During the COVID-19 Pandemic Politicians Disregarded Norms, Bypassed Constitutional Limits
Americans have become conditioned to approach different types of crises with the coercive tools of government. Nowhere has this been clearer than the onset of the global health pandemic caused by the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). Crises present a unique opportunity for institutions to take advantage of both real and moral panic. As Friedrich Hayek said, “’Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have eroded.”
Given that COVID-19 is a novel pathogen, many Americans are rightfully concerned. Hysterical “solutions” to this threat are all too common. Proponents of draconian lockdowns, or massive quarantines, were successful in pressuring most states and localities into closing businesses. The exceptions were labeled “essential business,” but who determines what is essential?
The Lockdowns and Cronyism
Of course, only the government is apt to define what is and what is not essential in this progressive era of a pandemic. Without the government who would have decided to spend trillions of taxpayer dollars on expansive programs, which in effect bailed out specific industries during this pandemic. The American taxpayer was forced to decide which businesses were held on life-support while many small businesses failed. In fairness to the government bureaucracy, the Small Business Administration (SBA) did attempt to funnel funding to small businesses; however, this effort was insufficient due to its bureaucratic nature.
At the Foundation for Economic Education, Brad Polumbo writes, “like all government interventions into the economy, the unprecedented shutdown has not affected everyone equally. The government’s response to this crisis contained clear carve-outs and favoritism for politically connected large corporations, yet imposed disproportionate negative impacts on less politically influential minority-owned small businesses.” The disproportionate impact of lockdowns on minority-owned businesses is a travesty. Unfortunately, this result comes at the hand of government officials who were largely unwilling to look for narrowly tailored solutions.
Over 40 million American workers have sought unemployment insurance since the beginning of the federally declared pandemic. As politicians feared being labeled as “murderers” most governors imposed stay-at-home restrictions. Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp faced tremendous backlash nationally for daring to give certain businesses the opportunity to reopen under strict conditions. The Atlantic went so far as declaring Kemp’s executive action as “Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice.” When economic decisions are portrayed as a choice between human sacrifice and compassion, the decision is simple. As Michael Lind so adeptly frames it, “Anyone who questions this expert consensus is practically a mass murderer.”
The moral panic surrounding the reopening of America continues as the number of positive COVID-19 cases increases. Journalistic reporting on the matter focuses more on base-level case increases and hospitalizations than accounting for increases in testing capacity and the demographics of who is contracting the virus. In turn, this deceptive reporting continues fueling a hysteria that has driven markets into negative territory.
The Markets and Political Impacts
Some tend to portray the markets and the economy as a form of opposition to the greater interest of humanity. The economy is the combined output of all individual efforts. Proponents of reopening the economy are often met with the progressive slogan, “You care more about the economy than saving lives.” The same sort of sloganeering is used against those who contend that mass lockdowns encroach on our liberties. As Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti famously said, “Bring your mask with you whenever you leave your home. That will help us get more freedoms.” In Mayor Garcetti’s vision of the world, governments grant us freedom and can just as easily revoke them.
Interventionist politicians have pushed for aggressive lockdowns on the entire population, selectively chosen businesses that will succeed, and clamped down on online speech that questions government actions. The aggressive push for lockdowns appeared to fizzle after the brutally tragic death of George Floyd. Floyd was inexplicably and tragically murdered by a police officer. Video of his death circulated throughout the Internet and led to some of the largest protests seen in recent years, all during a global health pandemic.
Like the flip of a switch, the mainstream media and progressive politicians went from criticizing those who violated social distancing “guidelines” to embracing these massive protests for social justice. Notably, a large group of progressive-minded public health academics wrote of the protests, “However, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. …This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-at-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism.”
The embrace of mass gatherings conflicted with politicians’ requirements for the rest of the population to continue to abide by social distancing given the tsunami of news encouraging less physical interaction. Politicians such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo still threatened businesses that did not abide by social distancing guidelines. How hypocritical?
Two seemingly contradictory notions: mass gatherings, or protests, for progressive causes were to be cherished while the weak enforcement of social distancing at a local bar was problematic. The bizarre contradiction is embodied by the city of Chicago’s new “social distancing ambassador” program, the newest government jobs program. Ambassadors ensure that residents know that “it’s OK to walk, run or bike. But no grilling, no swimming, no coolers, no picnics, no parking. Playgrounds, tennis courts, basketball courts, beaches and the water itself are still officially off-limits.” This hypocrisy underlies the problem with government control, especially as it has been exposed throughout this pandemic.
Allen Guelzo’s article at The Wall Street Journal entitled “A Wolf in Emergency Clothing” briefly describes the seemingly unlimited executive authority exposed during this pandemic. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, governors were perceived as “glorified greeters for visiting delegations.” Guelzo particularly emphasizes the “arbitrary and capricious” actions of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Governor Wolf issued “6,124 ‘exemptions’ to selected firms in Pennsylvania” all while issuing a “complicated and draconian order that closed all ‘non-life-sustaining businesses’ and threatened ‘enforcement actions’ for those that stayed open.” Governor Wolf, like Governor Cuomo, derided large gatherings as risking the spread of COVID-19 while simultaneously supporting the protests.
In 20 years, we will view government’s response for the tragedy that it was. From the very beginning, government officials misled the public about the protective abilities of face coverings and trampled our civil liberties. The hypocritical enforcement of vague laws will only further erode trust in our institutions. A functioning society requires shared values and a common understanding of our nation’s cherished principles. Even though this pandemic has been less severe than expected, we ought to ensure that there are appropriate safeguards in place to protect our civil liberties and to curb the “Emergency Powers” that were exposed during this crisis.