At The Mercy of Despotic Rulers

This year’s stay-at-home orders and lockdowns imposed by governments on their populations represent a watershed moment in the history of the modern state.  Before March 2020, it is unlikely that many politicians—let alone many ordinary people—thought it would be feasible or likely for government officials to force hundreds of millions of human beings to “self-isolate.”  But, it turns out governments were indeed able to force a sizable portion of the population to abandon jobs, religious practices, extended families, and community life in the name of “flattening the curve.”

Whether through fear manufactured by the news media, or through outright threats of punishment, business owners shuttered their shops and offices, churches closed down, and schools abandoned their students and closed, while families donned their masks and locked themselves into isolation.

Over time, it is true that most state governments lessened their restrictions, but it was largely out of fear that tax revenues would collapse and out of fear that the public would become unwilling to obey lockdown edicts indefinitely. 

But never underestimate the tyranny of government.  Many politicians would love to impose lockdowns again, and indefinitely. After all, the power to micromanage the behavior of every business and household in the manner of Covid lockdowns is a power undreamed up by even the most despotic emperor of old. It’s not a power a regime would abandon lightly.

In his book Liberalism, Ludwig von Mises writes that “there has never been a political power that voluntarily desisted from impeding the free development and operation of the institution of private ownership of the means of production. Governments tolerate private property when they are compelled to do so, but they do not acknowledge it voluntarily in recognition of its necessity….The tendency to impose oppressive restraints on private property, to abuse political power, and to refuse to respect or recognize any free sphere outside or beyond the dominion of the state is too deeply ingrained in the mentality of those who control the governmental apparatus of compulsion and coercion for them ever to be able to resist it voluntarily.”

In other words, governments don’t refrain from exercising ever more power unless they are prevented from doing so.   Governments have long used crises as an excuse to expand government power, often with the glowing approval of the electorate.  For example, after the end of World War II the party platform for the British Labour Party explicitly sought to extend wartime economic planning indefinitely. The idea was that central planning had won the war, and now it would “win the peace.” This meant a host of boards and commissions that would control everything from farming to housing.

But that’s just one example. As Robert Higgs has shown in his book Crisis and Leviathan, using wars and other crises to permanently expand state power is just standard operating procedure for countless regimes. It’s what governments do.

On the other hand, governments are limited by how much the public is willing to tolerate.  All regimes, even authoritarian ones, are ultimately limited by public approval and obedience. Without public opinion on its side, regimes become constrained, even in a police state.

Don’t be fooled as state governors are backing off full lockdowns for now because you will note that they are  very careful to remind us that they retain the power to re-impose full on restrictions and ruthless lockdowns at any time they feel the need. Ask yourself – if  governors and mayors do try a new set of lockdowns, just how far are they willing to go to enforce them? Will they call in the National Guard and open fire on middle-class dissenters? There are some on the left who would rejoice in putting the peons in their place with military threats.

And while this may work in the short term, what then? Outside of places like China and Australia, it appears many regimes aren’t yet prepared to find out. But they’re not willing to concede defeat, either. The lockdown state will press the issue as far as the voters and taxpayers are willing to let it go.

How far are you willing to let it go? State laws must be changed to limit emergency powers of local governments.  And until we do we will always be at the mercy of despotic rulers.

Source:  Governments Will Impose New Lockdowns If they Think they Can Get Away with It, Ryan McMaken, Mises Institute

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