Last week, as he began his administration, President Biden vowed to wage a “full-scale wartime effort” against Covid-19, signing several executive orders, including a new interstate travel mask mandate. That Joe Biden desires to be and sees himself as a wartime president offers hints as to his attitudes about the power of the presidency and government power more generally.
Today’s “liberals” aren’t very liberal at all; they see actual liberal principles like due process and respect for the dignity and autonomy of the individual as having been rendered obsolete by faith in science—tendentiously defined—and expertise. Those old liberal principles would just get in the way of the plans of the powerful who sit in the topmost quarters of the state-corporate nexus. And there’s nothing secret or conspiratorial about this; it plays out in the open, for all to see.
We must ask what a “full-scale wartime effort” might look like as a practical matter; here, history may offer some lessons. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln infamously and unilaterally suspended habeas corpus and effectively substituted an arbitrary, dictatorial military government for a constitutional government—even threatening the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court with arrest for opposing Lincoln’s usurpations of both congressional and judicial powers.
World War I witnessed the passage of the Sedition Act of 1918, among American history’s most shameless and egregious assaults on the freedom of speech, under which many opponents of the war were imprisoned for no more than sharing their sincerely-held opinions.
During World War II, the United States government forced over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were American citizens, into concentration camps. This heinous and racist violation of the most fundamental individual rights was accomplished outside the democratic process, by an order from the desk of President Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s successor distinguished himself by unleashing the terror of two atomic bombs, overseeing the establishment of the CIA, and attempting to seize private property during the Korean War. The mere invocation of wartime, it seems, suffices to immediately supplant the constitutional separation of powers, due process, and individual rights.
The aftermath of the September 11th attacks gave us an almost cartoonishly evil series of lies, civil liberties abuses, and foreign policy crimes completely beyond the reaches of the democratic process—indeed, our elected officials were lied to and spied on with total impunity. American citizens were extrajudicially murdered, the U.S. government maintained programs of torture and indefinite detention, and secret courts allowed extremely opaque national security agencies to spy on citizens. All of this was barely news, the national security and intelligence community being insulated from scrutiny by a media establishment that prefers to host the very worst actors in the above-listed episodes as vaunted guests.
Such policy abominations reflect our leaders’ philosophy of government, under which the individual is a mere subject, her rights entirely dependent on the arbitrary vagaries of a small power elite. This philosophy may be only tacit, learned and absorbed so thoroughly as to make it invisible to the one who holds it and acts on it. America’s political leaders (in both parties, I hasten to add) want to cultivate and create policy in an environment of permanent war and emergency, with citizens in a posture of fear and meek acceptance of “temporary” powers.
The pretext employed to effect such a fear-dominated environment isn’t important to politicians and bureaucrats. It could be the threat of global communism, or Islamic terrorists, or white supremacists, or a novel virus; as long as citizens can be cowed and controlled, the stated reason is only incidentally important. The idea of crisis is what’s ultimately important. This is hardly to argue that the threats to which politicians gesture are imagined or made up out of whole cloth—it is only to say that they are exaggerated and exploited cynically by people with their own designs.
As economic historian Robert Higgs argues, “Without popular fear, no government could endure more than twenty-four hours.” Higgs has long studied the politics of fear and the accretion of new government powers through what he has labeled “the ratchet effect:” these new powers, introduced as temporary and contingent, never actually go away when a crisis recedes, hence the continued ratcheting of state power.
In their book The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister build on Higgs’s work, arguing “that the greatest problem in politics is what we call the Crisis Crisis—the never-ending series of crises, real or imagined, that are hyped by the media and lead to cures too often worse than the disease.”
A wartime president is exactly what we don’t need. We know how that story ends—dissent is branded “sedition” and forbidden, the enemies of tyranny are called “terrorists” and imprisoned indefinitely without due process, citizens are spied on and encouraged to inform against their neighbors, torture and other crimes against humanity become acceptable means, innocent people die needlessly.
Americans need a peacetime president, one who will promote public policies that respect individuals, their freely-made choices, and their property rights, allowing them to run their own lives in peace.