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Rumblings

As our nation, and the world around it, weathers the COVID19 epidemic, there is something important that we all need to keep in mind. This is, of course, in addition to the necessity of doing our parts to limit the spread of the virus and to support one another.  Those go without saying.

We need to take a good, hard look at what our government is doing to help in this fight.  Notice that I didn’t say “what the government is doing in this fight”?  Anyway, a thought occurred to me as I was relistening to “The Last Centurion” by John Ringo and “Death Throes of the Republic” by Dan Carlin.

In The Last Centurion, the main character narrates how he and the rest of the world get through a worldwide flu pandemic that kills more than half of those infected.  It’s fiction, of course, and Ringo is definitely playing to one side of the political aisle, but throughout the narrative, he brings up excellent points about society and personal freedoms.

Death Throes of the Republic chronicles the hundred years or so between the end of the Punic Wars to the assassination of Julius Caesar.  Carlin does a great job showing how each crisis leads to just one more little exception to the rules, and each exception becomes a precedent for the next time someone makes a claim to more power or another exception.

If you haven’t read read or listened to them, you’re missing out.  If you have, you might want to give them a quick do-over.

Anyway, in Centurion, Congress passes an emergency powers act that gives the president almost dictatorial powers “for the duration”.  The chief executive goes on to rapidly increase the aspects of society that she controls, and of course she goes off the deep end on a lot of it.

In Death Throes, the subject of precedent comes up again and again.  “We let Joeblonus do it a generation ago, and this is just more of the same, but I need just a little more.”

Our government is also big on precedent.  Stare decesis rules in the courts.  Legislation written in a way that echoes the great laws of the past almost always gets through Congress.  Presidents point to their predecessors and their actions to justify their own.

I bring this up because Congress has passed several relief bills and is likely to add to them in the coming weeks.  President Trump and the legislative branch are, for once, working together on something.

Now, I’m not against providing some relief for people and industries that have been hurt by all this.  You can make the argument that the reaction to the pandemic have added to the economic problems, and that the emergency powers Congress is giving to the President aren’t all that necessary.  You can also argue that we haven’t done enough and that the worst is yet to come.

Either way, the money’s going to get spent and the government is going to flex muscles it didn’t even know it had before this is all over.  Hopefully it does some good.  Maybe it’ll also do some ill.

My concern about sweeping changes to government, made in haste, is the same as it has been since the passage of the Patriot Act.  No power granted to government goes without being abused, no matter how pure the intentions were when it was granted.

When people are scared, they want someone to make it all better.  Emergency legislation can easily become an enabling act.  Presidents, no matter how noble, can be tempted to push things just a little further or to use a power in a way it wasn’t designed.

And, of course, we have to remind ourselves that even if President Trump is an honorable man who would never stoop to abusing his office, can we guarantee that the next president, or the president in eight years, won’t?

This is the same question I asked President Obama’s supporters during his tenure.  No matter how pure one executive is, the next one might be his or her polar opposite.  Giving too much power to people we trust gives that power to folks we wouldn’t trust as far as we can throw them.

So, if we’re going to use the power of the federal government to combat this pandemic, we need to make damn sure that our Senators and Representatives are putting limits and sunsets on that power.

The Roman Republic died from a hundred crises and a thousand self-inflicted cuts.  I only hope that we can avoid the same fate.

 

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5 Comments

  1. OldNFO

     /  March 23, 2020

    Excellent points! Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  2. Phssthpok

     /  March 27, 2020

    I have yet to see anyone anywhere (except for myself) commenting on California making gig-economy jobs illegal (in essence), then ordering a quarantine requiring take-out and delivery food only after killing grub-hub, door-dash, Uber-eats, etc…

    • That’s a good point. I wonder if that particular law is being held in abeyance for the duration.

  3. I’m reading more and more people getting twitchy at the idea of the President declaring a state to be in quarantine. Rhode Island is trying to keep New York residents out, or forcing them into quarantine. I realize that part of this is because of all the coverage about NYC’s problems, but the precedent is very, very worrying. It should be the governor, and governors working together, not the president UNLESS the governor(s) make the request.

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