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To the casual observer, it may seem as though coronavirus lockdowns are now largely behind us. Even Democrat governors seem to have little appetite for new restrictions: in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer is asking for voluntary compliance, while Gavin Newsom has made plans to largely reopen California by June 15.
Red states are moving even faster. Governor Greg Abbott endedTexas’ capacity limit and mask mandate in March, while both he and Ron DeSantis of Florida have banned “vaccine passports.” Meanwhile, the Supreme Court overturned a California rule limiting at-home religious worship events.
And yet the legal and social groundwork for lockdowns remains firmly in place, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
In 2020, America’s commitment to individual liberty faced a great test. By and large, it failed. The vast majority of Americans demonstrated a ready willingness to choose safety over freedom in a time of crisis, to permit our political leaders to implement an unprecedented latticework of complex and crisscrossing regulations that utterly reshaped daily life in our country.
There was some grumbling, but little true resistance. Generally, the public did what it was told. Mask compliance rates were well over 90 percent. Businesses closed when ordered to do so. Some reopened in secret, but few engaged in direct civil disobedience. The movement had no momentum, no heroes. A few business owners partially filled that role – Shelley Luther, Angela Marsden, and Ian Smith, among others – but the ball never really got rolling.
Reopening, thus far, has been largely contingent on vaccine distribution. In this, we have already ceded a premise which most of us would have balked at a year ago: that society must lock down until there is a cure. We have accepted our freedoms being held hostage to pharmaceutical development, and only good luck on this front prevented us from being locked down for longer.
Those dismayed by proposals for vaccine passports should recognize how unlikely it is that our government would have tried to implement them if they had not seen the vast majority of Americans going meekly along with business closures and mask mandates. As Vladimir Lenin’s adage went, “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.” In 2020, American politicians probed the public with bayonets and found mostly mush, a fact of which future aspiring tyrants will take careful note.
Few politicians provided a respite from lockdown mania. President Trump was one, but even he was not entirely consistent on this issue, as when he criticized Georgia Governor Brian Kemp for reopening “too soon.” Most Republican governors, with a couple of admirable exceptions, imposed measures nearly as strict as those implemented by Democrats. Does Greg Abbott deserve credit for ending Texas’ mask mandate in March? Perhaps we should ask instead why he kept it in place for a year.
Nor has there been any judicial remedy. Multiple judges have upheld states’ rights to issue sweeping public health orders, and even the rulings chipping away at these orders (such as the one mentioned above) have been decided on fairly narrow grounds. There was no major case addressing the issue head-on, no landmark decision on the scale of Roe v. Wade that might serve to rebuke the lockdown-happy governors once and for all.
Our Constitution has no written legal safeguards against the government overstepping its bounds in the name of public health, simply because the Framers probably never envisioned such a tyranny. (If they had seen America today, they might have decided to write an anti-lockdown amendment and skip the one about not quartering troops in private homes.) Nor is there strong legal precedent on the matter, with the exception of the 1905 case Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which upheld a law requiring smallpox vaccinations. The case law on lockdowns has been set in our era, and it is not encouraging for lovers of freedom.
Finally, and most concerning, the cultural precedent cannot be undone. We have embraced a neurotically death-averse attitude that would have been utterly foreign to previous generations, demonstrating a willingness to choose the preservation of life at the expense of all other values. We have become a society of Zoomified communication, of petty rules and Karens minding other people’s business, of cult-like faith in a priestly caste of Experts. These social and philosophical trends will be even harder to dislodge than any legal precedent.
History, once written, cannot be erased. This past year has brought a fundamental shift in the relationship between government and the individual, and this will remain in place, regardless of any alleviation of lockdowns over the next few months. President Biden and Lord Fauci might permit you an Independence Day barbecue in your backyard, if you are lucky. But the greater battle has been lost, unless we are willing to boldly and unflinchingly confront just how far we went wrong this year.
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