Liberty and the Coronavirus: Not An Either/Or Proposition

Liberty and the Coronavirus: Not An Either/Or Proposition, by Ted Carpenter from the US.

World War I not only resulted in blatant assaults on the First Amendment (including the jailing of war critics), it led to statutes and executive orders that haunt us to this day. Various administrations have trotted out the Espionage Act of 1917 to punish whistleblowers and intimidate investigative journalists. Subsequent presidents used other laws passed during the war in ways never contemplated by the legislators who enacted them. For example, in August 1971, Richard Nixon declared a national emergency under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 to impose import tariffs, close the gold window for international payments, and establish wage and price controls.

World War II produced additional abuses and alarming precedents. The most egregious was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order putting Japanese Americans in “relocation centers” (concentration camps) for the crime of being Japanese Americans. In an especially shameful ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the legality of his action, which made it an ongoing policy option. During the Korean War, President Harry Truman attempted to seize control of the nation’s steel mills as a wartime measure.

More recently, the policy responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks included the so-called Patriot Act and its legendary erosions of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as the weakening of other rights guaranteed in the Constitution. The result has been an intrusive surveillance state that no one can seem to control. …

And for the virus?

We are already witnessing edicts in other countries that amount to the regimentation of entire populations. Such measures have shuttered virtually all businesses, barred “nonessential” travel, prohibited most gatherings, imposed curfews, and established martial law in all but name. This has taken place not only in dictatorial China and North Korea, but in democratic countries such as Italy, Spain, and France. …

The raw emotions underlying the arguments in favor of comprehensive lockdowns, such as those that Newsom and Cuomo have ordered, are understandable, but the economic costs are enormous and the damage to basic civil liberties may ultimately prove great. Officials have imposed restrictions without any provisions for appeal. Worse, it does not appear that they recognize any limits to their power.

What if it’s not a one-off to which we develop long-term immunity, like the ‘flu?

There is no realistic way of running a complex, interconnected economy for an extended period of time when a country—or even major portions of it—are on lockdown. A similar problem arises if the coronavirus does not prove to be a one-time visitor, but resembles influenza outbreaks that ebb and flow each year but never entirely go away. In addition to the economic obstacles, forcibly cocooned populations will (and should) become deeply resentful if their lives are repeatedly upended by bureaucratic edicts. …

We don’t want either overcautious or egotistical public officials to be tempted to impose drastic measures in response to lesser health or other emergencies.

hat-tip Stephen Neil