On March 10, 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed Executive Order #2021-65. This order remits fines imposed by local governments in regard to covid-19 restrictions. While Governor DeSantis is considered somewhat controversial among wider audiences due to his handling of this past year, I think it is safe to assume that the average reader here at the Mises Wire agrees that mask mandates and government lockdowns are an obvious threat to liberty. As a result, it seems logical that to remove the fines associated with these lockdowns would be a positive step toward liberty. However, I am here to claim that such an action in any state is actually a step in the wrong direction for liberty.
While individuals getting to keep money that government is attempting to extort from them is a positive, one has to look at the further effect of this executive order. Such a claim sets a precedent that the state does and should supersede the desires of local governments. Even if a governor as well as the entire state government he or she oversees truly were genuine defenders of liberty—which I would not claim—inevitably these particular individuals would be replaced. When that day eventually arrives, this precedent would give that future government the very tool they needed to suppress liberty moving forward.
Even this claim above would be a best-case scenario, as it assumes that even in the short-term liberty is in the hands of those seeking to act in its best interest. However, this does not appear to be the case. Section 4 of DeSantis’s order states “this Executive Order does not apply to any COVID-19 related orders or enforcement taken by the State.” In other words, the order works to limit local governments, but does nothing to limit the powers of the state itself. Whether intentional or simply succumbing to human nature seeking power, this is simply the state centralizing power in its own hands. No exemption for the state government would be necessary if this were truly for nothing more than the purpose of expanding liberty, with no ulterior motive of suppressing local governments.
If a state government were to have any job at all, first and foremost should be the defense of home rule. As a big fan of Lysander Spooner, I am slow to turn to the Constitution, however it would be impossible not to at least address the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution in this conversation. It states that “[t]he powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The same logic of the relationship between the states and the federal government can easily be extrapolated to the relationship between the local governments and the states. Especially considering that many counties today contain far more of a population than any state at the time of the Constitution did. The smaller the level of government, the more actual say the individual has in the decisions affecting his or her life and the more ability the individual has to opt out by voting with his or her feet.
From a more libertarian perspective, one can turn to the great Jeff Deist. In his 2017 speech “For a New Libertarian”—and many times since—Jeff Deist has called for federalism and localism, claiming,
We should favor local control over faraway legislatures and administrative bodies, and thus multilateral trade deals. We should, in sum, prefer small to large when it comes to government.
Political decentralization, secession, subsidiarity, and nullifications are all mechanisms that move us closer to our political goal of self-determination. Insisting on universal political arrangements is a huge tactical mistake for libertarians.
While Jeff Deist has reaffirmed this time and time again since this speech, I chose this particular speech because of its wording giving it an increased relevance to this issue today. First and foremost is the obvious message of his first two sentences sending a sweeping message in favor of home rule. However, the last sentence here is vital, because celebrating this universal political arrangement is once again making a huge tactical mistake for libertarians. While I’d love to wake up in a world where liberty is the most highly valued ideal in the hearts and minds of all individuals, this is unfortunately nothing but a fantasy. There will always be those who do not desire freedom. As H.L. Mencken once said, “I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.” As he is correct that we could not force our way of life upon those who do not seek it, we must allow those who do not seek liberty in the sense that we do to live their lives in such a manner at their own local level elsewhere. As a result, a larger state government revoking a local government’s ability to act as it desires is moving further away from the mechanisms of political decentralization, secession, subsidiarity, and nullification and toward a more centralized power that is only temporarily in favor of liberty. If state governments are to exist, their primary purpose should be the protection of home rule.