Commentary: Pandemic fears could threaten freedom, economy

By David T. Stevenson

Time will tell whether selective business closures and shelter in place orders by governors around the country will have been any more effective than pleas for voluntary actions requested in most states.  More certain is the immediate impact on laid off employees, lost business income, and loss of freedom.  There are steps we can take to minimize those negative impacts.

In Delaware, Gov. Carney declared a State of Emergency, and Delaware Code states in part, “During an emergency or disaster, the Governor may, subject to any applicable requirements for compensation, utilize any private, public, or quasi-public property if necessary to cope with the emergency or disaster” (Title 20, Chapter 31, Subchapter III, §3115, (b) (1)).  It is unclear how closing businesses is “using” private property in this context.  It is a stretch to find any legal basis for such an action. 

State employees, including teachers, are still getting paid even though schools and many state offices are closed. However, restaurants, entertainment venues, and many retail stores have been ordered to close for up to two months, representing about 8 percent of our economy. These are some of the very businesses paying the lowest average wages, and their employee’s incomes are being sacrificed to keep the rest of us safer.

David T.Stevenson

The recently passed federal relief bill will provide some relief for income loss.  However, the funds are likely to be delayed. For decades, Delaware has added to a Rainy Day Fund, and to other contingency funds. The fund has never been touched, even during the Great Recession.  Employees should be reimbursed with cash payments for any income loss beyond what is covered by unemployment insurance, using state funds until federal funds kick in.  Also, employers should not see their unemployment insurance rates rise as a result of layoffs caused by the State of Emergency. 

Lost freedom might be the biggest long-term consequence from the government response to the coronavirus.  Markets will recover, people will go back to work, and we will eventually have a vaccination or become immune to this virus by catching it. However, the extreme invasion of personal freedom from forced business closures and forcing people to stay in their homes will hang there as a precedent for some future malevolent president or governor to use as a political tool over some manufactured state of emergency.

If you think this is crazy, you haven’t kept up with dictators from the past and present.  Similar steps to these are being used routinely in places like China and Venezuela.  Ask a Muslim Uighur in western China about lockdowns, re-education camps, forced labor, and the physical destruction of neighborhoods, all in the name of a state of emergency blamed on a handful of individual acts of terrorism.  In Venezuela, police cordons and pro-government ruffians keep the elected legislature from assembling and undermine street protests that threaten to topple a corrupt regime.       

To be clear, I am not advocating letting people die to save money.  Americans rise to the occasion during tough times.  Voluntary actions may have resulted in similar outcomes of social distancing without draconian actions that reflect no confidence in the people to simply do the right thing

We have an example of an alternative strategy that seems have worked in South Korea, bringing the virus under control with massive voluntary testing and limited mandatory isolation of those infected and most at risk.  With schools closed, companies allowing flex time for parents were compensated by the government. 

There are real health impacts from a broken economy and increased poverty that are not being considered, such as higher infant mortality, and higher overall mortality caused by lower access to health care.  CNN recently reported about 5,000 people committed suicide after the 2008 market crash.

Think about how many people have died to protect our hard-won freedom spelled out in the Constitution.  This is what we celebrate every July 4th and Memorial Day.  Over time, laws and regulations have already infringed on these rights, but now we see freedom abridged. 

A key provision in the Bill of Rights is “Congress shall make no law … abridging the right of the people to peaceably assemble.”  It is perfectly acceptable for the government to make recommendations to avoid crowds and to self-isolate.  It is quite another to violate the freedom to assemble outright by requiring restaurants and movie theaters to close, and to force people to stay in their homes as is happening in several states.

We all want to save lives in the short run, but also need to protect our freedom for the long run.  The governor needs to meticulously follow the Emergency Management law and its limits.

David T. Stevenson is policy director at Caesar Rodney Institute.