What Happened to the Land of the Free?

May 1, 2020

We live in a country where one may be arrested for opening her store or having too many friends at her house for a social gathering. Whiling away the hours under a modified house arrest, we wait for a relative handful of megalomaniacs in government to tell us when we might hope to return to normal life.

Strangely, the American people seem to have swallowed this new reality whole—no questioning, no scrutiny, but complete, embarrassing credulousness at the claims of politicians, bureaucrats, and pundits frantically waving around little more than shoddy, dubious models and barely hiding a lust for tyrannizing innocent people.

This suggests that Americans, thought to be freedom-loving people, will now believe almost anything, conditioned to be fearful and obedient. Even those who had long since abandoned belief in this myth of America as the Land of the Free might have expected at least some resistance in the face of such open attacks on basic freedoms.

The St. Louis Fed estimates that the economic losses associated with the lockdown orders amount to $25 billion every day, a staggering figure given that in places like Chicago, for example, the lockdown order has been extended through at least the end of May. The severity of these policies was supposed to be justified by the necessity of preserving hospital capacity, spreading out the volume of cases over time and thus preventing a tidal wave that would overwhelm the medical system, resulting in further loss of life.

As a matter of fact, however, hospitals are now so empty of patients that their healthcare professionals and other staff have been sent home by the tens of thousands. In a recent survey conducted by Merritt Hawkins, a company that recruits physicians, more than one in five of the responding doctors “said they’ve experienced pay cuts or have been furloughed as a result of the crisis.”

Pay cuts, furloughs, and layoffs have reached even the urban centers hardest hit by coronavirus, leaving us to wonder what all of this is for, though know what they say about best-laid plans. Could not our betters in government offices foresee that arbitrarily decreeing the shutdown of all civil society would result in tens of thousands of lost medical jobs? If they did, is this the course they would choose during what they themselves call the worst medical crisis in generations?

Here in Illinois, one state representative, Darren Bailey, dared to challenge Governor Pritzker’s imperious lockdown order, arguing in a lawsuit that the extension of that order exceeded Pritzker’s legal authority. To his eternal credit, Judge Michael McHaney found the extended lockdown order unlawful, issuing a restraining order that blocks enforcement of the order against Bailey.

Addressing lawyers for the governor’s office, Judge McHaney said, “Every second this Executive Order is in existence, it violates the Constitution and shreds the Bill of Rights.”

Utterly without shame or self-awareness, Pritzker suggested that Bailey is playing politics with a crisis, “devoted to ideology and the pursuit of personal celebrity.” Pritzker seems not to realize that it is he who is blinded by ideology, a totalizing authoritarian ideology that can imagine only top-down, command-and-control solutions to problems. Bailey is merely asking to be treated like a co-equal adult with rights that governments can’t just take away absent due process.

William Graham Sumner eloquently exposed the problems with supposing that every social or economic question is susceptible to solution through the “inelastic and arbitrary” means of legislation or regulation. He saw the “mania for interference” as revealing “the prevailing ignorance of what a society is and what methods of dealing with it are rational.” Faced with a particularly complex, vexatious social question, Sumner teaches, “the last thing to do is to legislate about it,” “for it is not possible to experiment with a society and just drop the experiment whenever we choose. The experiment enters into the life of the society, and never can be got out again.”

Wise and benevolent though they may regard themselves, politicians and bureaucrats cannot see where the course on which they have now set us leads. Any student of history knows that horrors have sprung from policies far less extreme and authoritarian than the lockdowns that plague millions of Americans today.

Those who favor a free and open society recognized early on that an appropriate, measured response to the virus was always out of the question, that governments would jump at the chance to use the bluntest instruments, the lack of reliable information notwithstanding.

Politicians after all aren’t the most scientifically or statistically literate lot, and Americans seem to deify them just in accordance with their willingness to abuse their power—and arrogate ever more of it to themselves. Like Sumner, we ought to look skeptically at “the manipulation of social doctors,” whose remedies are too often worse than the diseases they purport to treat.