The perils of public-health emergencies

We all have issues that we wish Congress or our state governments would prioritize or address with the policy we “know” to be better. But marshaling emergency powers to get around deliberative democracy is corrosive and likely to make the status quo more, not less, dysfunctional. Every time politicians say “We should treat this like a public-health emergency,” the public should reflect on whether their intention is to wield power they couldn’t otherwise get. Even during an emergency, officials should not deploy their extraordinary authority in ways that the polity would reject if it had more time and knowledge. How the people are represented may be temporarily altered. The ideal of government by the people should not be.

And just as government officials shouldn’t expect to apply emergency powers except sparingly and in genuine crises, they should also recognize that those powers cannot go on forever. The longer that the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, the less the use of emergency powers to address it can be justified, because at some point legislators catch up enough to reassume responsibility.

The Delta variant may have “changed the war” against COVID-19, as the CDC famously declared, but we’re past the point where scientific expertise is the main skill set America requires. As Michael Brendan Dougherty put it in National Review, “Governors and presidents cannot set policy just by ‘following the science.’ Science has no legitimate way of assessing the public’s tolerance for certain measures and intrusions. Nor does it have the ability to weigh competing and contrary claims of political and economic liberty against public-health priorities.”

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