As the nation struggles to come to terms with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and understand its seriousness, governors and mayors across this great country have issued a series of executive orders and taken a series of actions of dubious legality that ought to be galling to any person who loves liberty and the principles this country was founded on.
My advice to every person in America, at least for now, is this: act in compliance with the orders of your local government, but don't forget. Never forget what your government has claimed the authority to do, and remember it in particular when you step into the ballot box this November or next, when your local officials are up for re-election.
In the early stages of this crisis, the executive orders issued by the nation's governors seemed both legally and constitutionally appropriate and in line with what was necessary to meet the crisis. It may have been shocking to see orders closing down large public gatherings, but at least those orders were a) tethered to a reasonable response to a potential public health crisis and b) within the scope of what the founders would have possibly envisioned as the possible limits of government power.
But as the panic associated with the crisis has deepened, so has the appalling grasp of state power. Now, Americans — Americans! — are regularly confronted by state and local police who have been allegedly empowered to arrest and charge citizens for the crime of leaving their house without a piece of paper authorizing them to do so, or for the crime of leaving their house for anything but a government-approved list of reasons for doing so.
Small business owners who have paid for their property and duly paid their extortionate taxes and licensing fees for years are being told not only that they can't have more than a certain number of customers inside their store, but that if they don't shut down their operations they might face charges, or the indignity of having their basic utilities shut off.
Fully grown adults facing government-imposed curfews that are, for now, mostly advisory but are likely to become mandatory as governors and mayors become emboldened by the crisis to exert yet more control over our lives. Americans being threatened with jail if they attend church services. And the list goes on. We are probably not far from what is happening in other countries: military-enforced curfews, drones tracking citizen movements, and even more shocking measures.
Much of what our governors and mayors currently want us to do is advisable and should be done. But there is a world of difference between our government encouraging us to take what they consider to be wise action and throwing us in jail or fining us if we don't. That distinction is the difference between a society that is free and a society that is totalitarian.
A free society features a government that encourages its citizens to eat healthy and exercise. A totalitarian one jails people for eating the wrong foods. A free society features a government that pulls out all the stops to encourage its citizens to take the extraordinary measure of not leaving their house for weeks on end during an infectious disease outbreak. A totalitarian one threatens citizens with jail if they do not, or makes them show papers every time they leave their house.
As my colleague Daniel Horowitz has already noted, now that the nation's governors and mayors have a taste of this power, they are going to feel more and more ready to use it in the future for less and less serious ostensible emergencies.
The only chance we have to put this totalitarian genie back in the bottle is to send a clear message at the ballot box that invoking these powers will result in governors and mayors being tossed out on their ear. If the invocation of these powers is truly justified, then the mayors and governors affected shouldn't even object. If it isn't, then they should be made to pay with their political careers even more.
We have one chance to keep America a free country, and it starts with your next local elections.