CultureWatch

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

We Really Like Big Brother – and Distrust Freedom

Apr 8, 2020

Far too many folks are giving the State a blank cheque to do anything in a time of crisis:

One sign of a decaying society is the inability to think straight, to question, and to ask hard questions. This is especially true when a docile and uninformed populace simply goes along with everything the ruling powers tell them. When we have widescale blind subservience to the state, then you know we are in big trouble. The current corona crisis is bringing this out quite clearly.

I have heard so many folks defending to the death every single draconian measure governments have taken in their response to corona. Some of the most ludicrous, idiotic and over-the-top steps have been defended. “Well the government knows what’s best, so we dare not question them.” We have seen this “my country right or wrong” attitude in action before. It did not end up very well in Germany in the 1930s.

No, I am not saying Western governments today are Hitlerian, but I am saying that this is how most tyrannies have come about: the erosion of liberties to deal with real or perceived emergencies. Yes, sensible health measures are required, but so too is eternal vigilance against out-of-control statism.

Indeed, I have penned 27 articles now on corona, and in most of them I have said that there of course needs to be a balance between measures to help protect public health and safety, and not allowing Big Brother to get carried away and overreact.

The examples of this are now quite numerous. One well-known case in point was the story of the ludicrous $1700 fine given to a teen learner driver. I would have thought that no one would consider that to in any way imperil the health of others, but just a case of idiotic government overreaction.

Yet way too many folks have defended that and other extreme measures. And they all keep coming back with the same lame line: ‘Well, the government knows what is best for us. They have our best interests at heart. We should not question anything that they are doing, but just let them get on with the job.’

Wow, scary stuff. Thankfully I am not the only one who is concerned about all this. There have been many other brave voices who have sought to sound the alarm and warn us that the cure may well become a whole lot worse than the disease. One of these courageous watchmen on the wall is Dr. Augusto Zimmermann, a Perth-based law professor.

He too has written plenty about these matters, and his voice certainly deserves to be heard. He has just published a brand-new piece on this entitled “Government by Virus and Executive Diktat.” The whole piece warrants a careful reading, but let me quote parts of it here. He begins as follows:

My state, Western Australia, has just recorded its fourth death attributed to the Wuhan virus — another elderly man, like so many other casualties, already inflicted with chronic illness when infected. Surely such an “enormous” death toll justifies dramatic measures to curtail fundamental rights, as well as the Morrison’s government spending $320 billion — 16.4 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product — to combat the virus’ health and economic effects caused by the same measures imposed by the government itself.

Because these extreme measures are dictated by the executive and have no deadline to expire, we are effectively experiencing government by executive decree. This is something akin to the actions of deeply authoritarian regimes, in particular when such executive measures are not properly scrutinised.

The limitation of powers designed by the drafters of the Constitution is commonly traced to the work of the French philosopher and political theorist, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. First published in 1748, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, received widespread public acclamation. Its first English translation, in 1750, became so popular that those who supported the ratification of the American Constitution, as well as those who argued against it, relied heavily on Montesquieu to justify their positions.

Inspired by the American model, the Australian Constitution establishes a system of checks and balances and of division of powers. This is so, among other things, because Montesquieu reminded the Australian framers that “constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go”. To prevent this, ‘it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power”, he wrote.

He features some quotes by Montesquieu and then continues:

Historically, the ideal of legality known as ‘the rule of law’ presupposes the existence of law serving as an effective check on the executive power. The phrase is designed to minimise the executive power, so that our fundamental rights and freedoms may be adequately preserved. By forcing the executive branch to follow proper rules of law, the rule of law operates to reduce the possibility of government being able to excessively coerce, obstruct or otherwise unreasonably interfere with the life, liberty and property of the citizen. The tradition operates in terms of providing legal and institutional instruments to protect citizens against the arbitrary power of the state. As St Thomas Aquinas stated, “…once the government is established, this must be so arranged that opportunity to tyrannize be removed. At the same time, the power of government should be so tempered that it cannot easily fall into political tyranny.” 

He finishes his piece this way:

The Australian government and the state governments appear to be effectively ruling by executive decree. These extraordinary controls on our freedoms have no constitutional validity because they are certainly not powers intended to be exercised in its present form. Above all, Australians would be wise to pay more consideration to these wise words of Thomas Jefferson, the main drafter of the American Declaration of Independence: “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have”.

As for myself, I am deeply afraid to conclude that this country is now effectively governed by a less open or more disguised form of elected dictatorship (executive dominance) – consisting of executive rule by decree and with no proper public scrutiny available.

Of course, a democratic-constitutional framework depends not just on the character of public authorities, but also on the willingness of the people to fight for their rights and freedoms. As it has been more properly said, indeed, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance”.

It is truly disturbing to observe how a considerable number of Australians willingly surrendered their constitutional rights and freedoms in the name of more government security and protection. Such carelessness may eventually prove lethal not only to the long-term preservation of democratic government but also to the preservation of their basic rights to life, liberty and property. quadrant.org.au/opinion/qed/2020/04/government-by-virus-and-executive-diktat/

As I have said repeatedly now, there IS a place for some sensible government intervention in times of national and international emergency. No one is saying there should not be. But great care is needed to ensure that runaway statism does not result – even with the best of intentions.

I have already quoted the Austrian-English economist and philosopher F. A. Hayek before, but his remarks are worth repeating here “‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”

A few other quotes are worth offering. Thomas Jefferson’s warning must be carefully considered: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” And George Washington reminded us of this truth: “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

And beware of good intentions. H L Menken put it this way: “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-front for the urge to rule it.” And Milton Friedman once said this: “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.” Or as C. S. Lewis rightly stated:

“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.”

