COVID-19 Is Teaching Us Decentralization Is Needed More Now Than Ever
In the increasingly polarized America, Black Swan moments like the COVID-19 pandemic have further confirmed growing divides in the country. Our textbooks would like us to believe that emergencies create fertile grounds for unity. But when you have a populace that is politically dividing itself even when it comes to the TV shows it watches, there comes a point when we have to start recognizing that the prospect of national unity is becoming more of a mirage as the days go by.
Amusingly, the COVID-19 saga has been host to some of the most flagrant political posturing in recent memory. Early in March (which feels like eons ago in today’s frenetic media cycle) New York City mayor de Blasio was telling people to go to the movies and have fun. Now, he’s done a complete 180, shutting down most private businesses and even calling for the nationalization of certain industries and begging the federal government for military aid to combat the epidemic.
It’s not a stretch to say that a collective psychosis has engulfed a large segment of the country ever since Donald Trump was elected in 2016. We have a media constantly throwing fits about every word the president utters and that thinks it’s engaging in a moral crusade of sorts when confronting him at press briefings. The media would have us believe that the debate about the appropriateness of using the term “China virus” is the civil rights battle of our times. Indeed, polarization is palpable in America’s body politic and its Fourth Estate is not helping make things any better. But pessimism should not be overdone when trying to grasp America’s contemporary delusions. Political crises can force politicians to go off their prepackaged talking points and become unusually candid in their political outlook.
On April 7, 2020, California governor Gavin Newsom described California as a “nation-state” that would take matters into its own hands to move itself forward. With most of the nation in a state of shutdown, there has been a lot of speculation about when everyday activities will go back to normal. However, some on the left are skeptical of the Trump administration's desire to reopen the economy on surprisingly federalist grounds. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times did his best Ludwig von Mises impression in a recent column:
The truth is that Trump doesn’t have the legal or practical authority to dictate that restrictions be lifted for workplaces and commercial establishments, but neither do the governors.
The pace of any return to normality will be dictated by you and me—by consumers making their own judgments about when and under what circumstances it will be safe to resume old habits, and business owners running cost-benefit analyses on when a flow of customers will warrant reopening.
We are indeed living in the strangest of times when LA Times columnists are expressing sentiments that better belong in a passage of Human Action. The jury is still out on whether this is merely oppositional posturing from the Left, but any kind of conversation entailing the restoration of federalism is a welcome surprise.
The “authorized” right can generally be counted on to disappoint its constituents who genuinely believe in small government principles. To their credit, there have been some bright spots on their side in the present pandemic. States like Texas have gone out of their way to declare gun stores essential businesses and to deregulate several parts of its economy at a time where bureaucracy is impeding various vital economic functions.
Elected officials like State Representative Matt Gurtler in Georgia have raised the stakes by floating a proposal that would allow law-abiding Georgians to concealed carry anywhere. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem projected a stark contrast in her relatively lax approach to handling the pandemic. Jeff Deist used her example as the basis for several pragmatic measures that state governments can take to reopen their economies without throwing civil liberties into the wood chipper. No doubt there is much work to be done, but we can find glimmering signs of promise every now and then.
We need to move beyond the stale platitudes of trying to fix politics in DC. The chattering class’s lamentation about the divisiveness of politics is frankly silly. In some ways, polarization is our friend. The all-too-familiar ratchet effect has been largely put on hold thanks to the fact there’s no way to fast track certain power grabs such as gun control, thanks to the political division present in the current Congress. This is one case where partisanship can be used against itself in a way that keeps everyday people safe from DC’s antiliberty ruses. Gridlock is usually the next best option when no form of government reduction can be attained. Nevertheless, partisanship does have its limits in DC, as evidenced by the ease with which the monstrosity of a stimulus bill was able to reach Trump’s desk. Hence why decentralization is the x factor that Americans must tap into to break out of its managerial trance.
If Californians want to give up their rights during a quarantine, they can go ahead and knock themselves out. Other states will shine as beacons of reason as they turn to more practical alternatives that balance public health and basic freedoms. Thanks to decentralization (and the Tenth Amendment), America has multiple laboratories of policy experimentation across the nation. Competing jurisdictions allow us to see what works and what doesn’t.
Not all states will have the same policies. Others will enjoy certain liberties, while others will have fewer freedoms. That’s how the cookie will have to crumble. We must understand that the biggest threat we face in America isn’t the disparity in gun laws or tax policy between states like Texas and California, but rather the massive managerial state that has consolidated in Washington, DC, which engages in large-scale behavioral modification and usurpation of local governance. Extricating ourselves from this parasitic entity will be the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century, but it’s a battle worth taking.