Dangerous Legacy of Emergencies Like COVID-19

Member Group : Commonwealth Foundation

The terrorist attacks on 9/11, Covid-19, the storming of the U.S. Capitol; each of these events in modern history precipitated erosions of our freedoms—freedoms we’ve willingly traded for security.

In the moment, such decisions seem obvious. Who wouldn’t forgo some privacy to prevent terrorists from killing thousands of Americans? Who wouldn’t temporarily close a restaurant to protect their elderly parents? But time and time again, ostensibly short-term expansions of government quickly become permanent fixtures in our lives.

Consider the landscape after 9/11, when Americans widely supported the federal Patriot Act, an unprecedented expansion of government surveillance. This was closely followed by the Bush administration’s creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). These post-9/11 reforms continue to profoundly shape American society in wide-ranging ways. Were they worth it?

By 2010, a Washington Post investigative report concluded that the “top-secret world the government created” after 9/11 had “become so large, so unwieldy, and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it, or exactly how many agencies do the same work.” A year later, one study estimated that DHS would have to stop four terrorist attacks daily to be worth the money that the federal government invests in the massive department. Then, in 2013, Americans learned the extent of post-9/11 government surveillance—including tracked personal calls, under the auspices of the Patriot Act—when Edward Snowden leaked the activities of the National Security Agency (NSA).

A year later, one study estimated that DHS would have to stop four terrorist attacks daily to be worth the money that the federal government invests in the massive department.

And the TSA? In the past 20 years, we have all experienced the misery of airport travel. In reality, this mere inconvenience regularly violates Americans’ basic civil rights. In 2019, for example, the TSA inexplicably confiscated Pittsburgher Terry Rolin’s life savings of $82,000 when his daughter, Rebecca, tried to transport the money to Boston, where she lives, and then deposit it into a new, joint bank account. The family was forced to sue in order to get their money back. Terry’s story alone illustrates how a more powerful and centralized government, no matter how well-intentioned, ultimately harms Americans.

No doubt, the recent events of January 6 could result in yet another weakening of our freedoms—this time the freedom of speech and association. After the U.S. Capitol riots, President Joe Biden vaguely promised to revive a domestic terrorism bill. If Biden’s plans include social media surveillance, watch out. After all, permitting the government to dictate social media content is far more dangerous than private companies cowing to political pressure to censor content. The best way to counter misinformation is more and better speech, not less.

But perhaps no government response to tragedy can compare to the sweeping powers held by a governor in the pandemic era. This is especially evident in Pennsylvania, where Governor Tom Wolf has issued directives to close retail stores, restaurants, schools, factories and even houses of worship. It all seems Orwellian and far beyond the scope of what Americans would have tolerated before 2020. And yet, all these dramatic measures occurred since last March. Their breadth and scope, moreover, were determined not by an elected body, or even a board of elites. Instead, these powers were concentrated in one official: Gov. Wolf.

Terry’s story alone illustrates how a more powerful and centralized government, no matter how well-intentioned, ultimately harms Americans.

Yet again, was it worth it? Did Pennsylvanians’ willingness to sacrifice their incomes and set a dangerous precedent of government shutdowns save lives? The verdict is still out. Preliminary research indicates these shutdowns did not slow the devastation of the virus in a scientifically verifiable way. They did, however, create new sources of harm and heartache, spurring young adult mental health emergencies; delayed medical appointments that could increase preventable deaths; permanent business closures; and a workforce exodus. Once again, it appears we gave the government more power for little to no gain in security. And, even in the best case scenario that shutdowns saved lives, it remains unclear why the power to paralyze an economy should be indefinitely held by a single individual.

This month, the state legislature is working to place a constitutional amendment on the May primary ballot. The amendment would allow the governor to declare a state of emergency with broad powers to shut down the economy, but only for 21 days at a time, rather than 90 days under current law. Continuing the state of emergency beyond three weeks would require agreement from the General Assembly.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that our very form of government hangs in the balance. Disbursing power among three co-equal branches of government—the executive, judiciary and legislature—prevents a concentration of power and protects the freedoms we all enjoy.

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on our families, our livelihoods and so much more. While we must remain proactive in fighting the virus, we cannot simultaneously let it break the balance of power in our government. When power is concentrated, tyranny is not far behind.

The best government is localized, limited and disbursed because those are the conditions that empower individuals to pursue prosperity. In Pennsylvania, voters will soon have the opportunity to protect that freedom and ensure the birthplace of our democratic republic remains a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Elizabeth Stelle is the director of policy analysis at Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank. You can follow Elizabeth at @ElizabethBryan and Commonwealth Foundation at @Liberty4PA