Thousands of years ago in 458 BC, Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus was hard at work behind his plow on the family farm when a group of Roman Senators showed up with urgent news.
A foreign enemy called the Acqui had vanquished one of Rome’s armies and was rapidly approaching the city. The Republic was in deep trouble.
Cincinnatus was a former consul and renowned military leader, so in their panic, the Roman Senate unanimously appointed him as an emergency dictator.
All of Rome’s individual freedoms were immediately suspended. Checks and balances were eliminated. Cincinnatus would have supreme power to do whatever he saw fit during Rome’s time of crisis.
According to ancient Roman historians, Cincinnatus told his wife, “Go and fetch my toga,” and he immediately went to work.
Cincinnatus was legendary: he mobilized a new army, repelled the foreign invaders, and saved the city from certain destruction, all within just 15 days.
But even more importantly, Cincinnatus relinquished all of his power immediately after the victory, and returned to his plow. It was a display of virtue and selflessness that Romans celebrated for centuries.
Most dictators, of course, are not so principled.
The ancient Greeks (despite having invented democracy) routinely appointed dictators during times of national emergency.
Very few relinquished power willingly, and several– like Dionysius of Syracuse, Nabis of Sparta, Peisistratus, etc.– ruled for decades.
They always found a way to extend the emergency and hang on to power. And eventually, the people simply became accustomed to their new reality.
This is still true of human nature today.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, my father used to go on business trips from time to time, and my mother would usually take my sister and I to the airport to pick him up.
Many of you are old enough to remember this– back then, visitors used to be able to go directly to the gate, i.e. we would go through security and sit at the gate waiting for my dad as he walked off the plane.
Obviously you can’t do that anymore.
After a series of terrorist incidents in the late 1990s, followed by 9/11 a few years later, the government put its boot to the throat of airport security.
Today we stand in line for a dose of radiation while being barked at and occasionally fondled by federal employees.
If you think about 9/11 in particular, its remarkable how much power the government grabbed, and how many freedoms they took away. Two decades later, it’s clear those freedoms are never coming back.
I’m not just talking about visitors being able to go directly to the gate at the airport. That’s a tiny example.
The wider impact of 9/11 can be seen everywhere.
The government now maintains broad authority to spy on it citizens, with the NSA brazenly intercepting phone calls, emails, and communication metadata through an extraordinary surveillance dragnet.
Financial institutions submit ‘suspicious activity reports’ to the federal government to inform on their own customers, even for the most mundane transactions like withdrawing a few thousand dollars of cash.
US law now permits the indefinite detention, i.e. incarceration without charge or trial, even of US citizens. This law was originally authorized in 2001, then re-authorized again in 2013.
Plus, US federal spending absolutely ballooned post-9/11. After a few years of finally achieving a fiscal balance in the 1990s, deficit spending soared in 2001… and has remained high for the past two decades.
Even during economic boom years from 2016-2019, the government still managed to overspend by $1 trillion per year. The emergency spending authorization never went away.
Frankly most of these impacts will never go away. We’ve become accustomed to the way things are– the spending, the lack of privacy, etc.
The last thing we should ever expect is for government to voluntarily give up power. And that’s what’s so concerning right now.
Yes, there’s a virus on the loose. A lot of people are going to die, and that’s terrible. It’s also terrible how many people die of cancer, heart disease, natural disasters, and automobile accidents.
But as I’ve written numerous times over the past several weeks, the world is not coming to an end. This too shall pass, and from a public health perspective, things will one day go back to normal.
Meanwhile they’re completely ravaging the economy. Millions of people have already lost their jobs, countless businesses will close forever, and trillions of dollars of prosperity has been lost.
The economic toll is incalculable. But that too shall pass. It may take years… but even the Great Depression eventually gave way to economic growth.
What I’m most concerned about at this point is NOT the virus, nor even the economic devastation.
I’m far more concerned at how governments have seized this opportunity to vastly expand their power.
They have us all cowering in our homes, stripped of the most basic freedoms to do just about anything.
People are being thrown off their own private property because they’re not an ‘official resident’ of the town. Others have been arrested for attending a funeral. Others threatened with jail for their social media posts.
Content everywhere is being heavily censored, with major tech companies like Google and Facebook telling us what we can/cannot say.
Governments around the world are tracking their citizens’ every movement, and now there’s talk of national health databases and special passports.
And they’re spending trillions of dollars without any thought of the consequences.
It’s a power grab we haven’t seen since 9/11. The circumstances are certainly similar: people are terrified, so the government is doing whatever it wants.
Again, the public health problems will eventually be fixed. Even the economy will some day recover.
But there’s going to be a huge impact on our freedom from this astonishing growth of unchecked government power. And a lot of those changes will be with us permanently.