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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Crises, Liberty and the State

Mar 12, 2020

The powers of the state can expand exponentially during times of crisis:

I just got back from our local shopping mall. It may just be me, but it seemed that there were fewer people there than usual. Staying away for fear of Coronavirus? Possibly. And maybe with good reason. The media is certainly running long and hard with this story.

And I guess it does grab our attention as each new VIP or celeb announces that they now have the virus – the latest being Tom Hanks and his wife. Nothing wrong with a bit of caution then. But there are various ways we can look at this. I have already examined some spiritual, theological and biblical aspects of the virus: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/10/difficult-bible-passages-psalm-9110/

It goes without saying that I am not a doctor, a scientist, or an epidemiologist. Thus I am in no position to comment on the actual crisis and whether it is going to bring about the death of humanity, as some are trying to suggest, or whether the whole thing is overblown hype, with more folks dying from the flu, etc. If push comes to shove, I guess I tend to side with those who are saying we must avoid all the panic-mongering and exaggeration.

The actual hard facts and science of this we will have to leave to the experts. But more can be said about various social and political aspects of this and other crises. That at least is one area where I have a bit more knowledge on, and may have something worth sharing.

My thesis is simple: In times of crisis, the power of the state can expand rapidly while the freedoms of the individual can shrink dramatically. Of course in times of genuine crisis and emergency there is a place for the state to step in and act in a responsible and appropriate manner. But the trick is to discern what is a real and major crisis, what is a mild crisis, and what is just a manmade or fake crisis.

I already mentioned that we must allow medical experts and others to accurately and objectively analyse and assess the threats of this latest health crisis. Yet doctors and others in the health fields can at times have their own agendas and biases, so we must exercise caution, even here.

But where we will much more likely find all sorts of cases of bias, agendas, hype, deception and misinformation is in political circles, unfortunately. Politicians often have hidden agendas or ulterior motives in what they say or do. And the temptation for them to take even more power and control is always a clear and present danger.

The state is ever willing to seize control of things, but is very loathe to give up control. Thus a public health crisis is just the sort of thing that power-hungry politicians will latch onto in order to grab more control and power. And that means much less liberty and freedom for ordinary citizens.

If politicians only had the best interests of its citizenry at heart we could all relax. But they seldom do. Any excuse will do to take more power while leaving individuals less free. That is certainly one of the clear lessons of history. One can simply offer any number of quotes from Ronald Reagan on these harsh realities. Here are a few:

“Either you will control your government, or government will control you.”

“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

“Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty.”

“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

And we have indeed seen this far too often. Just think of another crisis which has been hyped to the max in recent times. I refer to climate alarmism. Plenty of those who are on the government gravy train – including plenty of scientists and researchers – along with most politicians and those of the mainstream media have made this THE crisis we must deal with – NOW.

And many of them have been quite willing to tell us about all the sacrifices we must make, including paying much higher taxes, greatly restricting travel and consumer options, the ever shrinking of freedoms and choices in general, and expanding government bureaucracies. All to save the planet of course.

Bear in mind however that I am not pushing anarchism here. I have often made the case as to why I am not an anarchist or a radical libertarian. There IS a place for the state. But since the tendency for it to want to expand its powers and reach exponentially is always there, there is always the need for the people to be aware of this and resist it when necessary.

As the American conservative William F. Buckley Jr. once put it, “The best defence against usurpatory government is an assertive citizenry.” There may well be some good, moral and conscientious politicians who really do want what is best for us and the nation. But there are many who do not. So we must remain vigilant.

As is so often the case, we need some balance here. Statism is always a danger, and we all must be on guard against this. But certain times of emergency or crisis do require some government intervention and some deprivation of freedoms. After 9/11 for example we put up with at least minor inconveniences: longer lines because of security checks at airports, bag checks at concerts and public events, etc.

And during a time of war most people will also accept an enlarged government along with reduced personal liberties. Thus they will put up with various shortages and types of rationing. They will sacrifice their time and talents for the good of the nation. They will put up with plenty of inconveniences and restrictions in the interests of winning the war. And all that is fair enough.

But the trouble is too many politicians want us living in a full-time state of war with a permanent set of restrictions on individual freedom and ever more increases in state power. Their thirst for ever more power and control becomes insatiable. That is what we must always resist.

A few concluding quotes from some recent voices can be offered here:

“Individual liberty exists in inverse proportion to the size of the state. The bigger the government/state, the less liberty the individual has. The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.” Dennis Prager

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” P. J. O’Rourke

“Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.” Milton Friedman

“All too often the state is tempted into activities to which it is either ill-suited or which are beyond its capabilities.” Margaret Thatcher

“Freedom is messy. In free societies, people fall through the cracks – drink too much, eat too much, buy unaffordable homes, fail to make prudent provision for health care, and much else. But the price of being relieved of all these tiresome choices by a benign paternal government is far too high. Big Government is the small option: it’s the guarantee of smaller freedom, smaller homes, smaller cars, smaller opportunities, smaller lives.” Mark Steyn

“In politics, the great non sequitur of our time is that (1) things are not right and that (2) the government should make them right.” Thomas Sowell

Health care crises need our careful attention. But political crises resulting because of them are also deserving of our close attention. So we all must proceed cautiously here. The growing, expansive state can soon enough cause more harm than something like the Coronavirus.

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10 Responses to Crises, Liberty and the State

  • I believe it was Raum Emmanuel who said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

  • It is said that Hitler secretly organised the Reichstag (parliament) fire to arrest his main opposing party and consolidate power.

