The problem of bullying is perhaps taken more seriously now than it ever has been before. When it comes to the wellbeing of children, we recognize the danger of allowing the big and strong to push the smaller kids around, torturing them, humiliating them, and stealing their lunch money. While there are some legitimate concerns about overprotection of children and demonizing healthy and normal horseplay, the modern aversion to bullying has been overwhelmingly a move in the right direction. Stopping the powerful from abusing the weak is a fundamental part of justice and of creating the kind of civilized society we presumably all want to live in. Why then, do Americans have such trouble applying this same logic to those grown up bullies who occupy positions of elected office?
For more than two years, the country has been subjected to a relentless barrage of bullying from politicians and bureaucrats.
People were prevented from going to work, to school, to church, or to any form of live entertainment. Businesses were prevented from operating. We were prevented from seeing loved ones in the hospital. We were forced to wear ineffective and uncomfortable face coverings. We were bullied into getting injections even when we had no desire or need for them. And when we dared to speak out against any of these insane practices, the bullies tried to silence us.
Most people went along with the campaign of coercion and intimidation, because like the victims of playground thuggery, we lacked the power to effectively resist. The average person has little to no recourse against a governor or mayor determined to inflict mental, emotional, and financial torture on them. The people needed a champion, but champions were thin on the ground.
It is understandable, therefore, that the victims of government bullying would embrace and celebrate anyone who seemed to be in their corner. Those few governors who resisted lockdowns were held up as heroes for refusing to bow to the majority, and for protecting the rights of their citizens even against the awesome might of the federal government, the CDC, Dr. Fauci, and the President of the United States. I don’t blame anyone for taking a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” mentality during lockdowns when, frankly, we needed all the help we could get.
Now that the immediate crisis has passed, however, it behooves us to be a little more clear-headed. Those of us who opposed lockdowns and a number of other authoritarian policies are in danger of supporting our own version of authoritarianism in response. Instead of taking a principled stand against the bullying of the American people, we’re in danger of replacing their bullies with our bullies. In support of this claim, I offer as Exhibit A, one governor Ron DeSantis.
In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I will be the first to admit that DeSantis was one of the most tenacious governors in resisting the avalanche of pressure from the White House to lock down his state (although other governors from North and South Dakota and a handful of other Midwestern states behaved similarly with far less fanfare). DeSantis was a standard bearer in defying the notion that people should be prisoners in their own homes or subjected to medical interventions without their consent, and for that we should all be grateful. But none of that means that Florida’s governor is a champion of personal liberty, small government, or any of the other values that libertarians hold. Over the last year, he has shown every willingness to use the power of his office to target his political opponents in a way that should ring alarm bells for anyone who opposes government bullying.
The most publicized case of this was DeSantis’s move to revoke a special exemption that effectively allowed Walt Disney World to govern itself outside of any local jurisdiction. This decision was made as a response to Disney’s political opposition to a Florida law designed to prevent schools from exposing young children to age-inappropriate material and require parents to be notified about their children’s activities while at school. There’s room for differences of opinion about the wisdom of such a law, but the last time I checked we still have the freedom of speech in this country, and that means that anyone should be able to criticize the government without fear of retribution. The implication here is that businesses had better not cross the governor or else he will come after them. In a particularly telling bit of rhetoric, one Republican lawmaker justified DeSantis’s actions by saying that Disney “betrayed” the state of Florida.
Anytime politicians start demanding loyalty, I start to get nervous.
Some have argued that revoking Disney’s permission to self-govern is simply leveling the playing field, eliminating a form of cronyism that puts smaller companies at a disadvantage. Personally, I think it’s misguided for libertarians to ever argue for more government control over a private entity, even what the alleviation of that control is unevenly applied, in the same way it would be wrong to demand that a robber target every house in a neighborhood evenly instead of trying to prevent as many robberies as possible. But more to the point, it’s pretty clear that the motivation for clamping down on Disney is to squash speech he doesn’t like, and to send a message to other businesses that dissent will not be tolerated, and that is dangerous even if the underlying policy is not inherently bad.
In this same vein DeSantis vetoed funding for a Tampa Bay training center, apparently in direct response to a tweet made by the Tampa Bay Rays calling for action to address gun violence. Asked about his decision, DeSantis said that it was “inappropriate to subsidize political activism of a private corporation.” Of course, it certainly is inappropriate for government to force taxpayers to pay for sports facilities, full stop. But here again, DeSantis appears to be targeting specific businesses over their constitutionally protected political speech, which can hardly be described as an appropriate use of power.
Finally, DeSantis filed a complaint against a Miami-area restaurant for hosting a drag-themed brunch to which some parents brought their children, citing a 1947 law concerning public decency. If the complaint succeeds, the restaurant could lose its liquor license. Of the three examples I cited, this one seems to me the most egregious. A restaurant has every right to host a drag brunch, and parents have every right to decide whether such a venue is appropriate for their children. It is, quite simply, none of the state’s business. This is an example of the moral guardians infringing on individual choices under the guise of protecting children, and it is a form of bullying pure and simple. Having attracted support from Republicans for his anti-lockdown policies, DeSantis is now trying to court conservative voters by “owning the libs” in whatever way he can, with no regard for the principles of free association or free expression.
Ron DeSantis is far from the only politician to take this approach to fighting the culture war, but as an early favorite for the 2024 presidential election, he is certainly the most prominent, which is why I’ve chosen to single him out. He appeals to those who, having felt kicked around by left-leaning administrations for years, are now relishing the sweet taste of revenge. I know that some of my readers will not see any problem with this. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, you have to fight fire with fire, and other such clichéd platitudes will readily spring to mind to support the idea that the only way to defeat an enemy is to adopt the enemy’s tactics ourselves. But that way, madness lies.
Escalating the use of government power to attack the opposition approach is a deeply dangerous strategy that is sure to backfire if carried through to its logical conclusion. Even if you don’t have a principled belief in liberty, and just want your guy to win so you can have your way, the tactics of retributive bullying will only escalate the situation so that the next time the Democrats are in control, they will return fire with even more vigor and vitriol. It’s an arms race where nobody wins, and one that is likely to destroy all of us, whatever our political views.
Instead of building up those who weaponized their power against their enemies, we should reject bullying in all its forms, and demand leaders dedicated to protecting the rights of all Americans, not just those who voted for them. Only then can we be free from the endless trading of one bully for another, and the constant fear that every election could mean certain doom.