It has been alarming to see how willingly Americans are sacrificing their liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are more than just willing to sacrifice it—some are literally begging for it!
I do understand that during a crisis some people are going to turn to the government for solutions. And I can also comprehend the impulse to grant the government more power than normal to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. However, we must be guided by history and human nature.
Rarely, if ever, is power that was ceded to the government temporarily ever returned or surrendered willingly. It usually has to be taken back by force, or even worse, it just becomes accepted as the “new normal.”
Here in New Jersey, there is a large religious community in my county, and unfortunately there are a number of people from that community that are resisting the state’s shelter-in-place order. Frustration with this lack of compliance is normal and completely understandable. However, calling for the governor to use the National Guard to force compliance is extremely dangerous. Yet that is exactly what is happening here. People are begging for the National Guard in online forums and in newspaper op-eds. Even some politicians are joining the chorus.
This is a precedent that, once set, is fraught with potential for abuse. I understand that “slippery slope” characterizations are sometimes deployed as a crutch for a weak argument. But when it comes to sacrificing liberty, I truly believe that in nearly all of those situations the potential to slide into authoritarianism is extremely likely.
Nationally (luckily), those types of extremes haven’t been seen. But we have seen some less extreme versions of it. President Trump has suggested that he is willing to take actions that exceed his constitutional authority. He has toyed with the idea of issuing a national order to quarantine the residents of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. He persisted with that rhetoric even after it was pointed out to him that he didn’t have the authority to issue such an order. He also used the power of his bully pulpit to demand compliance from industries to assist in the production of some items in short supply. He hasn’t gone so far as to attempt to nationalize any industry… yet. But he has threatened it and has signed the Defense Production Act in case he needs to take that step.
The President isn’t the only one acting in bad faith, though. As Representatives Justin Amash and Thomas Massie have pointed out time and again, the United States Congress has also taken potentially unconstitutional short cuts while rushing aid bills through Congress. Deals were hammered out between the White House and the leadership of the two houses, then put up for unanimous consent votes without allowing our representatives time to even read the bills, nonetheless debate them. The deliberative nature of Congress has been completely subverted. There is no debate allowed. Representatives and Senators merely have to get on board or get shouted down by the ruling elite.
The simple act of asking that a quorum be present in the House of Representatives before a vote is taken by Representative Massie brought down the ire of the President on Twitter and derision from Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress.
Politicians from the Right and the Left are always eager to expand their powers, and rarely will they be willing to cede that power back once it has been obtained. The subverting of the legislative process in this crisis may be one casualty of this pandemic that we are left with for a very long time.
In the course of pushing back against these impulses to sacrifice liberty “for now” with loved ones and friends, they will frequently justify their desires by saying, “I know, but this is different; this is life or death!” While that is true—this pandemic is killing people—the fear of an imminent threat is probably the most common excuse used in government overreach and extra-constitutional power grabs.
Look at the post-9/11 infringements by the intelligence community. The fear of global Islamic terrorism was used to justify the passage of the Patriot Act, thereby allowing the US government to intercept cell phone metadata on each and every American citizen, regardless of their threat potential.
This current pandemic is serious. Currently, the CDC is predicting that as many as 200,000 Americans will die, even if we do everything right from here on out. We all need to do all we can to help the country and mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Sacrifices must be made.
But those sacrifices do not include destroying our way of life, handing over our liberty, and inviting an authoritarian regime to rule over us with an iron fist.
Maintaining our liberty and fighting the pandemic are not mutually exclusive.
We can aggressively work to halt the spread of the virus and also do our civic duty to protect our way of life as freedom-loving Americans.
Sure, we could weld people into their homes like the Chinese government did in an attempt to stop the spread. That may be a more effective strategy than voluntary shelter-in-place orders. However is the “cure” more harmful than the disease if at the end of this pandemic we can no longer recognize our republic when we reemerge from our homes?