    So what liberties should we be on the lookout for? The main thing government is doing is stopping flights and stopping schools, unis. Corporations seem to be doing the main actions: making people work from home, not go to other offices, limiting how much people can buy.

    The looming problem seems to be with a mob mentality in buying up goods, sweeping us into potential civil unrest over food … and toilet paper.

    Could the government be tempted to try and increase surveillance powers to help curtail big buy-ups of goods?

    Could they latch on to communist ideals of equality, saying “you have too much”, and start confiscating things to give to those they deem more needy?

  • All that and more Nathan. In the US for example the Democrats are already doing a good job of politicising this virus. As but one other example, talk is now on about monitoring and restricting large groups of people. How will that impact on churches, etc? And what can start with good intentions can easily end up with bad ones. Temporary measures can become permanent ones. As C. S. Lewis once said: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

  • The Coronavirus acts rather like the flu, with most cases (80% of cases) being mild. Those most at risk of dying from Coronavirus are the elderly and those with underlying health issues. So I would say there is need for caution, but not panic

  • I have seen several times on TV over the past few weeks people asking of politicians or the government “do something” but not defining what something is. That is very dangerous a blank check to do whatever THEY want or think is best irregardless of whether it actually is. Another thing is there have been many dictators that rose to power promising to only stay long enough to restore order or that the drastic emergency powers would only be temporary. Twenty years later they and their emergency powers are still in place! Education has spent decades teaching our kids to trust government to solve any problem. “Give the government the resources it needs and it will take care of you” they teach us. A wise man once said “a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have”. WWI, the great depression, WWII three major times of government expansion we still have to deal with. LBJ wasn’t helpful either. Wilson gave us the professional government i.e. bureaucracy and as we all know bureaucracies only grow.

    They still seem to want to blame Trump for the virus. I am surprised they haven’t changed the name to the “Orange man bad virus” !

  • Yes Paul that quote from Thomas Jefferson is another one i could have run with in my article: “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.”

  • Thanks Bill- I have been telling myself that I am paranoid for having similar thoughts- but you’ve confirmed my sense of disquiet!
    This whole time I have been thinking that I am not scared of the virus, but I am scared of the government intervention that could occur, and is occurring in other parts.
    For example, we ‘know’ that the coronavirus does not affect unborn babies because China conducted a small study on pregnant women who tested positive to the virus. Their babies were born via c-section and were all safe. Who wants to take bets on whether the women were free to informed consent on their planned c-sections, or even the study itself?
    So I worry about the state policing that may happen around this. It also seems SO impractical to police such generic respiratory symptoms.
    How long can a nation function if every person self isolates for two weeks if they sneeze?
    But it seems that the over-the-top response is more likely than not.
    Another way that I have been explaining the panic to my children is this-
    Due to the prevailing superstitious belief in human evolution, folks have believed that we are at the height of progress, even medically. This is a blow to the (surprisingly still popular after the 20th century) utopian view that, given enough time, we will cure all ills- social and physical.
    So the fear that people are feeling has a spiritual dimension too I think.
    I am hopeful that it will be an excellent time to have more conversations with unbelievers about the shifting sands of this world, and how they can turn to the One who holds and controls all things. You know, as long as I can go outside!

  • Dear Bill,

    Thank you for another well argued article which gives much food for thought.

    It can be argued that people in Western liberal democracies have had too much freedom. It was the push for the freedom to do what they want with their own bodies that brought in abortion on demand and voluntary euthanasia. I think libertarianism and individualism over the decades has possibly given rise to the selfishness we see manifesting itself in the profiteering and bulk buying in super markets because of the corona virus. In this there has been little consideration for the elderly who can’t always travel around looking for basic essentials. Too much liberty it can be argued can lead to licence and the abuse of others as it has done with the innocent unborn in particular. Also the waffling of the government and the mixed messages emanating from political circles about how rigorously they should employ methods to control the virus has been pathetic and confusing. They have ignored and criticised the advice of doctors seeming more interested in the market economy than in ensuring as few people as possible get the disease.The waffling over whether or not to ban mass gatherings makes me wonder if the politicians are afraid to upset people that they know are too hedonistic and selfish.

    Yet on the other hand I can understand the argument about politicians wanting more power and what is more important hanging on to it by whatever means possible. Both sides have been trying to make political mileage out of the crisis. I also have a particularly good reason for wondering just how serious the disease is and wonder if the reporting on it is out of all proportion. Could it be an excuse to control people because I trust the media even less than I do the politicians. There will be a lot to think about in the coming months.

  • Wow okay: SA can now detain anyone they even suspect has the virus and anyone who had contact with them. Apparently indefinitely. https://www.legislation.sa.gov.au/LZ/B/CURRENT/SOUTH%20AUSTRALIAN%20PUBLIC%20HEALTH%20(CONTROLLED%20NOTIFIABLE%20CONDITIONS)%20AMENDMENT%20BILL%202020.aspx

    And there’s a federal one that passed last year: http://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2017C00303

    These are permanent by the looks of things.

  • The masses are 3 days away from licking the boots of tyrants. The public collectively will do as they are told to. Just to be able to eat the free government cheese. that is handed out to them. No matter how long the lines are, no matter how long the train ride is to the Covid-19 relocation camps. The masses will do what they are told to do.
    Even If the democrat controlled congress mandated every american get a Covid-19 experimental vaccination, as well as bio implant medical i.d. chip to track you and could also be used for a cashless system for us to buy, sell or trade without touching paper money promising us all peace and safety. The public would, all for it.

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