Ignored or buried in this global pandemic panic is the giant risk we have already taken not to the economy, as horrible as that is, but to our essential liberties. This is not theoretical anymore.
Forget the President. Since when does every governor, mayor, county executive and dog catcher in the country have unlimited powers over peoples’ lives in a time of crisis? Since never, at least if the Constitution has any relevance anymore.
But in this crisis, in which fear has driven public policy, they are all acting as though they do. And the question is whether the American people, once hearty, self-reliant and freedom-loving are now willing to bend the knee to every dictate from the local overlord or not.
Do I overstate? I hope so. But read the headlines.
One from today is that L.A.’s mayor is threatening to shut off water and electricity to businesses who are staying open after HE ordered them to close. Where does his authority come from to do that? I doubt it’s in the L.A. city charter. The City Council has not voted to make him a little despot. He’s just doing it, with the power of the police force behind him.
At a press conference, Garcetti was frustrated some businesses did not obey his order. “You know who you are. You need to stop it. This is your chance to step up and shut it down, because if you don’t, we will shut you down.”
How far away from an overlord is that? Will he cede it all back when the crisis is past? Just think of the apocalyptic language used around climate change. It gets real sobering in a hurry.
Governors are shutting down whatever they want, whenever they want, without even pretending to show their homework — almost one-upping each other even as the evidence is now coming in that the virus apparently is not nearly as deadly as we thought two weeks ago. Yet several state’s are on lock-down, based on one person’s orders. (Side note: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been very cautious about doing so, and he’s been pilloried in the media and by Democrats. But he’s been right to not jump to such autocratic control.)
Governors do not have unrestrained powers even in quarantine situations. They have the power to quarantine those who are sick, because they do need some authority. But do they have the authority to tell every person in their state to stay home — except the ones they say can go to work? When they limit gatherings to 10, or even less, do they have the authority to abrogate the First Amendment’s right of freedom of assembly?
Beyond governors, it gets much more threatening. Mayors and county executives are acting in much the same way. We see it in New York and LA. Before that in San Francisco.
In Florida, there is an interesting mix because of DeSantis’ correct reticence to issue blanket orders. Miami-Dade and Broward and many other counties have issued stay at home “orders” through their county commissions. (Florida counties are run by elected commissions with a hired chief executive.)
But interestingly, the County Attorney’s Office here in Sarasota County, Florida has ruled that County Commissioners do not have the legal authority to issue a stay at home order with any further restrictions than those already ordered by Gov. DeSantis. Perhaps being a charter county makes a difference. Or being a very red county.
This is not a case against restrictions per se, but who orders them and with what authority. Because the risk is that many of these potentates-in-training may be reluctant to give up all of that power after the crisis — or simply label the next issue a “crisis.” And an even greater risk is that we the people may not force them to.
As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
That’s a truism through the ages.
EDITORS NOTE: This Revolutionary Act column is republished with permission. © All rights reserved.