Be wary of temporary government power expansions

Viktor Orban’s power grab should not be taken lightly

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(Collegian file photo)

By Greg Fournier, Collegian Columnist

As COVID-19 continues to spread exponentially throughout the world, local, state and national governments are increasingly taking drastic measures to flatten the curve. China welded doors shut on apartment buildings to keep sick people inside. Taiwan banned the export of face masks and capped their prices. Hong Kong and Singapore have “quarantined tens of thousands of people who may have been exposed.” While there are reasons to doubt China’s truthfulness in reporting coronavirus numbers, the response in Asia, where many of these strict measures are taking place, seems to be working. This may lead some to praise these powerful governments for taking control and advocate for the same to happen in the United States. However, we should always be careful about pushing for more state control.

One example of the dangers of granting more state power took place in Hungary last week. The Hungarian parliament voted to give their Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, virtually unlimited powers to deal with this crisis. These powers include suspending parliament and jailing journalists for reporting coronavirus-related information that contradicts the government’s own statements. If that wasn’t bad enough, parliament never specified an end date – meaning Orban could wield these powers for years to come.

Orban will not likely be a benevolent dictator, if there even is such a thing. For years the Hungarian president has been consolidating domestic news outlets to gain loyalty from the press. This is all part of his public quest to end liberal democracy in Hungary. When outlining his vision of an illiberal Hungary, Orban even cited Russia, China and Turkey as models – none of which are particularly free countries.

Adopting more state power is not inherently bad in the context of COVID-19. In fact, as the aforementioned Asian countries showed at the outset of this crisis, expanding state power to temporarily shut down entire countries can diminish the power of an infectious disease. This is why I am largely in favor of the economic relief bill that the United States Congress passed. We are shutting down businesses across the country, and thus need to contain the economic damage our governments have been forced to inflict upon us to stop the virus.

The problem with overbearing state power in the context of a crisis is that the end date is unspecified. For Orban, this is explicit: his newfound powers have no expiration date. In a freer country like the United States, the catch is implicit. Yes, the economic relief bill is a temporary stopgap to keep renters in their apartments and small businesses in the black. But the desire for more state power could very well linger after the coronavirus crisis ends.

As Milton Friedman once remarked, “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.” He may well have been speaking of the payroll tax that he helped invent. Instituted in wartime, the payroll tax was supposed to help raise revenue continuously for use in the war effort. After the war, the payroll tax never went away – it comes out of everyone’s paychecks even today.

It may seem crass to compare the payroll tax to Orban’s seizure of unchecked power half a world away. I do not mean to equate the two on moral grounds, however much I may despise the payroll tax. But it does go to show what can happen to a populace that grows complacent with policies enacted during times of crisis. Orban’s power grab may seem insignificant to us, but the implications of what he has done extend far beyond the boundaries of a distant European nation. We should support government action to limit the spread of coronavirus, even if that means giving the state more control than we would otherwise wish. But we should also continually audit the powers we grant our elected officials. We must take care not to submit to authorities like Orban in Hungary.

Greg Fournier is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @greg_fournier.