Government in the United States is taking measures at the federal, state, and local levels to reduce the spread of coronavirus as well as to negate its effects. But are officials forgetting that our government’s primary role is to protect the liberties of its citizens, and not just the citizens themselves?
After law enforcement put a stop to a “corona party,” New Jersey’s governor tweeted: “We will crash your party. You will pay a big fine. And we will name & shame you until everyone gets this message into their heads.”
City officials in Laredo, Texas ordered all residents to cover their faces with a mask or fabric when entering buildings that are not their homes, which is arguably an improvement from the order’s original mandate, which required faces to be covered whenever anyone went outside.
Some citizens voiced their concerns over the mandate, which includes a $1,000 fine if not followed. A Laredo city councilman countered these worries by stating “I’d rather bury them in debt than bury them in a coffin.”
Admittedly, COVID-19 has produced an unfamiliar scenario for the United States, and those in authority are faced with the challenge of helping stem the spread of the virus while also addressing the economic impact it is having on American citizens.
But principles hold true, regardless of circumstance. And there is no escaping the fact that the doctrines behind the founding of the American government entailed the securing of individual rights, along with the presumption that a government derives its powers from the consent of the governed—not the other way around.
And government overreach—even during a pandemic—infringes upon these principles.
This is not to say that people themselves should not practice personal responsibility. On the contrary, those who promote the rights and sovereignty of the individual should also advocate for sensible and ethical behavior on the part of each person.
The belief that the individual is a significant entity necessitates an accompanying belief that the actions of the individual are extremely important. And as a nation populated by free individuals, our actions can and do affect one another. John Locke, a philosopher known for his belief in natural rights, wrote: “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
Eventually—as with other plagues of the past—COVID-19 will likely finish its course as a broad public threat. But while the sudden outbreak of a virus may ultimately be followed by its wane, the rapid onset of government policies does not fade away quite so naturally. As George Orwell famously wrote in 1984, “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”
This has certainly been the case in the wake of another disaster on American soil. Virtually everyone who traveled by plane both before and after September 11, 2001 witnessed the differences in airport security. However, the TSA has come under intense criticism. And the U.S. Senate recently voted to extend controversial surveillance tools found in section 215 of the Patriot Act that had been set to expire.
Of course, such measures were taken in the name of protecting citizens from any more deadly terrorist attacks. Similarly, the actions taken by government officials more recently are an attempt to help with the problem of a pandemic.
Whether addressing coronavirus or any other issue facing the American people, officials would do well to remember that government in the United States was intended not only to provide for the common defense of individuals, but for their inalienable rights as well.