Cooperation vs. Coercion: The Coming Cultural Conflict

On March 16th, President Trump unveiled coronavirus task force’s guidelines to help slow the spread of the disease. The original 15 days became an additional 30 days by the end of March. The guidelines suggested that people stay home if they’re sick, keep their kids home if they get sick, keep everyone in the household home if one person tests positive, and called on the elderly and unhealthy to be especially careful. These guidelines didn’t require businesses to shut down and order citizens to shelter-in-place.

Before the guidelines came out, people were already voluntarily taking action. The NBA suspended its season on March 11th, the NHL followed suit on March 12th, and the NCAA canceled its basketball tournament on March 13th. Other large gatherings quickly followed this trend and cancelled. No government action or order was required, as people responded to the situation in a thoughtful and responsible way.

Soon state governments got involved. Instead of issuing guidelines, governors across the country barked out orders: Restaurant dining rooms must close, nail and hair salons must close; dentists and other non-emergency medical providers must close; social distancing must be practiced. The various governors may be patting themselves on their respective backs for their decisive leadership and strong actions, but the truth is, people were already staying away or cancelling these things on their own.

Back in early March, owners of retail space were already dealing with tenants whose businesses were struggling even before the orders to close came down. Some stores had to lay off workers or even close down completely because people were voluntarily staying away. Their customers decided to play it safe in a time of uncertainty and stay home. The orders from the governors merely memorialized the actions people were already taking. Yes, there may have been an owner of a nail salon who would have stayed open to handle a customer or two a day that had to close down because the governor of her state ordered it, but the lack of business made it easy to cooperate with those kinds of orders.

The problem with those orders, however, is that they may not be constitutional. The Privileges and Immunity clause (Article IV, Section 2) of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that every citizen of every state has all the rights granted to them as citizens of the United States. As far back as 1823, a Federal Circuit Court determined that the privileges and immunities secured by this clause had to be fundamental rights expressly stated in the Constitution. Included among those rights are “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right to acquire and possess property of every kind, and to pursue and obtain happiness and safety.” Of course, no right is absolute and so the court subjected even these rights to “such restraints as the Government must justly prescribe for the general good of the whole” (Corfield v. Coryell, 6 Fed. Cases 546 [1823]).

One could certainly argue that being ordered to stay at home abridges the enjoyment of life and liberty and the order to close down a business takes away the right to acquire and possess property and limits the ability to pursue and obtain happiness.

On the other hand, those restrictive orders could be seen as necessary to keep a deadly disease from spreading, thus being for the general good of the whole. At the beginning of this crisis, I think most Americans agreed with this -- that they had rights but that they were willing to forgo those rights for the health and safety of others. That’s why, over these last five weeks, we haven’t seen footage on the local news of state police raids on restaurants and hair salons; we haven’t been watching policemen dragging diners away from their tables and tossing them into separate paddy wagons for violating the governor’s orders. The few stories we have seen have been about police abandoning common sense and harassing married couples sitting on benches or a father and daughter playing catch in a park.

Over these five weeks, however, I think state governors have started to confuse cooperation with coercion. They’re starting to think people stayed home because they were ordered to when, in fact, governors only got away with ordering them to stay home because they had already decided to stay put.

Confusing cooperation and confusion has now made governors pushy in their decrees. Michigan is the prime example, as Governor Gretchen Whitmer allows people to go to the local market and buy all the junk food they want from aisle 12 but prohibits them from buying equipment for a vegetable garden from aisle 17; and welcomes people from Chicago to drive to their homes on Lake Michigan but prohibits her own citizens from doing the same. By confusing cooperation with coercion, Whitmer created a mass protest against her contradictory and unjust orders.

Other protests have sprung up in other places around the country because we’ve gotten to a point in this crisis where people’s health is in far less danger than their livelihood. The protestors realize that the enjoyment of life and liberty, the right to acquire and possess property of every kind, the right to pursue and obtain happiness and safety is on the line. Meanwhile, the orders coming from various governors are no longer specifically tailored for the general good of the whole.

Many Democrat governors are doubling down on coercion at the exact moment cooperation is evaporating. Now we may start to see hair stylists, along with their partially coiffed customers, being dragged out of their stores by the police; now we may see state troopers blockading trucks carrying items considered non-essential to stores that have been forced to close; now we may be seeing cash-strapped Americans arrested for going to work.

Although these images would have hurt President Trump if they had been broadcast in March, they will destroy the Democrat Party if they’re broadcast now.

Kimberly Strassel at the WSJ, thinks the Dems have an advantage here, since they are positioned now to lay every coronavirus corpse at the President’s feet. She may be right about their intentions, but I don’t think they’ll be able to pull it off. Plus, the easy counterpunch is to lay the death of every small business at the feet of every Democrat: the governors who refuse to open their states, the congressmen who demand unrelated goodies before helping their constituents, and the Senators who undermine the administration’s efforts by delaying the appointment of people who could be helping. For every sad story about an 80-year-old grandmother succumbing to the virus, there will be a dozen stories of a heartbroken grandmother mourning because her grandson’s business was destroyed by the government.

Steve Matteucci has degrees in Economics, Law, Taxation, and Theology. His book, How to Be a Trustee: Practical Thinking on Settling a Living Trust, is available on Amazon.

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