Setting limits on our endless crises
There’s a saying that if everything is a crisis, then nothing is a crisis. Such sayings may be trite, but there’s a germ of truth to them. And a dark side.
The Atlantic’s Conor Freidersdorf writes that our multiply emergencies, crises, and existential threats is a dangerous phenomenon that could lead to abuse of civil liberties:
How will we know when [the COVID-19] crisis is over? There is no consensus. In fact, elected officials, health experts, and issue advocates disagree all the time about what even constitutes a public-health emergency or crisis. Is “COVID-19 misinformation” an example? A narrow majority of the San Diego Board of Supervisors says so. Is pornography? Sixteen state legislatures say so. Is climate change? Abortion? Laws limiting access to abortion? The list hardly ends there. Ongoing campaigns treat vaping, racism, opioid use, campus sexual assault, youth suicide, air pollution, alcohol abuse, and more as public-health emergencies.
Those are all issues that may warrant public-health interventions, such as sending heroin addicts to treatment, reducing suicides with free counseling, or asking pediatricians to warn parents about the dangers of unsecured guns in the home. But declaring a public-health emergency or crisis means more than simply taking a public-health approach to a problem. In a public-health emergency, civil liberties as core as freedom of movement can be abrogated. And deliberative democracy is degraded or suspended in favor of greater power for executives, such as Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, and Ron DeSantis, or unelected bureaucrats, such as the presidential adviser Anthony Fauci and the L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. Even when a public-health emergency is warranted, authoritarian abuses can follow.
Freidersdorf argues for limits on emergencies – which would require both critical thinking skills and political will (two items in short supply even in the best of times).
At bottom, however, is the idea that the sweeping powers politicians and bureaucrats have during declared emergencies strips away a critical level of public accountability. Yes, the emergency may be real. But open-ended crises lead to less freedom in the short term and weakened self-government in the long term.