Will COVID-19 Help Americans Break the Habit of Deferring to Centralized Authority?

We may find that we like making our own decisions.


American government-level responses to the COVID-19 pandemic predictably divide along partisan lines. That's meant a lot of televised sniping between Republicans and Democrats, as well as competing narcissistic windbaggery from President Donald Trump and New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It has also meant a revival of the tension between dispersed decision-making and concentrated authority. With Americans pulling away from each other into opposing camps, the time is ripe for breaking centralized control over our lives.

This week, the Democratic governors of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island announced the creation of a "multi-state council" intended "to develop a fully integrated regional framework to gradually lift the states' stay at home orders while minimizing the risk of increased spread of the virus."

Simultaneously, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington – also all Democrats – proclaimed a "Western States Pact" based on "a shared vision for reopening their economies and controlling COVID-19 into the future."

Both groupings emphasize public health considerations over restarting the lockdown-crippled economy. They object to the president's push for reopening businesses and getting Americans back to work.

In response, Trump insisted that he has "total authority" over decisions about when life should get back to normal. That's a patently false claim that he had to walk back. We may be accustomed to the federal government exercising near-absolute power, but the Constitution reserves most tasks for the states, no matter what they've willingly surrendered over the years.

The battle we're watching isn't a principled dispute over federalism and the Constitution. Nothing converts Democrats into fans of state power like Republican control of the White House, and it's exactly that control that makes Republicans into cheerleaders for the federal government. Their positions will reverse just as soon as the major parties' fortunes do. Given the deep partisan polarization in the U.S., which has seen Republicans and Democrats come to not just oppose but actually hate each other, change in control of Congress or the White House is just a recipe for flipping the script. Republicans and Democrats may trade places, but half the country will continue to resist whatever is happening in Washington, D.C.

This also isn't a contest between heroes and villains.

Trump is right to worry about the implications of a national suspension of economic activity to slow the spread of COVID-19. But he's also turned televised pandemic briefings into opportunities to rant about his political enemies and berate members of the press. And, under his watch, the federal government hijacks shipments of medical supplies ordered by hospitals.

Likewise, governors justifiably fret over the pandemic's lethal impact on densely populated urban areas in their states. But Cuomo's threat to send the National Guard to steal ventilators from upstate hospitals looked very much like an exercise in rewarding the New York City residents who vote for him at the expense of voters elsewhere who don't. And many of the restrictions imposed by state officials responding to COVID-19 are nothing less than intrusive and bizarre.

Besides, if Trump lacks the authority to open and close the economy at will, it's not clear that governors possess it, either.

"Americans should know that ample legal precedents suggest that most shelter in place orders are unlawful and unconstitutional," Robert E. Wright, professor of political economy at Augustana University, wrote for the American Institute for Economic Research. He points to a history of quarantine orders much more limited in scope than what we've seen this year.

But if we're going to have bad policy, better to have it imposed at the state and local level than by the feds. Then, it can be compared to differing approaches elsewhere. It can also be evaded if necessary, the way Pennsylvanians poured across the state line to make purchases in neighboring communities after their government monopoly liquor stores closed as part of the pandemic response.

Truthfully, governors rediscovering the pleasures of state power likely have more on their minds than the "laboratories of democracy" that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described in his discussion of federalism and policy experiments. The partisan divide built into the revolt of the coastal states' alliances against federal power makes their efforts look like yet another salvo in the increasingly nasty political warfare that has engulfed the country in recent years.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, for his part, has the habit of referring to California as a "nation-state." That raises questions about just how far he plans to take his assertion of independence from federal policy set by Trump and Republicans.

But if Newsom and company have learned to enjoy going their own way, they might want to remember that it doesn't have to stop at the state level. Protests against strict lockdown rules in Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio make it clear that shifting power from the federal governments to the states doesn't eliminate disagreement and resistance. Officials in some placesincluding county sheriffs in Idaho and Michiganrefuse to enforce at least parts of state stay-at-home orders that they consider unconstitutional and violations of civil liberties.

"In the spirit of liberty and the Constitution, you can request those of us that are sick to stay home, but, at the same time, you must release the rest of us to go on with our normal business," Sheriff Daryl Wheeler of Idaho's Bonner County wrote to Idaho Gov. Brad Little.

If states dissent from federal policy and try to pursue a different approach, localities certainly feel justified in doing the same. And if local policies rub individuals the wrong way, you can expect plenty of people to insist on making their own decisions for themselves.

And why not? Decentralized decision-making doesn't guarantee better results than the centralized kind, but it affects and offends fewer people. It allows greater respect for people's varying circumstances and their different tolerances for risk.

Of course, the same can be said about all sorts of decisions that are traditionally left to the powers-that-be to impose one-size-fits-all mandates that end up fitting very few. If we can break the habit of deferring to centralized authority, we may find that we like making our own choices.