It Has Been One Thousand Days Since “Fifteen Days to Slow the Spread,” and What Did We Learn?

By Cruz Marquis

On March 16, 2020, President Trump announced his plan to stop the pandemic: “Fifteen days to slow the spread.” That was one thousand days ago, and what did we learn? Never empower the state during a crisis.

Fifteen days to slow the spread was just the start of the pandemic power grab, and, like all power grabs, it sounded almost innocuous at first. The image will probably be immortalized in textbooks: The former president, stern-faced at the White House lectern, flanked on both sides by the Coronavirus Task Force, headed by Dr. Fauci, urging a “massive, unprecedented, nationwide response.”

It started off as a gentle nudge in the direction of staying home. The former president made a number of recommendations about who should abstain from work and social contact, but did not presume to rule by decree and attempt to make it law by executive fiat. A few days later, the governors did it for him.

Four days later, I was working on cars with my friends and my phone buzzed. On the screen was an unfamiliar and shocking notification which told of a mandatory lockdown order taking effect in a few days. Governor Pritzker seized on the initiative of the president and took it one step further by making the order to stay home the law within his state.

When I told my friends, all the tools got set down. Surprise gave way to melancholy: Fifteen days to slow the spread was only four days old, and while all who value liberty were reeling from that blow, more came quickly from the governors, thus, getting the average Joe to acquiesce in the original. By always keeping the citizens reeling from more usurpations, they cannot focus on one long enough to mobilize resistance, which anyway, would be low level and scattered, since the general interest of society never has champions equal to those of highly-paid and well-organized special interests.

Before the lockdowns of 2020, people did not view government precisely as they do today —there was a noticeable shift in the fealty given to it during the pandemic. Even though people spoke out, they could never rally enough support fast enough due to the lightspeed pace of the changes. Think me cynical, but such might have been by design.  

Once the governors started imposing lockdowns, people got used to the “new normal” pretty quickly. Those lone voices in the wilderness who cry out for liberty became fewer and fewer, as the public perception of the state shifted as a result of the new powers given to it. Crisis inures the people to shackles better than any other justification.

A thousand days later, the pandemic has all but passed, which is to say, the political capital needed for keeping up the usurpations of liberty is found wanting. Now that the disaster has passed, there is need of an accounting of what was lost when the state attempted to central plan its way out of a pandemic.

Thankfully, we have pollsters to do the statistic crunching for us. In March of this year, almost two years to the day after fifteen days to slow the spread, YouGov and Americans for Prosperity conducted a poll to see how Americans view their government. The results were as predictable as they were disheartening. The New York Post summarizes their findings:

“42% feel less secure about voicing their opinions, 43% feel less secure about their freedom to protest, 36% feel less secure about their freedom to exercise religious beliefs.” 

–The New York Post

This is the lasting legacy of fifteen days to slow the spread: Inaugurating the era of big-government disease control. Liberty once lost is very difficult to regain, and there is a considerable amount of political science work to back this up.

Once upon a time, Professor Robert Higgs revolutionized the way people understand the growth of the state. The leviathan did not grow up overnight, nor could it be explained by conventional excuses like efficiency in providing public goods or being a response to modernity. Instead, the state grows through sharp, identifiable bursts, and they all have something in common: They were responses to crises.

Higgs called this discovery “the ratchet effect,” because, like the tool which rotates forward and locks in place to prevent backsliding, the state gets new powers during a crisis ostensibly to deal with it, and once the storm clouds pass, the new powers do not. Like a ratchet which locks in place, so does the new, enlarged size of the state.

Coronavirus is the clearest cut example of a crisis the state exploited for its own good. Before the pandemic, it would be absurd to think the CDC could regulate renter-landlord relations, governors would micromanage what products (ex. children’s car seats) stores could sell, and order churches closed indefinitely. However, shortsightedness was the order of the day, and not nearly enough batted an eye when the state did all of those things.  

Those particular controls timed out, but now that they have once been established, rest assured they will return. The power of precedent is underestimated; the unwritten rules which govern the conduct of the average person and the state alike provide guidelines for what is and is not acceptable. Rules openly flouted for prolonged periods of time tend to lose their weight, thus forming a new rule: That which was once unacceptable now apparently is. Now there is a precedent for the CDC regulating the housing market, governors determining what products stores can sell, and ordering churches to close, which can be seized on whenever there is another crisis, or even when there isn’t.

When the powers that be normalize something distinctly abnormal with force and only a few people say anything in return, the latter becomes in popular imagination the former. A thousand days after former President Trump’s speech announcing fifteen days to slow the spread, there are still numerous covid restrictions in place around the country. If we learned anything during the last thousand days, it is this: Do not empower the state during a crisis.

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