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Letter: We need civil discourse, even in an emergency

Ryan Yonk.jpg
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Covid-19: the subject we are all talking about; and how could we not? For many people, this is the biggest global event we’ve faced in our lifetimes. I told myself I wasn’t going to weigh in on this crisis as I am not an expert in epidemiology, public health or even health policy. Yet I am breaking that vow after reading Facebook threads from people I respect, admire and, in many cases, genuinely love. What I found online was a growing rancor over the latest shelter-in-place/self-quarantine/stay-at-home orders that are increasingly being adopted to combat the accelerating coronavirus threat.

One particular exchange pulled me up short. In an ongoing thread discussing the response to the pandemic, a friend shared her concerns about policies that infringe on people’s civil liberties. Another friend responded (with clear sarcasm), “It is important to protect the civil liberties of dead people.” This comment caused me to pause and think about the vulnerability of our civil society right now. Not just from economic or public health disruptions, but also from the assertion that concerns for civil liberties can be easily dismissed in times of great peril.

I feel compelled to interject here that I am largely supportive of the measures taken thus far. I similarly feel compelled to say that rejecting discussion of civil liberties, even amidst a crisis, can be dangerous. Is it an egregious violation of civil liberties to end mass gatherings like concerts and spring breakers on the beach? Certainly not. What about using the power of the state to close religious services? Perhaps.

Is this the right move for this particular crisis? It may well be. That is why even this hardcore civil libertarian has largely kept his mouth shut on the subject, outside the occasional shouting at the TV.

I generally believe in listening to the experts. As such, we are in self-isolation, leaving only for groceries and other essentials; disinfecting at levels I didn’t know were possible; and exercising with a daily walk. We should all be substantially limiting our interactions and deferring to those with expertise in public health, epidemiology and other relevant disciplines.


My concern, however, is the well-established potential for people in power to seize a crisis as an opportunity to circumvent the rule of law. Discussions about our freedoms cannot be dismissed as “protecting the civil liberties of dead people.” Robust dialogue helps keep our liberties in the minds of our citizens and those in power, an essential reality if we are to maintain them after the emergency ends.

Surely we can both safeguard public health and keep civil liberties at the forefront of our public discussion, and in doing so, stay healthy and free.

Yonk teaches economics at North Dakota State University and serves as the undergraduate program director for the NDSU Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise. His views are his own.

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