Freedom, If You Can Keep It

Good public health policy is good economic policy. An epidemic run wild will destroy an economy just as surely as a ruined economy will destroy lives.

Political leaders at all levels of government will soon have to make one of the gravest calculations of their lifetimes: identifying the singular point of equilibrium between the physical and economic health of their constituents. They will have to discern that precise moment when health risks for their citizens have declined to the point that they may prudently begin removing restrictions they’ve placed on social and economic activities. 

Where the disease is not prevalent, that may be a relatively easy call. But where the viral outbreak remains a very real and potent danger, opening up the economy too soon could have disastrous long-term economic consequences, as well as lethal health effects.

Much hangs on getting these decisions right. And, as citizens, we are not mere spectators in this drama. Our names may not be on the marquee, but we are more than bit players. 

It is we, the people, who confer power on our leaders. By our votes, we have put those leaders in office, and when this is over, we will have to judge whether those we elected proved worthy of the trust we placed in them. Did they take good counsel? Did they balance the needs of all citizens? Were they arbitrary or equitable in deciding which activities to prevent and which to allow? Did they take advantage of our vulnerability to take just a little more power for themselves? 

COVID-19 has tested not just how our mayors, governors and federal officials manage a pandemic, but also how they manage our freedom. It is a truism that, once people have power, they seldom want to give it up. That all-too-human trait does not recede, even in the midst of a national emergency. 

George Washington was an exception. He rejected the prospect of being crowned king. He said no to a third term in office. His decisions conform perfectly with fundamental American values. 

Our founders recognized the dangers inherent in the allure of power. They acknowledged man’s natural inclination to seek power and set out to constrain it. Hence the separation of powers, the checks and balances, and the division of power between the national government and state governments. The system they designed was brilliant, and it has worked remarkably well up to now. But these are extraordinary times. 

Never in the history of the United States have Americans given up so much of our freedom. For the most part, we have done so willingly because we believed it was for our own good and for the good of the more vulnerable among us. 

Yet now that the number of fatalities and hospitalizations is running far lower than projected, many complain that this shutdown was unwarranted. A strong argument can be made that those in power did only what they thought was necessary, however, given the limited information available about the disease at the time.

The uncertainty about the nature of the virus and what seemed like a very real potential for rampant death led President Trump and America’s governors to place extreme restrictions on our activities, and we accepted them. That we willingly conceded our freedoms to the leaders we elected and that we trust them to return those freedoms is a true test of what makes America exceptional.

The good news is that the government America’s Founder designed—a republic in which power resides with its citizens—is sufficiently agile and resilient that it can adapt even to an unforeseen crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission noted in its preliminary report released this week, “The American system of federalism provides the appropriate governing structure for responding to a crisis with as many different facets and variable effects as we are seeing with COVID-19.” 

But that also means that we do not get to blithely leave the fate of our country in the hands of those we elected. They are our representatives, not our rulers.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington on January 16, 1787, “The people are the only censors of their governors.” It is we, America’s citizens, who ultimately bear responsibility for how our leadership handles this crisis—that is what government by the people, for the people, and of the people means. 

Thus, if we still value our freedom and have not sacrificed it to the fear of disease, in the weeks and months ahead we must ensure that we remain engaged and informed. We must fully understand the limited powers of our government officials. We must know our history well enough to understand why the Framers of the Constitution designed the government that they did. (And if we do not know it, this is the perfect time to learn it.) Finally, we must care enough about our freedom to demand we get it back—fully—once this crisis has passed.

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About Katharine Cornell Gorka

Katharine Cornell Gorka is director of the Civil Society Program of the Heritage Foundation’s Feulner Institute.

Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

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