The COVID Story’s Focus Isn’t Where It Should Be for a Free People

After a light content week last week, and for a little Monday morning political philosophy, consider two COVID-19-related stories/conversations that have been floating around out there.

The first comes via Ken Block, who asked on Facebook how anybody could think “it is wrong for the federal government to get involved in pushing states to get everyone to wear masks but it is OK for the federal government to push states to reopen schools in the fall for in-person classes, even in states with out-of-control virus outbreaks.”

A little bit of conversation did nothing to help me understand how it is possible that an intelligent person who has demonstrably spent time thinking about political philosophy and the structure of government would not see the difference, here.  Ken drew no distinction between the federal government’s seeking a say in the operation of state government’s ordinary activities and its seeking a say in the state government’s impositions on citizens.

At least since the post-Civil War era, the structure of our citizenship is almost dual, as citizens separately of the United States and the states in which we live.  The Constitution guarantees us representative forms of government at the state level.  Then, the Constitutional Amendments intended to eliminate slavery (and Supreme Court interpretations thereof) have  essentially extended that guarantee to include every right recognized under the U.S. Constitution.  It is entirely in keeping with this framework for the federal government to intervene on our behalf with overreaching state governments and, more so, to refuse to conspire with a state government to influence our individual behavior.

This idea that the federal government has separate relationships with us and with the states of which we are also citizens ties to the portion of Ken and my conversation having to do with money.  The feds give money to the states for schools they, the states, operate.   That is substantively different than saying that federal money goes toward healthcare, too, and therefore it is appropriate for the federal government to leverage that fact to impose new mandates on individuals.  The parallel to schools would be if the federal government leveraged money it gives us, as individuals, to encourage mask wearing.  Our state is not our intermediary to the federal government in all things; we don’t even allow states to appoint U.S. Senators anymore.

Of course, I’m arguing this point as somebody who thinks we’ve got way too much government, that what we have is way too centralized, and that our ruling class is becoming way too comfortable with the idea that government is a legitimate mechanism for guiding society.  My point, here, is not to say that the federal government should be doing one thing or another, but if we can’t think clearly about the operation of government, then we can’t defend our rights at any level.

Another distinction that is worryingly being missed these days can be seen in the conversation about beach closings and the like.  If you listen to Rhode Island’s Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, you might get the impression that the primary goal isn’t to protect people so much as to win some competition with other states.  Our COVID-19 cases have been slowing down, and if we don’t follow her rules, that statistic might begin to reverse.

Her tone, which predominates in the local news media, too, isn’t one of interest in why Rhode Islanders are making the choices they are making, how we’re balancing our various needs and interests, and how that might guide our government in better representing what we want.  It’s more like: “the queen might have no choice but to increase enforcement because unruly subjects aren’t doing what they’re told.”

The focus of coverage hasn’t emphasized how we’re getting through this as a community — including what we’re thinking and why — so much as it has been about how well we’re getting in line in a collective competition of preventative behavior and whose leaders are making the right choices on all of our behalf.  It’s all big personalities and political games.

That may be an easier and more-fun story to write, but it isn’t what we should demand as a free and independent people… unless that’s not what we are anymore.

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