“Political liberty is to be found only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man who has power is inclined to abuse it; he goes until he finds limits.”
— Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, Book XI, Chapter 4
There is a popularly repeated regret that COVID-19 resulted in the shuttering of so many small businesses and in the loss by so many of jobs. This rumor is false. Coronavirus was not the disease that did such lasting damage to the economy of the United States; tyranny was.
Tyranny is a virus that once it develops in the body politic always spreads and infects all the members until the body is left lifeless or until the cure is deemed more traumatic that the disease itself.
After the arrival of the coronavirus, state legislators and governors across the union began issuing statutes and orders mandating that residents remain “quarantined” inside their homes and that businesses close up shop until the healthcare community could catch up to the predicted press of victims of the virus. This was the so-called “flattening of the curve.”
The curve was flattened, but the trajectory of tyranny was ever upward.
Quarantine is a word with a definition. Quarantine (curiously, a word originally describing the 40-day fast of Jesus in the desert) is: “A sanitary measure to prevent the spread of a contagious plague by isolating those believed or feared to be infected.” Only, the quarantine imposed by state and local authorities after the original outbreak of the coronavirus was not aimed at isolating the infected, but at assessing the limits of the people’s tolerance of tyranny. Sadly, the government seems not to have reached the bottom of that reservoir of obedience.
The abuses of life, liberty, and property committed by those entrusted to protect them were and are would be unbelievable were it not for the daily examples published around the world.
Nearly everyone has heard of the 28-year-old expectant mother in Australia who was arrested in front her children. Her crime? Here is the report filed by The Guardian:
Police arrested Ballarat resident Zoe Buhler after she created a “freedom day” event on Facebook encouraging people to protest against lockdowns in the regional town on Saturday.
She was arrested and charged under section 321G of the state’s Crimes Act 1958, which makes it an offence [sic] for a person to “pursue a course of conduct which will involve the commission of an offence”[sic].
The premier of the state of Victoria — the state where Ms. Buhler was arrested — announced that the police would be deployed to enforce the lockdown order. The premier — Daniel Andrews — described his plans to the press:
“There is literally no reason for you to leave your home and if you were to leave your home and not be found there, you will have a very difficult time convincing Victoria police that you have a lawful reason,” Mr Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.
He said 500 military personnel will be deployed to enforce the self-isolation orders, with fines of nearly A$5,000 (£2,700), for those breaching the rules. Repeat offenders will face a fine of up to A$20,000, he said.
Victoria’s police chief commissioner, Shane Patton, said officers had been forced to smash car windows to get some residents to comply with the restrictions.
This is the sort of autocratic regime that the emperors of Rome only dreamt of. When Caligula mused that he wish that all Romans had but one neck he knew that such a desire was beyond even his power to command.
Governors, legislators, and bureaucrats today seem intoxicated on their own ability to have their wishes treated as commands by millions of people. This is to be expected, for, as Montesquieu wrote, it is our sad experience that all men possessed of coercive authority will increase the circumference of their power until they run into some formidable resistance. Herein lies the duty of all those who love liberty: be the living limits of the tyrants’ push for power.
As of the writing of this report, some state lawmakers and governors have begun loosening the restrictions placed on businesses and individuals. Subsequently, there are many who are rejoicing in the return to “normal” activity. Even in this ebullient celebration, there is dangerous precedent.
Those who are grateful for the easing of regulations imposed as a supposed protection against the spread of the coronavirus miss the point. The point is that they should not be in a position where they depend on the “kindness” of politicians for their ability to leave their homes or open their businesses or take their children to a park or walk around without a mask on their faces or avoid their neighbors who have enlisted as “contact tracers,” tasked with identifying the infected or potentially infected. To wait for permission to pursue one’s happiness seems most un-American.
There is one governor — Kristi Noem of South Dakota — who has resisted the peer pressure to force her citizens into house arrest and, as a result, her state’s economy is likewise resisting the recession ruining the financial stability of her sister states. As reported by local media:
Initial unemployment claims in South Dakota have hit their lowest point since the effects of the pandemic first impacted the state’s economy back in March.
The state received 346 initial weekly claims for unemployment benefits last week, according to the Department of Labor’s latest job report. This is down over 200 from the previous week’s total of 585.
One wonders why other governors would not follow Noem’s policies of trusting her people to care for their own health in light of the impressive and unique economic success South Dakota is experiencing.
Perhaps the reason is that endowed with the realization of just how much power they wield, these politicians will not now part with it, particularly when they now have personal witness of the willingness of Americans to meekly submit to any autocratic decree, no matter how unscientific or unnecessary. We are approaching that situation described by Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson: “Implicit submission to any leader, or the uncontrolled exercise of any power, even when it is intended to operate for the good of mankind, may frequently end in the subversion of legal establishments.”
The legal establishments subverted by the states’ responses to COVID-19 are the most fundamental to our system of government. It is now clear to the cadre of dictators that the living barrier to tyranny formerly formed by the people’s jealous love of their liberty has now eroded and the next crisis will be a welcome opportunity to push their power further toward absolutism.
Finally, Adam Ferguson warned that after the traditional legal establishments had been destroyed by despots, a military establishment would fill the vacuum of power. The first forms of the foundation of this new order are already being built. The governor of Hawaii, for example, has called on the National Guard to help retard the spread of the virus in his state. Even President Trump has promised that the armed forces at his command will be deployed to assist with the administering of a vaccine.
“You know it’s a massive job to give this vaccine,” Trump said in an interview broadcast in May on Fox Business Network. “Our military is now being mobilized so at the end of the year, we’re going to be able to give it to a lot of people very, very rapidly.”
May we do as the Roman historian Livy suggested and “find for [ourselves] and [our] country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”
Photo: Maridav/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Joe Wolverton II, J.D., is the author of the books The Real James Madison and “What Degree of Madness?”: Madison’s Method to Make America STATES Again. His latest book — The Founders Recipe — provides selections from the 37 authors most often quoted by the Founding Generation. He hosts the popular YouTube channel “Teacher of Liberty” and the Instagram account of the same name.