Our Pandemic Response: Fear Trumps Liberty

Most Americans may not realize it, but we have been subjects of a vast sociological experiment over the past year. The last year may not have been intended as an experiment but it has illustrated some unpleasant truths about what Americans have become as a people, most importantly, that the citizens of a country who once proudly proclaimed the motto, “don’t tread on me” have been willing to endure a great deal of treading. 

The experiment involved our response to COVID-19. What it proved was that Americans are all-too-willing to abandon their rights out of fear. The virus, of course, was real. But it became an excuse for unelected bureaucrats—our new priesthood of “experts”—and petty tyrant governors to impose arbitrary, one-size-fits-all restrictions, many of which the members of the priesthood did not follow themselves. As Rahm Emmanuel, former President Obama’s chief of staff and later mayor of Chicago infamously proclaimed in 2008, we should never let “a serious crisis go to waste…it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

So what “things” did the pandemic allow government to do that no one thought it could do before? It used fear to shut down small businesses, wrecking the livelihoods of American workers; outlawed church and synagogue services; outlawed family gatherings; curtailed travel; shuttered schools and colleges. It did all these things in the name of “science” although scientists disagreed among themselves about the efficacy of the measures the government imposed. 

Tyrannical governors also used the pandemic as a way of turning Americans against one another, inviting them to inform on their fellow citizens if they believed others were not following the “rules.” Such actions have put us on a dangerous path: toward becoming a surveillance state like Communist East Germany, as portrayed in the film, “The Lives of Others.” Those who think this is a good idea might want to watch, or re-watch, that remarkable movie. 

But weren’t these measures for our own good? George Orwell had an answer for that in his book, 1984: “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power….We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is the end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.”

The founders designed a government intended to protect the natural rights of its citizens. But a stable republic also requires a virtuous people who are willing to defend their own rights against those who would usurp them, refusing to submit to tyranny. 

The pandemic has revealed that many Americans are willing, like Esau, to trade their birthright for a mess of pottage. As the great orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, once remarked, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.” 

Our response to the pandemic has revealed that too many Americans are willing to accept a great deal of injustice out of fear. This is only the beginning. The next round of injustice is already underway: abandoning protection of speech by shutting down those who disagree with our oligarchic rulers by calling what they have to say “hate speech;” labeling fellow citizens who supported Trump as potential “domestic terrorists” who must be reeducated; and enacting radical policies that replace “equality”—equal opportunity for all—with “equity”—equal outcomes irrespective of merit or effort. 

The pandemic has taught the new priesthood that fear trumps liberty. If history is a guide, power ceded to government is rarely, if ever, relinquished. The next emergency—and it will come—will provide justification for stripping American citizens of even more of their rights and liberties. 

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