It may be necessary to surrender some of our freedom now, in the interest of saving our lives. But we must remember that governments that gain more powers in time of crisis are less likely to surrender their new powers once the crisis is over, and that a government big enough to give us everything we want is big enough to take away everything we have.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, widely considered to be one of the brightest stars among those fighting our pandemic, has made two announcements, each of which should get us thinking more about life and liberty in the time of our plague, and after, if there is an after. First, he said fourth-year medical students could begin practicing medicine now, rather than complete the final weeks of medical school and then jump through the hoops of graduation and licensing. Second, he said he said he would order the New York National Guard to seize ventilators from those parts of the state where their need is currently low and they’re not being used, and transfer them to New York City, the hottest of hotspots, where the need is obviously far greater.
We should applaud Cuomo’s first decision. It make’s obvious sense to rapidly increase the number of doctors and other health care professionals to fight the plague, given the toll being taken on our current health care heroes and the certainty that the plague will get worse before it gets better. Moreover, not only does Cuomo’s order increase the freedom of doctors to practice medicine, it increases the freedom of patients to find doctors who will treat them. Cuomo’s decision in this instance is, in every respect, wise, rational, humane, and beneficial.
But Cuomo’s decision to use the National Guard is more problematic. He argues that equipment not needed in one part of the state should be transferred to where it’s needed, that he plans to take only 20% of the available unused ventilators, and that their owners will either have their ventilators returned once the need for them has abated, or be compensated for their loss. Yet still, the seizure of property against the will of its owners is an expansion of power which, however justified it may be at the moment, nonetheless will serve as a precedent for future power grabs even if the justification for them diminishes.
In general, all governments in times of war, economic depression, and national emergency, acquire new powers in the name of the public good, arguing that these powers may diminish freedom but that they will reduce the incidence of life-taking chaos that might otherwise ensue. But no government, in times of peace and prosperity, ever fully surrenders the powers it acquires in times of crisis. The income tax, first imposed by the Republicans to help finance the federal government in the Civil War, was initially ruled unconstitutional, then added to the Constitution, and is still very much in use. Most of the New Deal programs and agencies created to fight the Great Depression are gone, but Social Security (our most expensive—and most popular—federal program) and the FDIC remain, along with general acceptance of the federal government’s role in preserving economic prosperity (the 2 trillion dollar CARES package is the direct descendant of the New Deal). The massive military-industrial complex, initially created to fight Nazism in World War 2 and Communism during the Cold War, is still with us, notwithstanding our long-ago victories in the conflicts which first justified its creation.
This is not necessarily bad. We need peace and prosperity both at home and abroad. And if our vast government programs and far-flung military establishment are necessary, then so be it. They’re here to stay. But so too are governments, especially at the federal and state level, that are becoming increasingly powerful enough to give us everything we want, and therefore powerful enough to take away everything we have. Our governments may be nice, kind, peaceful, benevolent elephants in our living rooms, but they’re still there, they won’t go away, and there’s no guarantee their benevolence will continue indefinitely.
Our current plague presents two interrelated but conceptually different threats to our way of life—the medical threat and the economic threat. Some conservative activists have said we need to balance those two threats against each other, and to begin jump-starting the economy soon, even at the greater risk of life, especially to the elderly. I disagree. To my mind, at least, the medical threat is not only the cause of the economic threat, but far more serious—The economic threat will destroy much of our wealth, but the medical threat will destroy our lives. So we should concentrate the medical threat first, flattening the curve and increasing our resources with which to fight the plage, even if that means accepting some temporary loss of our freedom.
And the loss of our freedom is not only a possibility, but a fact. Our shelter-in-place orders are a genteel partial loss of our freedom; the destruction of our businesses and the loss of jobs are a more severe loss of economic freedom, as will be the seizure of property in the name of fighting the plague. We must accept these for the time being.
But as we lock ourselves down, we should ask ourselves at least the following sets of questions: First, if it’s currently okay to waive licensing and relicensing programs, as well as government-imposed fees to enter various professions, why should they be restored once the plague abates? Why should we restore waived rules and regulations in general if and when we discover we can operate without them? And second, given the need to accept limits on our freedom now, in the time of the plague, through shelter in place, property seizures, higher taxes to deal with the plague’s medical and economic costs, etc., etc., then what powers will the federal, state, and local governments want to retain once the plague is gone, how will we determine which powers they should be allowed to retain, and how do we reclaim those we don’t want them to keep?
Given the need to shelter in place for the foreseeable future, we’ll at least have a lot of time to think this over.
And Governor Cuomo—don’t forget to return those ventilators to their rightful owners ASAP, especially when the plague hits those areas from which the ventilators were taken in the first place.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.