COVID-19 Has Dramatically Reset the Relationship between Americans and the State

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented the West with a once in a lifetime question of how to best balance democratic society with effective public health measures. As with any other major political issue, there is a constant concern of overweighting one side of the equation. Overemphasizing COVID-19 prevention may fail to take into account greater societal risks like mental health concerns and economic degradation, while underemphasizing COVID-19 prevention may unnecessarily lead to excess infections and simultaneously greater numbers of death.

Every generation endures a life-changing event or series of events that disrupts life as it was. In the 1960s, there was the Vietnam War and the Cold War. In the early 2000’s, there was September 11th and the following Middle Eastern wars. Today, we have the COVID-19 Pandemic and the associated government lockdowns, or closures of lawful businesses. As the now infamous Dr. Anthony Fauci has said on numerous occasions, “if you want to get to pre-coronavirus, you know, that might not ever happen in the fact that the sense that the threat is there.” In other words, the cornerstones of this Pandemic like social distancing, mask wearing, and stringent government health codes might never dissipate even as the crisis wanes.

Crises present unique opportunities for elected officials and governance structures to adjust to the challenges of the day. COVID has exposed a major crack in the façade of the “Greatest Economy in the History of the World,” as President Donald J. Trump refers to it. Economic class divides; racial gaps in access to healthcare; and the urban-rural divide on access to job opportunities and healthcare have grown starker. Though these divides endured prior to COVID, this crisis uniquely exposes the degree to which action is needed in order to stop further decay in the social fabric.

This opportunity to build a better future post-COVID has been highlighted by progressives throughout the world. The American President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign slogan “Build Back Better” highlights this sentiment. Others have echoed President-elect Biden’s message. For example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said, “this pandemic has provided an opportunity for a reset. This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts to reimagine economic systems that actually address global challenges.” These calls for “bold” reforms have been called out by some conspiracy theorists who allege that the COVID crisis was manufactured for the sole purpose of rebuilding a “New World Order.” Such elaborate plans can be debunked rather easily. However, their fears of COVID being used as cover to implement an expansive progressive agenda are very real. In a sense, COVID has brought about conditions that were previously unimaginable.

As it was once said, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Both conservatives and libertarians have viewed prolonged Pandemic restrictions with skepticism. Such skepticism stems from questions about the role of government in daily life, the efficacy of these restrictions, and most importantly the legality. During the early onset of the Pandemic, there was wide agreement “that government intervention and forced closure of many businesses was necessary to protect public health.” Such top-down authoritative measures have not been implemented in recent history. 24/7 news coverage of Wuhan’s draconian lockdown and footage from Italian hospitals being flooded with COVID patients turned life upside down and sent economic anxiety to unprecedented levels. As it was once said, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Fear and mass hysteria have driven democratic societies to institute a variety of undemocratic policies. For one, crises or emergencies have a tendency to develop pathology for immediate executive action sanctifying the bypassing of democratic institutions. Many of the COVID restrictions in the United States have been through executive fiat leading to questions of where such legal authority is derived. The answer? Many governors are deriving their newly found executive authority under broadly worded emergency management statutes. Skeptics worry that these newly found emergency powers might never dissipate.

One such critic of these restrictions is Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. In a recent speech at the Federalist Society, Justice Alito said the following, “The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty. Now, notice what I am not saying or even implying, I am not diminishing the severity of the virus’s threat to public health…And I think it is an indisputable statement of fact, we have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive and prolonged as those experienced, for most of 2020.” Justice Alito’s speech was immediately critiqued as a political statement against the efficacy of these restrictions despite him stating the contrary was true. Justice Alito rightfully points out that the current crisis has “served as a sort of constitutional stress test.” Currently, it appears that constitutional norms are being violated without much recourse from courts.

Justice Alito’s speech further points to the acceleration of a long-trend of delegating policymaking from “narrow minded elected legislators, to an elite group of appointed experts.” Progressive rhetoric about listening to the experts exemplifies this accelerating trend. There is nothing wrong with elected officials consulting with experts on the most effective, democratic policy measures but unfettered expert rule is not a staple of American democracy.

This almost absolute deference to rule of the experts comes at a time when trust in our institutions is rapidly falling. Such declining trust has been exemplified since 2016 when the intelligentsia was upset in a referendum on Brexit and the election of political outsider Donald Trump. After years of failed government projects like nation building in the Middle East and a simultaneous failure to invest in building strong institutions domestically, the same expert class appears hungry for a new challenge: rebuilding a post-COVID society.

Some policy proposals that have been floated by progressive politicians and ideologically experts have been the implementation of universal healthcare, race-based equity initiatives, government regulation of the online dissemination of false information, the “cancellation” of student loan and medical debt, expanded unemployment insurance through the federal government, and the federal subsidization of heavily indebted state governments among other ideas. These proposals existed prior to COVID but the current circumstances may grant more credence to their utility in the eyes of some.

The Great Reset was an idea developed by Klaus Schwab in his book, COVID-19: The Great Reset. He wrote that we need “a ‘Great Reset’ of capitalism” and he also notes “this is our best chance to instigate stakeholder capitalism.” While this crisis may present elected officials the opportunity to rethink our former structure of governance, we must not let it become an opportunity to overthrow freedom, liberty, and proceduralism in the name of public health. Proceduralism encompasses the cornerstones of America’s government including liberalism, federalism, localism, traditionalism, prudentialism, and volunteerism.

In conclusion, COVID has presented elected officials with an opportunity to reimagine our institutions in order to recover from the current crisis. While crises may sometimes require structural change to overcome the challenge of the day, there must be certain parameters on what change is necessary and effective in a democratic society. At The National Review, Andy Smarick outlines a highly intellectual view of what’s at stake with the Great Reset: “Our procedures — designed to distribute power, protect pluralism, respect inheritance, foster civil society, and so on — weren’t dreamed up on a lark. Experience taught us that this was the path to maximizing the potential for flourishing in a diverse, continental nation with a bent for freedom and voluntary association. We should be hesitant to replace this architecture with one premised on the belief that greater health and happiness will flow from putting more power in the hands of certain people who know best.” As COVID vaccinations and medical treatments are manufactured and widely distributed, the question of how to best emerge from this crisis will come to fruition. Our best hope is that the aftershock of COVID and the associated lockdowns are seen as a lesson in the need for decentralized and democratized power.

Contributor to: FEE , The Mises Wire, and Interests: Technological Disruption, Economic Policy, and Public Policy

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