Law & Government

Crises Bring Out the Toddler in Power-Hungry Politicians

Thwarted politicians rant, pout, and are outraged by anybody who pushes back.


The closest approximations to eternal toddlers in our society may be government officials told there are limits on the extent to which they can screw with human lives. They rant, they pout, and sometimes they even vow to poke and prod others anyway, daring anybody to make them stop. The distilled essence of a thwarted brat was on prominent display last week when New York City's mayor raged at the United States Supreme Court for daring to say that, even during a time of perceived crisis, a government agency can't unilaterally let people squat on private property.

"A group of right wing extremists just decided to throw families out of their homes during a global pandemic," Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to a decision voiding the Biden administration's extension of the national eviction moratorium. "This is an attack on working people across our country and city. New York won't stand for this vile, unjust decision."

The reaction was especially off the wall given that the Supreme Court warned that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have no authority to suspend property rights. Even President Joe Biden conceded that his executive branch didn't have the authority the CDC asserted during both his and the preceding Trump administration.

"The bulk of the constitutional scholarship says that it's not likely to pass constitutional muster," the president admitted on August 3. Not that a lack of authority held him back.

"But, at a minimum, by the time it gets litigated, it will probably give some additional time while we're getting that $45 billion out to people who are, in fact, behind in the rent and don't have the money," Biden added, explaining that he was going ahead with the eviction moratorium despite a lack of authority to do so because it's all for a good cause. 

That should be an interesting precedent for future officials who decide that a lack of authority is no reason to refrain from bypassing checks and balances or even outright ignoring fundamental rights while the matter "gets litigated." After all, Biden is far from rare among government officials in invoking good intentions as justification for wandering far beyond the bounds of permissible authority.

"Today's decision is a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period," California Gov. Gavin Newsom snorted after a federal judge struck down the state's ban on some semi-automatic rifles. He ignored the court's finding that the type of firearm restricted by the law "is the kind of versatile gun that lies at the intersection of the kinds of firearms protected under District of Columbia v. Heller" landmark 2008 Supreme Court Second Amendment decision.

"What's not up for debate is that our early and decisive action saved lives," sniffed Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf after another federal judge pointed out that "the Constitution cannot accept the concept of a 'new normal' where the basic liberties of the people can be subordinated to open-ended emergency-mitigation measures."

Maybe it's something in New York's water, but former President Donald Trump sounded positively de Blasio-esque in 2017 when a judge thwarted his will (or, perhaps more accurately, de Blasio later emulated his former constituent's lead).

"The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!" Trump huffed after a federal judge overturned his ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Then again, this was the same guy who told an audience, "I have the right to do whatever I want as president but, I don't even talk about that."

That got a lot of coverage at the time, but the conduct of many officeholders makes it clear that Trump just said what other officials believe. Since then, as Wolf, Newsom, Biden, and now de Blasio illustrate, saying the quiet part out loud has become increasingly popular. Politicians and their supporters resent restrictions on the exercise of power, lash out at anybody who would keep their actions within any sort of limits, and openly exercise authority that they publicly acknowledge doesn't exist.

Undoubtedly, people who go into government have always chafed at any effort to make them live within legal and constitutional constraints. Government, after all, is defined by the use of coercive power. That the power is supposed to be exercised only within limits must be frustrating to people who were attracted by the opportunity to coerce others for reasons that they always argue are the very best.

Worse, recent years have seen growing animosity between political factions in the United States which have grown impatient with protections for the rights of their enemies. Driving this, in part, is "'partisan moral disengagement,' which entails seeing the other party as evil, less than human and a serious threat to the nation," as political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe wrote earlier this year. Why, many people ask themselves, respect restraints that stand in the way of purging evil from this world?

Then the pandemic, involving real public health threats as well as exaggerated fears, ruptured limits on the exercise of power.

"Governors in most states possess the power to act unilaterally and without need for any legislative approval, in ways not fully appreciated prior to the coronavirus, and in ways that are already leading to a reconsideration of some state emergency-power arrangements," John Dinan, a Wake Forest University professor of politics, noted last year. It was an updated acknowledgement of Robert Higgs's observation that crises drive growth in government power (and it rarely returns to its original state).

Even before the stresses and strains of the last few years, government officials were already attracted to power and inclined to test its limits. Factionalization and crisis have eroded the restraints on that power. And now, like toddlers, the people who rule over us feel justified in doing what they please to those at their mercy and are outraged by anybody who pushes back.