During Alice's adventures in Wonderland, she found herself in the presence of the King of Hearts. He wanted her to go, so he cited Rule 42: "All persons more than a mile high to leave the court." Heads turned to Alice. "I'm not a mile high," she objected. "You are," said the King. The queen testified that Alice is nearly two miles tall. "Well, I shan't go, at any rate," Alice said, "besides, that's not a regular rule: you invented it just now."
Nearly seven weeks into our otherworldly adventures in COVID-related confinement—a home-prison sentence with occasional trips to the Save Mart—more of us are bristling at the irrational restrictions that our elected officials are placing on us. Americans gave them the benefit of the doubt for several weeks, acknowledging the unusual circumstances of a novel coronavirus that experts originally claimed could take millions of lives.
But now we're left stuck in the King of Hearts' court, amazed by the illogical and arbitrary nature of the newly imposed rules. In Michigan, you can go boating, but may get arrested if you use a motor. In California, selling marijuana is essential, but not giving a haircut. We can't know what the exact rules are because they change so quickly and without the usual vetting. Who knows if we'll be the next person handcuffed for playing in a park?
Our democratic system of sausage-making is odd enough and results in a crazy array of sometimes-oppressive laws. But there's a process for making them, a system of checks and balances, and court systems that keep it all in check. It's not perfect, but it's not arbitrary and capricious. In a world of executive orders, though, truth is whatever the king—or the governor or president—says it is.
Rules don't have to be logical, but we must obey. There's no room for local decision-making or thoughtful disagreement. It's all about power. As author Ayn Rand wrote, "The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws."
And that's where we are now. The government, under the auspices of addressing an admittedly serious health crisis, can criminalize virtually everything—from leaving your home for a stroll, to operating your business. Some states have begun loosening the restrictions, creating a path for the reopening of society so people can take care of themselves again. Have you noticed that Gov. Gavin Newsom keeps moving the goalposts?
The curve has been flattened and there's plenty of hospital capacity. In fact, hospitals throughout the state are laying off nurses given that there's little for them to do. People are avoiding the hospitals except for true emergencies, and in California there aren't that many COVID-19 patients.
The governor's roadmap for reopening offers six indicators before he rescinds the orders. It requires the state to have "the ability to monitor and protect our communities through testing, contact tracing, isolating and supporting those who are positive or exposed." It requires "the ability to develop therapeutics to meet the demand." But these are open-ended measures. Basically, California will reopen whenever it pleases the king.
Until his recent decision to allow some re-openings beginning May 8, Newsom had been tightening the reins. News reports showed crowded beaches in Orange County last weekend, which angered the King of Sacramento. I'm not sure why. The official statement by Newport Beach police and fire officials acknowledged that "the overwhelming majority" of beach-goers were "practicing social distancing."
Nevertheless, Newsom then announced a hard shut-down of Orange County beaches (but later decided that some could be open during limited morning hours). He wasn't pleased seeing Californians out enjoying fresh air and sunshine after many weeks of solitary confinement. It seems like an arbitrary response, but in a world of unchallenged power, who am I to object?
On its Twitter feed, the Office of the Governor posted a catchy statement: "The longer we go out, the longer we all stay in." That's something of a threat. State officials want us to more strictly follow Newsom's orders, or else they will punish us with them longer. Apparently, the beatings will continue until morale improves, even though there's scant evidence that these outings imperil public health.
Unfortunately, the nationwide rallies have seemed ineffective. Newsom said he wouldn't listen to them and California Highway Patrol has banned and cracked down on protests at the state Capitol. There's still a way for the out-of-work peons to proceed.
I went out for the first time in days and found the streets crowded, parking lots full and people following the social-distancing rules. Maybe our best approach is to begin to quietly live our lives as normally as possible. We won't question the sensible measures, but, as Alice noted, we shan't stay silent in the face of arbitrary nonsense.