why they so easily intertwine with the initiatives of corporations like pharmaceutical companies as well as with government initiatives that combine sovereignty with the market i.e. social credit systems and digital ID structures. Libertarianism is stripped of any axiomatic potential, and instead becomes a cover for corporate interests to avoid regulatory oversight or accountability. The Kochtopus is illustrative here, as they are glorified crooks using think tanks as an ideological veneer through which their interests (in reducing their environmental liability and developing monopoly power) are served. Rather than actually producing alternative forms of governance or really challenging sovereign power, they instead create pockets of power within the state through which they lobby and subvert, increasing the scope and power of it through the policy-making arena while decreasing any form of accountability or responsibility.


[1] https://www.lewrockwell.com/1970/01/murray-n-rothbard/heres-rothbard/

[2] Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Inventing the Future

[3] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/samuel-edward-konkin-iii-new-libertarian-manifesto

[4] https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/inside-the-koch-brothers-toxic-empire-164403/

[5] https://deepcitychronicles.com/long-read/founding-oligarch/

[6] https://globaldialogue.isa-sociology.org/the-atlas-network-littering-the-world-with-free-market-think-tanks/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jul/31/jersey-finance-paid-iea-to-trash-hotbeds-of-tax-evasion-claims

[8] https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/07/30/bp-funding-institute-of-economic-affairs-gambling/

[9] https://powerbase.info/index.php/Stockholm_Network

[10] https://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/lobbyist-alleges-cato-institute-paid-to-push-pro-immigration-studies/

[11] https://www.alecexposed.org/wiki/EXPOSED:_The_State_Policy_Network

[12] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2020/04/04/intra-competitive-networks/

[13] https://corporateeurope.org/en/power-lobbies/2016/07/thinking-allowed

[14] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3852031

[15] https://velvetgloveironfist.blogspot.com/2021/02/do-lockdowns-work.html

[16] https://iea.org.uk/mandatory-vaccine-passports-a-shove-not-a-nudge/

[17] https://www.cato.org/free-trade-bulletin/unnecessary-proposal-wto-waiver-intellectual-property-rights-covid-19-vaccines#does-novel-virus-present-novel-issues

[18] https://powerbase.info/index.php/Pfizer

[19] https://www.supremecourt.gov/search.aspx?FileName=/docketfiles/11-393.htm

[20] https://www.cato.org/commentary/correcting-record-operation-warp-speed-industrial-policy

[21] http://www.cadtm.org/Moderna-s-free-ride

[22] https://brownstone.org/articles/the-pfizer-biontech-vaccine-monopoly-the-backstory/

[23] https://unlimitedhangout.com/2021/10/investigative-reports/moderna-a-company-in-need-of-a-hail-mary/

[24] https://www.cato.org/commentary/make-unvaccinated-pay-their-own-way

[25] https://godlak.substack.com/p/covid-19-in-europe-vaccines-vs-cases

[26]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1036047/Vaccine_surveillance_report_-_week_47.pdf

[27] https://www.hpsc.ie/a-z/respiratory/coronavirus/novelcoronavirus/surveillance/weeklyreportoncovid-19deathsreportedinireland/

[28] https://www.cato.org/commentary/vaccine-mandates-liberty-minded-perspective

[29] https://www.adamsmith.org/research/life-with-covid

[30] https://www.journalofinfection.com/article/S0163-4453(21)00392-3/fulltext

[31] https://trialsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13063-017-1870-2

[32] https://www.bmj.com/content/375/bmj.n2635

[33] https://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/here-are-companies-mandating-vaccines-all-or-some-employees-n1275808

[34] https://data.spectator.co.uk/category/sage-scenarios

[35] Piers Robinson, Does the Propaganda Model Actually Theorise Propaganda?

[36] https://iea.org.uk/blog/on-drug-approval-%E2%80%93-better-safe-and-sorry

[37] https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2017.0848

[38] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1702512/

[39] https://brownstone.org/articles/your-booster-life-how-big-pharma-adopted-the-subscription-model-of-profitability/

[40] https://www.voanews.com/a/covid-19-pandemic_why-some-libertarians-support-vaccine-mandates/6209163.html

[41] https://alec.org/model-policy/drug-liability-act/

[42] https://www.ft.com/content/7ad9d74e-f4e7-4b30-9391-0b934662b6ac

[43] https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/7335117-PhRMA-990-Fiscal-Year-2019.html

[44] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/09/koch-brothers-million-dollar-donor-club/

[45] https://dailynous.com/2021/06/24/brennan-wins-2-1-million-grant-to-study-markets-social-entrepreneurship/

[46] https://gufaculty360.georgetown.edu/s/faculty-research?id=00336000014RXIUAA4

[47] https://powerbase.info/index.php/Pfizer:_Influence_/_Lobbying

[48] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society

[49] Peter Hagel, Billionaires in World Politics

[50] Peter Hagel, Billionaires in World Politics

[51] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lauriebennett/2012/02/04/billionaires-channel-millions-to-think-tanks/

[52] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/25/the-information-warriors-fighting-robot-zombie-army-of-coronavirus-sceptics

[53] https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/52710-2/

[54] https://shadowproof.com/2010/08/30/koch-industries-has-financial-stake-in-derivatives-and-pharmaceuticals-not-just-oil/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s