Over the past two weeks, Gov. Roy Cooper and local officials have imposed a regulatory regime of increasing severity on North Carolinians. Their stated goal is to slow the spread of COVID-19 so the number of cases requiring hospitalization won’t shoot far above the maximum capacity of hospitals and other health providers.
Their goal is not to contain the spread of the virus in the long run. Most officials grant that a large swath of the population already has been or eventually will be infected. In the vast majority of cases, the infected will experience either mild symptoms or none at all. But some will be hospitalized, and a small share — disproportionately older and suffering from serious preexisting conditions — will not survive their bout with the virus.
Did Cooper and local officials make the right call? I don’t know for certain. Neither do you, to be blunt. They are acting on limited, incomplete, and problematic data. I recognize they are under extreme stress, likely sleep-deprived, and facing a set of unattractive policy choices.
I don’t envy the position they’re in. I respect their public service and pray for them. You should, too. But that doesn’t mean we should simply accept their decisions without scrutiny or complaint.
Our government hasn’t just shut down businesses (some potentially for good), thrown hundreds of thousands out of work, and disrupted the daily lives of millions of North Carolinians with no clearly articulated standard for when the dictates will be lifted. Our government has also suspended our basic liberties as citizens of a free society.
I have been ordered, under threat of arrest and imprisonment, to minimize my contact with friends and family who live across town or in another city. I have been ordered, under threat of arrest and imprisonment, not to assemble with others to express our jointly held opinions or practice our jointly held faith.
If you think I am arguing the government should never have the power to do these things, you are jumping to the wrong conclusion. As an advocate of limited, constitutional government, I grant that infectious disease is one of the few cases in which highly coercive action may be required to protect public health and safety. It is one of the rare exceptions to the rule that private property should be inviolate and that informed consent, not government dictate, is the proper way for people to manage the risks and rewards of life in a civilized society.
The threshold for government to resort to such measures should be extremely high, however. And I get very suspicious when I see public officials justify actions such as shelter-in-place orders with the claim that “if even a single person’s life is saved, it will be worth it.”
Let me be crystal clear: Anyone who says that should be kept far, far away from wielding governmental authority at any level. They lack the knowledge and judgment to make reasonable public policy. They exhibit a basic ignorance of how free societies work.
If North Carolina set a maximum speed limit of 25 miles per hour on every road and street, we would see fewer traffic fatalities. If North Carolina prohibited swimming pools, we would see fewer drownings. And if North Carolina issued a shelter-in-place order every year from December to March, we would see fewer deaths from influenza and other familiar but deadly diseases.
For progressives who don’t yet get the point, try this one: Every year, a small but tragic number of murders are committed by people who are living illegally in the United States. If we strictly enforce immigration laws and deport as many unauthorized aliens as we can, many of those murders will not occur.
The draconian response to COVID-19 has imposed grave economic and social consequences on North Carolinians and other Americans. They won’t shelter in place for months. They can’t. And they’ll become increasingly impatient with leaders who offer them platitudes instead of a practical plan for moving forward.