Fear Makes It Easy for Governments to Expand Power


Alice Salles – March 25, 2020

The coronavirus epidemic has for the past couple of weeks compelled panicked households to flood grocery stores in search of basic goods. Until this past weekend, however, US governments had refrained from using special powers to order forced business closures and curfews.

Autocratic responses to the health crisis, it seemed, were being put in place exclusively by authoritarian governments such as China’s Communist Party, which managed to allegedly contain the spread of the virus through martial law— barricading people in their homes, arresting those who wouldn’t comply with quarantine mandates, and issuing passports to households so that authorities could verify whether individuals leaving their homes had already used up their weekly stroll quotas.

Following an announcement from President Trump, however, things changed.

After several states declared a state of emergency, some states took further steps by ordering forced business closures.

Ohio, California, Washington, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Indiana ordered owners of bars, restaurants, and wineries to shut down. In their effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, however, they ignored what medical experts themselves have been saying about the epidemic, mostly that the elderly are at greater risk and that precautions to keep them from being exposed to the pathogen should be put in place.

Restaurants and bars, small businesses that greatly benefit workers, might be hot spots when it comes to the younger crowds, but, for the most part, nursing homes and other businesses that cater to the older community are the ones that should be taking the necessary precautions to keep them safe—something that appears to be happening as we speak.

Unfortunately, bureaucrats with too much time on their hands and little knowledge of what is happening in their local communities seem unwilling to consider the consequences of these mandates. Worse yet, they are willing to put the taxpayer on the hook, promising that governments will “do something” to “mitigate” the suffering once the crisis is over.

Businesses Can Be Held Liable for Exposing Consumers—Governments Can’t

Left and right, companies of all sizes are alerting their customers they are taking precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Unfortunately, China took too long to alert the globe about its epidemic, which began in a town of 11 million people, where over the past several years millions have died in similar epidemics, including a nasty tuberculosis outbreak that seems to have also hit Northern Italy hard before the onset of the coronavirus.

China’s lethargic response cost the world a great deal of prepping time, and yet we can’t simply sue the Communist Party for its disregard for public safety.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made a botched attempt at developing its own coronavirus testing kit, private entities tried to develop their own, only to be slowed down by bureaucracy. The governmental agency’s decision was a mistake, hurting countless Americans who may have been carrying the pathogen. It cost us even more prep time, and yet it’s nearly impossible to take them to court.

However, if a company, especially one that deals with large crowds, such as Disneyland, or in healthcare, such as large corporate hospitals, ignores official guidelines and ends up exposing large numbers of people to the pathogen, they could potentially be held liable in court. As a matter of fact, something similar happened before, and not too long ago.

Why are governments so enthusiastic about shutting down businesses when other less draconian measures are available and prudent? Partly because the legal and political costs of doing so are so low.

Few have offered any sort of organized resistance, through either legal or political methods. Fear is a powerful tool for politicians, and they are not willing to let a crisis go to waste.

Fear as the Foundation of Government

As noted by James Bovard, John Adams wrote in 1776 that “fear is the foundation of most governments.” To Adams, America could never submit to this reality, as fear “is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.

In 2020, it’s clear that Adams overestimated his fellow countrymen.

As the coronavirus health scare has rapidly grown into a global epidemic, US government officials, federal and local, as well as news outlets—which often parrot official narratives fed by foreign governments—have managed to make the common American panic.

As toilet paper disappears from the shelves and consumers line up to buy bottled water, politicians who managed to remain sane throughout the entire ordeal warn of what’s to come.

“When this is over,” Kentucky congressman Thomas Massie said in a Facebook post, “the greatest harm to society will have been the public’s unquestioning acceptance of the unchecked authority of governments to force private behavior and disrupt economies.”

To Massie, the measures we’re seeing taken by the US government “will make FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans look like a ‘light touch.’”

You may believe he is exaggerating, but the fact is that with every new wave of fear governments become bolder.

Originally published at Mises.org.  

Image source: PxHere

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