Avoiding government overreach in the COVID-19 recovery

May 14, 2020 | By TIMOTHY SNOWBALL

Too often, government makes bad situations worse. States have broad powers to protect the health and safety of their citizens—especially during emergencies like the COVID-19 outbreak, but many overreaching and arbitrary government policies having little to do with public safety have made the situation more painful and destructive than necessary.

Now, as governors and local leaders begin to ease current restrictions (whenever that is deemed safe), they should learn from their past mistakes in the initial response and ensure that the pain of COVID-19 isn’t made worse by government reactions.

For example, states like Michigan enacted increasingly overbearing orders that weren’t clearly targeted toward protecting public health and safety. Michiganders were banned from buying home improvement goods and home gardening supplies but were still allowed to purchase state lottery tickets (which coincidentally bring millions to state coffers).

Some states issued arbitrary exemptions for connected and powerful businesses. In Florida, the governor deemed professional wrestling to be an “essential activity,” allowing it to go forward despite general shelter-in-place orders. Or take Kentucky’s governor, who prohibited drive-through church services but allowed drive-through liquor sales.

And in California, Governor Gavin Newsom even went so far as to declare that he had the right to suspend civil government and declare martial law if citizens do not comply with his shelter-in-place order. But martial law is supposed to be reserved only for the direst breakdowns in law and order, not for disputes over a politician’s preferred policies.

These examples prove the unfortunate maxim that governments rarely let crises go to waste, and often expand their own power to the detriment of individuals. As states begin opening up, they should be guided by the principles of individual liberty, because as the Declaration of Independence says, the very purpose of government is to protect the rights of the people.

State leaders should first work to keep restrictive and inefficient laws suspended during COVID-19 off the books. These include so-called “Certificate of Need” laws that require new market entrants in various medical fields to secure the permission of their competitors before they can begin operating. Pacific Legal Foundation recently called on 14 state governors to end this harmful practice.

States should also seek to identify and roll back laws and regulations that inhibit and prevent helpful innovation. The primary progress already made to combat COVID-19 has come from private firms, not government mandates. This includes the manufacture of medical equipment, masks, hand sanitizer, and other vital technology. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman stated long ago: “The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus…There is no alternative way, so far discovered, to improve the lot of ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activity unleashed by a free enterprise system.”

Finally, states should work to better define the scope of their own police powers. It cannot simply be the case that a crisis can be declared, no matter how warranted, and state governments are freed to take any action a politician or bureaucrat deems necessary. State legislatures should explore the possibility of new legislation addressing this issue, and if necessary, lawsuits should be filed to rational limits.

As states begin to open up and life hopefully returns to normal, our local governments and elected officials should bear in mind their mistakes and institutional limitations, and err on the side of individual liberty.