What’s the Big Idea?

 | 

A young friend of mine, a scientist, tells me that he predicts a stern “accounting” when the corona affair is over. He means an accounting for the horrible damage that governments’ philanthropic response has done to the nation, a damage much worse than any disease could have done, and particularly this disease.

He was thinking of the economic damage and, I believe, of the intellectual damage involved in pretending that experts can justifiably tell 300 million people that it is vitally incumbent upon them to abandon their jobs, their property, their friends, and all their normal pursuits because of a disease that targets a small proportion of the population — the very old and very sick.

What troubles me, even more than the economic and intellectual damage, is the damage to individual liberty.

Me? I’m doubtful that this accounting will come. I know too many people — all of them, by the way, living on money that does not come from threatened businesses — who have never given the matter the least critical thought. I don’t think they ever will. When the virus goes away, they will attribute its exit to wise government policy.

But what troubles me, even more than the economic and intellectual damage, is the damage to individual liberty.

The substance of American civil liberties can be measured by the threats they have survived. They have survived — perilously survived, and after immense and wholly unwarranted suffering — these things, and more:

  • Laws forbidding African Americans from using the same restrooms or occupying the same seats in public transportation as other Americans.
  • Laws forbidding Chinese Americans from marrying Caucasian Americans.
  • Edicts shipping Japanese Americans to concentration camps.
  • Laws forbidding the teaching of German in the schools.
  • Laws compelling school children to salute the flag.
  • Laws forbidding “insults” to public officials, or to the uniform of the United States army.
  • Laws forbidding “sodomy,” meaning homosexuality.

Terrible? Yes. Absurd? Yes. Invasions of individual rights are ordinarily absurd, on the face of them. Never, though, have the rights of the majority of Americans been so fervently attacked by arbitrary impositions of administrative power as they are today.

Rights are rights. Rights are not a balancing act. That’s the significance of the word “rights.”

Today, every public official from the president to a city manager has assumed the power to order people to do or not to do anything that he decides they should or should not do, often annexing threats of fines or imprisonment for those foolish enough to resist. The populace has been forbidden to visit friends or relatives, to attend any kind of religious service, to go anywhere without a mask, to walk on the beach, to visit property other than their primary residence , to use golf carts or power lawnmowers, to play baseball, to go to a movie, to sit in a restaurant, indoors or outdoors, to use a motorboat, to sit in a bank lobby, to walk in a park, to use anything but a one-way aisle in a supermarket, to engage in any “nonessential” business, to allow children to play outside, under penalty of being added to a list of “uncooperative” persons, to make hotel reservations for the future, to sell or buy seeds, to skateboard — to do virtually everything they normally do.

Virtually all of this has been done without any shadow of legal, much less of constitutional, authority.

Look it in the face. Don’t say, as some do, that “we must balance the demands of safety against considerations of individual rights.”

No. Never. Rights are rights. Rights are not a balancing act. That’s the significance of the word “rights.” A right is a guarantee that you will be left alone. If you don’t want to have a maskless barber cut your hair, don’t go to his shop. But don’t force him to wear a mask or, as has happened all across the country, grab his business license and close him down. He has a right to his business.

Public officials cannot simply make up laws and punishments. That is the antithesis of the American system

Again, tell me: what is the legal or constitutional basis of any of this? Huh? Eh? What is it? What do people even bother to say that it is?

They don’t bother to say.

Is it true that the federal constitution and state constitutions mean what they say only in the absence of “a public health threat,” and mean nothing after that? The answer, of course, is No. Public officials cannot simply make up laws and punishments. That is the antithesis of the American system, and of any system that has the least respect for individual liberties, or for logic and evidence, for that matter.

But go back to the start: tell me, what is the legal basis for these acts of power?




Share This

Comments

Visitor

"...a disease that targets a small proportion of the population — the very old and very sick." Flatly untrue. Most of those who are _killed_ by the disease may be elder or already have health problems. But COVID-19 doesn't "target" only those that it kills. Nor are the elderly or those with other medical problems a teeny-tiny marginal percentage of the population. But I guess we'll always be hearing from the "just the flu" contingent no matter how many people get sick and no matter how many people die before this pandemic plays itself out.

Paul Thiel

Somewhere down the road, the belief that medical emergencies give government no new rightful power to impose rules and regulations on people might be a defining difference between libertarians and everyone else.

© Copyright 2020 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.