On Sunday Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a set of stringent measures to keep coronavirus in check, including travel restrictions, self-exclusion and the like. As early as today we may well see further examples of this, such as the closure of schools and even more draconian measures.
Many are asking: Are these and other measures warranted? I, of course, am not a doctor, a scientist, or an epidemiologist. Thus I am in no position to comment on the actual crisis and whether it is going to bring about the death of humanity, as some are trying to suggest, or whether the whole thing is overblown hype, with more folks dying from the flu or so forth. So it is hoped that the decisions our leaders are making are proper ones.
But I do know a bit about history, and a bit about politics. I do know that the powers of the state can expand exponentially during times of crisis. I do know that Rahm Emanuel, an advisor to President Obama, famously said that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
As such, the power of the state can expand rapidly while the freedoms of the individual can shrink dramatically. Of course in times of genuine crisis and emergency there is a place for the state to step in and act in a responsible and appropriate manner. But the trick is to discern what is a real and major crisis, what is a mild crisis, and what is just a manmade or fake crisis.
If politicians only had the best interests of its citizenry at heart we could all relax. But they seldom do. Any excuse will do to take more power while leaving individuals less free. That is certainly one of the clear lessons of history. One can simply offer any number of quotes from Ronald Reagan on these harsh realities. Here are a few:
“Either you will control your government, or government will control you.”
“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
“Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty.”
“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
To see what a very real threat this is, simply consider three overseas jurisdictions, and some pretty heavy-handed government clampdowns. In Denmark, a new coronavirus law “gives health authorities powers to force testing, treatment and quarantine with the backing of the police. The far-reaching new law will remain in force until March 2021, when it will expire under a sunset clause.”
Wow. An entire year of emergency powers. Consider what has just occurred in the UK: “Local elections and the London mayoral election have been postponed for a year to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. The government made the decision to push back the 7 May elections after the Electoral Commission said the health crisis would have an impact on campaigning and voting.”
Now isn’t that very convenient for London Mayor Sadiq Khan? Lastly, another mayor, Bill de Blasio of New York City, has just called for the “nationalization of crucial factories and industries” to help fight the Coronavirus!
Hmm, statism in action. Bear in mind however that I am not pushing anarchism here. There IS a place for the limited state. But since the tendency for it to want to unduly expand its powers and reach is always there, there is always the need for the people to be aware of this and resist it when necessary.
As the American conservative William F. Buckley Jr. once put it, “The best defence against usurpatory government is an assertive citizenry.” There may well be some good, moral and conscientious politicians who really do want what is best for us and the nation. But there are many who do not. So we must remain vigilant.
As is so often the case, we need some balance here. Statism is always a danger, and we all must be on guard against this. But certain times of emergency or crisis do require some government intervention and some deprivation of freedoms. After 9/11, for example, we put up with at least minor inconveniences: longer lines because of security checks at airports, bag checks at concerts and public events, etc.
And during a time of war, most people will also accept an enlarged government along with reduced personal liberties. Thus they will put up with various shortages and types of rationing. They will sacrifice their time and talents for the good of the nation. They will put up with plenty of inconveniences and restrictions in the interests of winning the war. And all that is fair enough.
But the trouble is too many politicians want us living in a full-time state of war with a permanent set of restrictions on individual freedoms and evermore increases in state power. Their thirst for ever more power and control becomes insatiable. That is what we must always resist.
With this in mind, a few more quotes from some recent voices need to be taken to heart.
“Individual liberty exists in inverse proportion to the size of the state. The bigger the government/state, the less liberty the individual has. The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.”
P. J. O’Rourke:
“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.”
“All too often the state is tempted into activities to which it is either ill-suited or which are beyond its capabilities.”
“Freedom is messy. In free societies, people fall through the cracks – drink too much, eat too much, buy unaffordable homes, fail to make prudent provision for health care, and much else. But the price of being relieved of all these tiresome choices by a benign paternal government is far too high. Big Government is the small option: it’s the guarantee of smaller freedom, smaller homes, smaller cars, smaller opportunities, smaller lives.”
“In politics, the great non sequitur of our time is that (1) things are not right and that (2) the government should make them right.”
Health crises need careful management. But political crises that result from them are also deserving of our close attention. So we all must proceed cautiously here. The state is ever willing to seize control of things, but is loathe to give up control. The growing, expansive state can easily cause much more harm than something like coronavirus.
Bill Muehlenberg is a Melbourne cultural commentator.
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