So please be careful, wash your hands, keep an eye out for social distancing, and also keep an eye out for what the government is doing.

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13 Responses to We Really Like Big Brother – and Distrust Freedom

  • I was talking with someone who understands the constitution much better than I do, and it seems that perhaps the average Aussie doesn’t understand their rights and freedoms under the constitution? Which is different to to America who know their rights a bit more.
    I also suppose that we have had it so good for a while we (especially younger people) don’t think about the fact that governments could go bad. and, perhaps people don’t learn from history or look around at the world to see where governments have been corrupt or got power.
    I also wonder if people have because so fearful of the virus they are willing to accept anything to avoid it spreading?

  • Thanks Allison. Yes widespread fear can result in lots of unwelcome reactions – especially if much of it may be unfounded fear.

  • Excellent piece Bill, as all your recent posts on the same subject have been. I too am concerned about how precedents will likely become policies. Is it possible that you might consider a future post in which you recommend some biblical ways in which we can both affirm and defend ourselves practically regarding what is within the law and those areas in which Scripture must be upheld? Perhaps even a short summary of the Australian Constitution from a biblical perspective and what rights Christians do have? Just a thought. God bless you brother.

  • Thanks Benjamin. I have written about such things already – at least somewhat. The Christian is not an anarchist – God created the state for a fallen world. But we do not slavishly obey everything – especially when laws counter God and his laws – so there can be a place for civil disobedience. Some rather general pieces include these:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/10/god-government-and-the-state-part-one/

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/10/god-government-and-the-state-part-two/

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/12/21/further-reflections-on-government-god-anarchy-and-the-state/

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/09/09/the-state-unjust-laws-and-civil-disobedience/

  • One thing that we must do is start demanding an exit strategy for the current fiat legislation both Federal, State, and Local Govt.

    I have not read any of the new Covid-19 related laws, but if they do not have some sort of sunset or revision clause, be very concerned and very demanding.

    By business as an accountant had many legal overtones, and one thing that I said regularly was,
    “You would never drive a car without knowing how to stop it; neither should you ever get into a contract without knowing how to get out of it”.
    All things come to an end, and if we know how to handle that end there will be peace, if from the beginning we know how to handle the end, we will have peace from the beginning.

    Some may object here and ask about marriage, or about “my word is my bond”, or about “swearing to my own hurt”. I am not at all talking about frivolous breaking of contracts, but about being wise about what we commit ourselves to.

    So with the laws of the land. The OT books of Esther and Daniel talk about the “laws of the Medes and Persians”, which stupidly, “cannot be repealed” Est 1:19, 8:8, Dan 6.
    I cannot understand why a king could not make another law, or change the constitution; I suspect that it has to do with honour and pride, a show of “perfect wisdom”.

    These current new laws, and I suspect many others, need to be revoked or changed, sooner or later; or at least have mechanisms within them for regular review, revision, or a powerful sunset clause. If they don’t, perhaps we have fools drafting them.

  • D. O’Brien, a Michael Roman Catholic says ‘How long will it take for our people to understand that when humanist sentiments replace moral absolutes, it is not long before very idealistic people begin to invade human families in the name of the family, and destroy human lives in the name of humanity. This is the idealist’s greatest temptation, the temptation by which nations and cultures so often fall. The wielder of power is deluded into thinking he can remould reality into a less unkind condition. If he succeeds in convincing his people of the delusion and posits for them an enemy of the collective good, then unspeakable evils can be released in society. Those who share a mass-delusion rarely recognise it as such, and can pursue the most heinous acts in a spirit of self-righteousness.’

    David Skinner UK

  • When liquor stores are considered essential services and churches are not, well?

  • And abortion mills are also considered to be essential services Dale!

  • At least the Corona crisis is giving the safe space trigger warning millennials a taste of socialism. Is a brief quick sample, but lesson may be learnt. The question for socialists-especially in a time like this why aren’t they joining a collective and sharing their wealth among themselves? If any of them try to create wealth outside the group, they could banish them. No, they do not. Is about forcing others and about power. Is forcing others to forego their life, wealth and comforts for abuse of power. Effectively Corona is just what a socialist state would look like-lost livelihoods, heavy state power, freedom of association gone, restriction of movement, reliance on the state more….

  • @Bill. You notice the left want no restrictions whatsoever about killing unborn, but are so gung ho and forceful when it comes to bakers baking cakes and many other examples? Also, they suddenly care about dignity of life when a serial killer child molester could face the death penalty or life in prison. The death camps never ceased-they simply got renamed reproductive healthcare clinics. They attempt to perfect execution with clinics, is hidden and so on. We have clinics everywhere which perfect the art of killing undesirables/unwanted. And all under the right of privacy and ‘rights’.

  • I just came across this article on government tyranny through taxation. The lust for money and power behind this theft drives other areas of life as well, including the right to life itself.
    https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/taxation-is-theft-so-why-do-americans-put-up-with-it

  • Thanks Norah. Andrew Napolitano is a secular libertarian, while I am a Christian conservative. While both camps are greatly concerned about big government and excessive taxation, the biblical Christian knows that God created the state and taxation has a place (see eg Romans 13;1-7).

  • A few things: 1) Friedman’s quote reminds me of the saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions. 2) It seems lately many especially millennials and several in my generation gen X seem to want someone to do the important thing for them even think for them so having the government run thing seems fine to them right now (authors never say out us in power and we’ll set up concentration camps and gulags and get rid of undesirables) they never learned how to function without mommy and daddy doing everything for them so they welcome Nanny doing the important stuff for them. 3) I agree taxation has it’s place unfortunately the government abuses the ability to tax and much tax IS basically theft. If governments would get there spending under control they wouldn’t need so much tax revenue.

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