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Lack of understanding about government puts liberty in jeopardy

Lack of understanding about government puts liberty in jeopardy

Wayne Hoffman
May 1, 2020

Can Americans — who know more about a cartoon TV family than they do about our country’s history — still be counted on to defend freedom?

 It’s quite possible we learned the answer when governors across the country faced little resistance and much applause for putting in place sweeping quarantine and isolation orders that forced the arbitrary closure of businesses. In the supposed freest country on Earth, most Americans had little or no consternation that the government's reaction to COVID-19 was to usurp constitutionally protected rights in order to contain the virus. 

Perhaps you, too, believe and accept that the government performs an important and necessary function when it issues liberty-restricting edicts under the guise of “keeping us safe.” Today, many Americans believe that the greater good is being served by basically allowing the government to put us under quasi-house arrest and shutter businesses. Too many are not alarmed that their own elected officials are threatening Americans with jail time and fines if they don't stay home, if they stand too close, if they don't wear a mask, or if they run their business. I’m not here to change your mind, relative to this particular crisis. I would invite you to start thinking about the next one. 

In countries where government power is not limited, COVID-19 is being used to trial a prototype police state that includes the use of surveillance drones, tracking of individuals via mandatory phone apps, and aggregation of citizen spending and movement data to monitor and control people. You might assume that can’t happen here, but public servants in the states have been closely watching and contemplating how to follow protocols adopted in places where liberty isn’t included in government decision making.

Our government’s overreaction and the public’s compliance with it has put our country on the precipice of its own existential crisis. The unalienable rights we hold dear were consigned to irrelevance as governors issued orders that cost millions of Americans their jobs and trapped them at home, all in the name of safety.

We should not be surprised. In survey after survey, Americans reveal little to no real understanding of our history or our country's founding principles. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “nation’s report card,” has for years shown that only a fraction of schoolchildren test as proficient in U.S. history or American civics. 

One infamous poll found that Americans knew far more about the long-running cartoon television show, The Simpsons, than the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution. People could name the members of a fictional family far more easily than they can name their rights or our country’s founders. Other polls have noted, Americans struggle to identify the country from which the American colonies declared their independence. Further, public opinion surveys have shown a predilection toward the suspension of various rights in the interests of public safety — and that was well before this pandemic. 

So I ask: If our Constitution is suspendable in times of crisis, and people do not know what makes that document or our system of limited government so special, what’s left to protect us during the next emergency? How will freedom itself survive? 

This is the reason I have urged people to “disobey” government directives that interfere with your right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. It is because a free society depends on people knowing that they are free, and act accordingly. Disobey — wearing a mask and gloves if you prefer — as if your life and your children’s lives depend on it, because they do. 

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

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