As governments around the world scramble to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority seem to be invoking some sort of emergency powers and using them to close sections of the economy and restrict free movement of people to contain the virus. There have been many times when governments invoked emergency powers, both under authoritarian regimes and under freer republics. When is this something that’s acceptable? Is COVID-19 an acceptable reason for such emergency powers?
We often make ourselves feel better about these emergency powers by putting an expiration date on them, and usually they are temporary. However, sometimes they become permanent fixtures. Following World War I, the German Weimar Republic invoked emergency powers over 200 times for various reasons, on some occasions to quell uprisings. These powers seemed to hang around for the entire existence of that regime. In the end, Hitler used them to test whatever resistance to his power remained when he became Fuhrer. In fact, nearly every authoritarian regime has seized powers through some sort of declaration of emergency.
There is inherent danger within emergency powers even when they are actually temporary. When such powers are invoked, political figures are able to see just how willingly people accept them. It makes a mark for future use. If it is seems that people readily accept such powers, they can be used more frequently or more abusively. When emergency powers were enacted to prosecute and round up suspected terrorists after 9/11 by the US government, those emergency powers found their way through various means of remaining essentially intact, either through legislation or through policy after the temporary powers had been lifted.
Systems of checks and balances are designed to limit those in power to keep them in check so that they do not encroach too much upon individual liberties. These checks and balances are essential to the preservation of freedom. If there is to be the necessary evil of government ruling over us, then systems must be put place to check that no one can gain too much power. When emergency powers shift power to concentrate it in a single individual or authority, then that imbalance can lead to disastrous consequences for liberty, as has often been the case.
It is easy to shift power to authorities, but very difficult to peal it back away. There is near permanence in some such powers. Once an authority has these powers, they don’t like to lose them. Who would?
But during the spread of a very dangerous virus that has been shown to kill, how does one convince the public to keep from spreading the infection to others if not through the use of government force? Enforcing quarantines and isolation when it is needed seems more difficult if you don’t have power over everyone to enforce it.
I would suggest that it isn’t power but information that is the key. In the case of COVID-19, the more informed the public is, the more they will follow recommended protocols. We have to quit imagining people as being incapable of protecting themselves or of understanding risks. Either we believe in individual freedom and the ability of people to decide their own needs and their own strategies for protection, as well as to exercise their own freedoms to problem solve in ways we could have never dreamed, or we assume everyone is incapable of figuring out their own lives and we must select people we think can manage it for them.
People are rational beings. Many do not always choose wisely, and a handful have disabilities that prevent them from good rational thought, but overwhelmingly, people are highly capable of finding their own methods for managing dangerous situations. Most of the time, people even figure out ways of helping others in such situations. People organize themselves to provide assistance and to help themselves without government demands. We truly can’t have it both ways. Either we believe people are rational or we believe people are incapable of managing their own lives. There is no half measure here, because if you think some people need managing and others don’t you still have rampant violations of individual freedom, as well as situations where everyone’s freedoms are at risk.
I am not equating any country’s COVID-19 response to the rise of the Nazis. I am merely pointing out that emergency powers are incredibly dangerous. There are times they aren’t given back, and it is very common for only some to be given back.
When we concentrate power, we allow loopholes to be used in ways we might never have expected in the future. If you don’t think that there are many out there in the world who are taking note of the response to current emergency powers to imagine how they might use them to win more absolutely power, you are delusional. History proves it so. Those with a taste for power over others learn their methods from watching how people are most easily swayed into giving them what they want.
The shelter in place and the stay at home orders have expiration dates on them. They have a defined timeframe as to when people can go about functioning again. However useful these measures have been in containing COVID-19, they might some day be equally useful at something more sinister. The same powers than can be used for good can also be used for evil.